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A Human Rights Watch investigation found that four air and ground-launched attacks on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv, in March 2022, were in clear violation of the laws of war. These included the bombing of an apartment complex that killed 47 civilians, an attack that killed at least 17 people in a bread line outside a supermarket, and two separate attacks, including one using widely banned cluster munitions, that damaged two hospitals.
However, the investigation also found that Ukrainian forces may have placed civilians at risk in five of the Russian forces’ attacks, including one where Territorial Defense Forces had established a base at a school, and the possible presence of a military checkpoint near a hospital. The four other strikes may still have violated prohibitions against indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, despite the apparent nearby presence of Ukrainian troops.
Between March 8 and May 9, Human Rights Watch interviewed 34 people including 24 witnesses to the eight attacks, as well as emergency responders, Chernihiv Regional Administration officials, and local prosecutors, who provided civilian casualty figures. On April 19 and 20, researchers inspected the sites of the eight attacks.
Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery to corroborate the dates and scale of the damage, and to help determine the location of any Ukrainian forces in the vicinity of the attacks. Obituaries of Ukrainian soldiers published in local media also helped to assess whether Ukrainian military personnel were in the vicinity of the attacks.
In the deadliest of the eight attacks, Russian forces on March 3 dropped several unguided bombs on an apartment building complex, killing 47 civilians. Several witnesses interviewed said they did not believe that any Ukrainian forces were in the area at the time.
EWIPA and War Crimes
Serious violations of the laws of war, such as indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, committed with criminal intent are war crimes. Individuals can be held criminally liable for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as assisting in, facilitating, aiding, or abetting a war crime. Commanders and civilian leaders may also be prosecuted for war crimes as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or hold perpetrators accountable.
The Russian attacks in Chernihiv demonstrate the devastating impact on civilians and civilian infrastructure when armed forces use explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas, and the increased likelihood of unlawful indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks.
These weapons have a large destructive radius, are inherently inaccurate, or deliver multiple munitions at the same time. Long-term effects of their use include damage to civilian buildings and critical infrastructure, interference with services such as health care and education, and displacement of the local population. All countries should support a strong international political declaration to better protect civilians from the use of such weapons in populated areas.
Of the 4,266 civilian deaths and 5,178 civilian injuries that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights recorded in Ukraine between February 24 and June 7 – most likely a significant undercount – the majority were caused by explosive weapons with wide-area effects, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-barrel rocket launchers, and missile and airstrikes.
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