Ambassador Holland condemns reports of Russia’s “systematic and widespread use of torture” against Ukrainian prisoners of war and calls on Russia to uphold the laws of war it helped to create.

Neil Holland

Thank you, Madam Chair. Today I would like to begin by acknowledging the important role that Russia played in the process that led to the laws governing armed conflict today.

150 years ago this summer, 15 States adopted a draft text put forward by Russia, now known as the Brussels Declaration. While it never became a binding treaty, many of the provisions in the Hague Conventions can be traced back to it. It included 12 articles on the protection of prisoners of war (POWs). One reads: “Prisoners of war are lawful and disarmed enemies. They should be treated with humanity.”

This worthy contribution is in stark contrast with Russia’s treatment of Ukrainian POWs today.

In their most recent report, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded that the treatment of Ukrainian detainees, including POWs, involved the “systematic and widespread use of torture”. This fits with the finding from the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine which reported that torture and ill-treatment of Ukrainian POWs in Russian detention was widespread and routine.

The Human Rights Monitoring Mission found that the most common methods of torture included beatings, electric shocks, threats of execution, mock executions, and positional torture. Nearly two-thirds of those interviewed disclosed that they had been subjected to sexual violence during their detention.

The same report details poor detention facilities, in some cases amounting to torture; examples of Russian-appointed courts convicting POWs using confessions and testimonies obtained under torture or ill-treatment; and verified incidents in which Russian servicemen executed Ukrainian soldiers hors de combat.

These findings are damning and disturbing. We are seriously concerned for the welfare of many Ukrainian POWs. Maksym Butkevych, a well-known Ukrainian human rights defender and soldier, has been in Russian detention since his capture in March 2022. Like many, he has experienced torture and abuse at the hands of his Russian captors. Reports from other released POWs suggest his health condition continues to deteriorate.

International law contains provisions designed to avoid this situation and ensure respect both for the dignity of each prisoner and for their next of kin by providing them with information on the fate and whereabouts of their relative. Obligations include the gathering of personal information, relations with the prisoner’s family and identification of the dead.

Madam Chair, we call upon Russia to respect its international legal obligations. Russia should uphold the laws of war that it helped create, including 150 years ago in Brussels. Prisoners of war must not be subjected to torture. Their conditions of internment must be adequate, including access to sufficient food, clean water and medical aid. Russia must share the whereabouts of all prisoners and allow them to contact their families. Russia must allow humanitarian access to all places of detention. And all Ukrainians illegally detained – including our colleagues from the Special Monitoring Mission – must immediately be released.

Thank you.

Published 23 May 2024