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October 07, 2022

Disappearing Human Rights Defenders: Russia’s Human Rights Violations and International Crimes in Ukraine

Ukraine flag and lady justice

Ukraine flag and lady justice


The ABA Center for Human Rights collaborated with the Center for Civil Liberties to collect data and draft this report. We would like to congratulate the Center for Civil Liberties for its well-deserved receipt of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize

Executive Summary

Human rights defenders and other civilians have been disappearing around Ukraine since the February 24th invasion by Russian forces. Their disappearances appear to be part of a systematic effort by The Russian Federation to terrorize the Ukrainian population and break local resistance. The disappearances have, in fact, become so widespread and the victims so numerous, that they appear to be part of an official Russian State policy to disappear and detain civilians who oppose the Russian invasion and occupation.

Local human rights advocates as well as the international community – including the United States Representative to the United Nations and the Head of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine – have become increasingly vocal about the potential crimes and human rights violations being committed by Russian troops and proxy groups.

This report highlights the individual cases of five human rights defenders who were taken from their homes or abducted in the street after participating in peaceful protests, while delivering basic humanitarian aid, or speaking out on social media against the Russian invasion/occupation. These five individuals, like hundreds – or even thousands – of other Ukrainian civilians, were detained without a court order and taken to an unknown location where they were held incommunicado, for days or weeks or months, while Russian authorities failed or refused to provide their family members with information about their whereabouts. In many cases, the disappeared have been subjected to torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment and/or forcibly transferred to Russian territory.

This report analyzes the enforced disappearances conducted by the Russian military and proxy groups against three international law frameworks: international human rights law, international criminal law, and international humanitarian law. The law across the three frameworks is congruous, protecting the same or similar fundamental rights of disappeared persons and their families and imposing obligations on the violating State. Many of the protections have also become norms under customary international law. Regardless of which legal paradigm the enforced disappearances and accompanying detentions are examined under, the perpetrators are committing gross violations and the Russian State is failing to fulfill its duties.

The report concludes by setting forth recommendations aimed to ensure that the perpetrators are held accountable for the numerous human rights violations and international crimes implicated by these enforced disappearances. Specifically, the author urges the international community, local NGOs and civil society actors, and the government of Ukraine to take active steps to:

  • Support the family members of the disappeared defenders and civilians in their efforts to obtain information about the whereabouts of the victims;
  • Explore potential avenues that victims and family members may take to seek justice for the disappeared defenders, including but not limited to complaints before the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the U.N. Committee Against Torture, and the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances; and
  • Prosecute these and other crimes committed by Russian troops and affiliated perpetrators against human rights defenders to the full extent possible under domestic law, the Rome Statute, and any hybrid tribunal established under legitimate authorities empowered by international law.

Read the Full Report