Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group (ULAG) and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) have filed a criminal complaint with the German Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in support of a Ukrainian survivor of sexual violence. The survivor joins the complaint through her legal counsel. Directed against four members of the Russian military, including two high-ranking officials, the complaint alleges that these individuals are responsible for the arbitrary killing of the survivor’s husband and for committing acts of extreme sexual violence against her. In order to hold all perpetrators fully accountable, she is asking that the German authorities work to complement investigations already underway in Ukraine. Accounts of similar crimes have been numerous in the context of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine.
The attack on the survivor and her family took place a few weeks after the beginning of the full-scale invasion, when Russian troops were occupying their village in the Kyiv region. After repeated intimidation and humiliation by members of these forces, two soldiers entered the family's property, shot her husband dead and then raped her multiple times. The woman and her young son managed to flee and now live in Germany. Their house in Ukraine was destroyed after their escape, presumably by Russian troops.
A call for joint efforts of Ukrainian and German judicial authorities
While none of the perpetrators or their superiors have yet been arrested, investigations by the Ukrainian authorities are underway, and a trial was launched against one of the alleged perpetrators in absentia. However, obstacles to prosecution arising from the ongoing Russian war of aggression, such as power and internet outages, along with the current legal framework under which prosecution efforts are pursued in Ukraine, threaten to lead to partial impunity for the perpetrators. Crucially, the Ukrainian legal system does not recognize crimes against humanity and does not foresee command responsibility. Consequently, these particular crimes cannot be prosecuted for what they are – part of a widespread and systematic attack against the Ukrainian population – in other words, as crimes against humanity. The higher-ranking perpetrators cannot be held to account in accordance with the principle of command responsibility. To counteract these gaps within the law, the complaint calls upon the German Federal Public Prosecutor to support the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities and take up investigations based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. As Nadia Volkova, founder and director of ULAG emphasizes,
“It is important that cases of grave crimes are investigated in accordance with the international standards. At this point, the Ukrainian legal system does not have the capacity to ensure effective investigations and prosecutions of alleged atrocity crimes including crimes of conflict-related sexual violence. There is an urgent need for aligning Ukrainian criminal and criminal procedure codes with international criminal law in order for victims of this war to obtain the justice they need and deserve.”
The need to effectively investigate the repeated use of sexual violence by Russian troops in Ukraine
As the Russian war of aggression continues, reports on the use of sexual violence by Russian troops are mounting. As of June 2023, the Ukrainian Office of the Prosecutor General had already opened investigations in 208 cases of conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) registered in different parts of Ukraine under (temporary) Russian occupation. Both the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine have documented numerous cases of CRSV. These acts of sexual violence are committed in the context of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population of Ukraine alongside with summary executions, torture, arbitrary detentions, and deportations. Therefore, they can and should not only be prosecuted as war crimes but also as crimes against humanity. Andreas Schüller, Director of ECCHR’s International Crimes and Accountability Program, adds:
“International cooperation in the prosecution of international crimes in Ukraine is essential. It can help to strengthen international criminal law as a whole – including the prosecution of conflict-related sexualized violence – so that it can also be applied in other conflict situations. For only if double standards are avoided can international criminal law achieve its full effect.”
The criminal complaint is part of ECCHR's and ULAG’s efforts to support survivors in seeking justice for numerous crimes committed in the context of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine and to hold those responsible to account.