Exposing the atrocities committed during the war in Ukraine through truth-seeking processes

Silent screams and echoes of injustice – Truth needs to be heard

The relevance of the day

March 24th is a poignant date on the global calendar, recognized as the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Violations of Human Rights and the Dignity of Victims. This day serves as a solemn reminder of the profound impact of human rights violations on individuals and communities worldwide. Rooted in compassion, the right to the truth is especially significant in the face of grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law. Families torn apart by summary executions, enforced disappearances, and torture yearn for the complete truth—details about the events, the circumstances, and those responsible. Beyond being a legal entitlement, it stands as a compassionate acknowledgment of the pain endured by victims’ relatives.  Annually, the world collectively commemorates this day, paying homage to the memory of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero. His tragic assassination in 1980, a fearless denouncement of human rights violations in El Salvador, symbolizes the sacrifice made in the pursuit of truth and justice.

The thirty-sixth report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), based on the work of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), starkly outlines the severe human rights situation in Ukraine. The report sheds light on the widespread harm inflicted on civilians amid the ongoing full-scale armed attack by the Russian Federation against Ukraine. As emphasized by the report, numerous gross violations of human rights have occurred. Foremost among these violations is the profound loss of life and injuries, impacting over 30 000 civilian casualties and revealing the severity of harm inflicted on individuals caught in the crossfire. Widespread arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances further compound the situation, with civilians subjected to detention without due process, a blatant violation of their fundamental rights. Sexual violence against prisoners, torture, and brutality persist, violating the most basic principles of human rights and international humanitarian law. Additionally, forced displacement of children, coercive policies like conferring Russian citizenship, and environmental catastrophes, such as the breach of the dam at the Kakhovska Hydroelectric Power Plant, have far-reaching implications for human rights. These actions collectively strip victims of their dignity, treating them as casualties rather than individuals entitled to basic human rights.

In the backdrop of these severe violations, the International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Gross Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims gains profound significance for Ukrainians. Observed on March 24th, this day becomes a symbol of remembrance, advocacy for justice, and a commitment to acknowledging the dignity of those who have suffered. Amid the ongoing crisis, it serves as a rallying point for Ukrainians to raise awareness about gross violations, seek accountability, and honor the memory of victims. The day reinforces the collective responsibility to uncover the truth, ensure justice prevails, and respect the dignity of every victim.

Exposing the atrocities committed during the war in Ukraine through truth-seeking processes

The memorial question around at the heart of the history of the Ukrainian nation

The disclosure of the violence and mass crimes committed by the Soviet state against its own population, which led to the building of a collective memory, has played a central role in the construction of the Ukrainian nation since the 20th century, in particular regarding the Holodomor (the mass famine policy organized by the Soviet power between 1931 and 1933 in the Ukrainian countryside). This tragedy, which claimed at least 4 million lives in Ukraine, became in the 2000s a central element in the construction of the Ukrainian identity, while at the same time, the Russian authorities decided to drastically restrict access to the archives in order to prevent the disclosure of information on the crimes of Stalinism. The Ukrainian reappropriation of collective memory and the process of truth-seeking about the Holodomor was a political choice which fostered respect for the dignity of the victims throughout Ukrainian society.

A brief look at international commitments on the matter

The right to the truth regarding gross violations of human rights is based on a whole set of instruments of international law and political commitments since the 20th century. It is worth mentioning the core commitments made in the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights regarding, among others, the promotion of universal respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, the inherent dignity of all human beings, the right to life, liberty and security, the prohibition of torture, slavery, degrading treatment, etc. Within international humanitarian law, the legal right to the truth regarding gross violations of human rights law has gradually developed. It was enshrined for the first time in 1977 in the Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (article 32 and 33) as a right for families of the missing and dead persons to know “the fate of their relatives”, along with a duty for each Party to the conflict to search for the missing persons and “transmit all relevant information”.

The right to truth was then developed through international soft law instruments, which are therefore not legally binding but still provide important guiding principles. One of the first major instruments was the Set of Principles to Combat Impunity published in 1997 by Louis Joinet, the then UN Special Rapporteur on the Impunity of Perpetrators of Violations of Human Rights. This report highlights that “the right to know [draws] upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future.” and advocates for extrajudicial commissions of inquiry and preserving archives relating to human rights violations. Among the 42 principles, the right to the truth is described as “inalienable”, the States have a “duty to remember” which includes “preserving the collective memory from extinction”, victims, their families and relatives have the “imprescriptible right to know the truth about the circumstances in which violations took place”, etc. Building on this report, an updated set of principles was published in 2005. At the same time, the UN General Assembly began advocating for the right to truth about victims of gross violations of human rights through its resolutions. In 2005 the RES 60/147 advocated for victims and their representatives to be entitled to “seek and obtain information on the causes leading to their victimization and on the causes and conditions pertaining to the gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law and to learn the truth in regard to these violations”. Furthermore, in 2013, the RES 68/165 recognized the importance of ensuring the right to the truth so as to “contribute to ending impunity”, welcomed the establishment of truth and reconciliation commissions to complement the justice system and urged States and international organizations to “provide requesting States with necessary and appropriate assistance” through “technical cooperation”, “the exchange of […] best practices […] including practices regarding the protection of witnesses”.

The legally binding international law instrument mentioning the right to truth is the 2006 International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (entered into force in 2010), but it is not universally ratified. Ukraine ratified it in 2015, while Russia is not even a signatory. In its article 24, the Convention recognizes that “each victim has the right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of the enforced disappearance, the progress and results of the investigation and the fate of the disappeared person” and that “each State Party shall take appropriate measures in this regard.”

Therefore, the right to truth has gradually been recognized by the international community, mainly through soft law, as an inherent right and as a way to contribute to ending impunity.

On the importance of documenting war crimes for truth-seeking processes

Documenting the war crimes committed by Russian soldiers in Ukraine is of paramount importance to shed light on all human rights violations experienced by victims and is thus essential for a truth-seeking process. War crime is defined by 1998 Rome Statute that inaugurated the International Criminal Court (article 8) as serious violations of the laws and customs in the context of an international armed conflict, including, among others : torture or inhuman treatment,  the taking of hostages, intentional attacks against civilians, rape, human shield, deportation … As we know, the Russian army has been committing enormous abuses since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with chilling examples such as the massacre of Boutcha and Irpin, the deportation of Ukrainian children or the massacre of prisoners of war in the prison of Olenivka.

Documenting, reporting, naming, communicating on all these gross human rights violations is a crucial issue, not only because all this data will serve as a basis for launching legal cases against Russia before international institutions such as the ICC, but also because they are useful in the context of the right to truth, whether for the families of the victims or any ordinary citizen. We must gather as much reliable data as possible on these abuses, so that this won’t be forgotten in the future. What one does not name, and document precisely may be forgotten in decades, while it must keep a trace in history, not just for Ukraine but of the whole world. It is about the responsibility of the Russian authorities but also about the dignity of the victims of war crimes. This documentation could also be used, in the distant future, to build a duty of memory among the Russian population about the crimes committed by their authorities.

Therefore, it is crucial to support the work of those contributing to this documentation, to shed light on the atrocities. Ukrainian NGOs play a major role, notably those being part of the Tribunal 4 Putin initiative, as it is explained further in this article. Independent media also play an essential investigative role in this regard, for example the Kyiv Independent, Kyiv Post, Financial Time, Meduza, Hromadske… Last but not least, international organizations must use their resources to document these war crimes. The OSCE has used its Moscow Mechanism several times since February 2022 to set ad hoc missions of independent experts to report on the humanitarian impact of the war, the deportation of Ukrainian children and civilians and the UNHRC created the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine to investigate abuses of human rights and war crimes.

A Call to Action: Beyond Ukraine’s Borders

In the midst of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the urgent need for international solidarity and collective action to address human rights violations transcends geographical boundaries. As we approach the International Day for the Right to the Truth concerning Gross Violations of Human Rights and the Dignity of Victims on March 24th, it becomes imperative to reflect on the significance of this day amidst the unfolding atrocities in Ukraine and the global response to such crises.

Tribunal for Putin

At the forefront of these efforts stands the Tribunal for Putin (T4P) initiative, which was established precisely on March 24, 2022, in response to Russia’s all-out war against Ukraine. This collaborative effort between major Ukrainian human rights organizations, including the Center for Civil Liberties, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, aims to document and address war crimes and human rights violations committed during the conflict[1]. These violations, as defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, include genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Utilizing diverse sources such as social media, media reports, and witness testimony, the T4P initiative meticulously compiles detailed accounts of these atrocities. One distinctive feature of T4P’s approach is its regional focus, with specific organizations assigned to different parts of Ukraine. This strategy ensures a comprehensive understanding of local contexts and enhances the effective documentation of war crimes. Driven by the pursuit of truth and justice, T4P aims to hold perpetrators accountable and provide justice for the victims within the framework of international law. Collaborating with entities like the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and regional organizations such as the European Union, T4P advocates for justice and accountability on a global scale. As a collective response to the atrocities in Ukraine, the T4P initiative embodies the fundamental principle of seeking truth and justice for all affected by the conflict. By meticulously documenting war crimes and shedding light on the truth of what has transpired in Ukraine, T4P upholds the dignity of the victims and underscores the principles of the International Day for the Right to the Truth.

In the spirit of this international day, T4P serves as a beacon of hope for justice and accountability, urging the global community to unite behind the cause of human rights. Moreover, it emphasizes the pivotal role of individuals in advocating for human rights and leveraging technology and social media platforms to amplify the voices of victims and hold perpetrators accountable worldwide. The initiative’s methodology involves monitoring open sources such as social networks and media news, gathering information about specific incidents that constitute war crimes. Witness testimony is also collected to corroborate these accounts. T4P emphasizes a regional approach, with different organizations assigned to different parts of Ukraine, ensuring comprehensive documentation of war crimes. The initiative operates within the framework of international law and collaborates with existing international bodies to advocate for justice and accountability. Through its work, T4P seeks to uncover the truth about the conflict in Ukraine and ensure that the dignity of the victims is upheld.

In the context of the International Day for the Right to the Truth, the T4P initiative’s role becomes even more significant. By shedding light on the truth of what has transpired in Ukraine, T4P aligns closely with the principles underlying this day. It serves as a reminder of the importance of seeking truth and justice for victims of human rights violations worldwide. Through its efforts, T4P not only holds perpetrators accountable but also provides a platform for victims to have their voices heard and their dignity upheld.


This International Day is therefore essential to honor the dignity and memory of the Ukrainian victims of the Russian war of aggression. The right to truth was developed in international law at the end of the 20th century as a means of combating impunity, but it cannot be respected without solid documentation of the war crimes committed by Russian soldiers, which must provide concrete evidence of these atrocities. It is in this sense that the Tribunal 4 Putin initiative, of which CCL is an active member, plays an essential role, so we don’t turn a blind eye on these gross violations of human rights, now and in the future.

Authors: Elise Maréchal – Master’s student in European studies at Sciences Po Strasbourg, Intern at the French delegation to OSCE and Chiara Rinaldi – Intern at CCL and IIR.

[1] T4P

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