Murders of civilians, bombings of schools and hospitals, rapes, kidnappings… Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been accused of war crimes by many countries, media and NGOs. The latest indictment concerns the discovery of a large number of corpses of civilians in the city of Boutcha, near Kiev, after the departure of the Russian army.
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At least 280 people have been buried in mass graves by Ukrainians, according to the mayor of this municipality, but Russia categorically denies these accusations. In an effort to gather evidence and establish responsibilities, observers have been on the ground since the beginning of the conflict. Researcher with the Crisis and Conflict Division of Human Rights Watch, Jonathan Pedneault, went to Ukraine in early March. He mainly worked in Lviv, Mariupol and Chernihiv.
Franceinfo: What is the work of a crisis researcher at Human Rights Watch?
Jonathan Pedneault: My mission consists of documenting the behavior of actors in a conflict, in this case the allegations of war crimes against Russia in Ukraine. I am trained in investigative methods, ethical issues, witness identification, digital evidence collection, image verification or satellite analysis.
I left for Ukraine in early March with three other people from Human Rights Watch. In the beginning, the front line was very dynamic and there was a lot of uncertainty about the evolution of the conflict. It was a logistical and safety headache to know where to go. It was also very cold, it had been a long time since I had worked on a conflict where it was so cold.
“As always, we are prepared for any eventuality. We have bulletproof vests, satellite phones, a driver, a translator… We stay in touch with our office and local NGOs.”Jonathan Pedneault, researcher at Human Rights Watch
We were working on several charges at once, including the use of cluster bombs in Kharkiv and the shelling of civilian buildings in Mariupol. We met people who had taken refuge in cellars in this city and who lived in appalling conditions, forced to melt snow to drink. It was the beginning of the war, the people were in shock. Many had never experienced the bombings and tried to reach the west of the country or Europe.
What are your main sources and how do you control your information?
We work on the basis of information we receive from the media, from witnesses on the ground, from other NGOs. For example, when we receive a video of a bombing raid, we go back to the appropriate neighborhood. We try to find residents, we ask them questions to see if they were in the area at the time of the incident, what they did or did not see. They are often asked to establish a chronology to see if it is credible.
We do not ask for testimonials, we try to be discreet on the ground because, as in any armed conflict, there is a lot of propaganda, political actors trying to direct our investigation for their interests. It is also to protect us.
“We use the ‘domino method’. A person we meet connects us with other people and so on.”Jonathan Pedneault, researcher at Human Rights Watch
In order to properly define the legality or illegality of acts committed, specific questions are asked: Was there a military target in the area? What kind of weapons were used? Were there factories nearby? We ask people if they have photos, videos, to identify as many clues as possible. Certain types of crime, such as rape, are very difficult to verify and we rely mainly on witness statements. It is also a testimony that allowed us to identify several repeated rapes of a woman, in our latest report.
Because we can’t do everything remotely, Human Rights Watch has a lab of analysts who cross-check and verify information using online tools. open source† We can send them photos or videos that they will check with satellite images, maps, their knowledge of weapons… They are really overwhelmed right now. We are also working with other colleagues who have traveled to the borders of Ukraine, to the Czech Republic, to Moldova, to talk to refugees who may have witnessed it.
What will your studies be used for afterwards?
We do not work for jurisdictions or states, but our work may be used by various courts in their own investigations. Our primary purpose is to advocate, warn public opinion in hopes of changing the course of events and remind each other of their responsibilities. Since the beginning of the war, we have successfully documented the use of cluster bombs in Kharkiv, unlawful attacks on civilians in Mariupol and Chernihiv, hospital bombings, rapes and military abuses in Russia.
The information we collect is primarily for Human Rights Watch. We keep all the evidence. There have been occasions where some of our investigators have been called as witnesses in court cases, or some of our witnesses have been requested, but we make every effort to ensure their confidentiality and protection. I’ve been working in a conflict zone since I was 17. I’ve gotten used to facing danger because the work is worth it. I will never be as exposed or affected as the civilian population I meet.