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September 05, 2023

Russia's War in Ukraine

Filtration and Forced Relocation of Civilians Constitute Gross Violations of International Law

Executive Summary

Among the many atrocities committed by the Russian military and proxy forces in Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 full scale invasion, the so-called “filtration” of Ukrainian civilians has emerged as an area of growing focus and concern. This report joins the voices of those documenting the treatment of Ukrainian civilians and the conditions in which civilians are held, as well as the forced transfers and deportations taking place in connection to the filtration process. The report summarizes the evidence collected and insights developed on the practice of filtration by Free Russia Foundation (FRF) and the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) from their work both inside Ukraine and beyond its borders, as well as other domestic and international entities.

The Russian military and proxy forces appear to be conducting filtration not only at specially-designated camps, but throughout Russian-controlled territories in Ukraine and at nearly every border checkpoint. While security screening at border crossings may be justified in principle, the methods employed by Russian and affiliated forces go well beyond permissible screening. As part of filtration, civilians are reportedly subjected to strip searches, physical and verbal humiliation and abuse, and in some instances torture and sexual violence. Civilians undergoing filtration may be effectively detained in certain areas or buildings while they wait to undergo the procedure, and those who do not pass filtration are typically transferred to detention centers or prisons in Russian-controlled territories of Ukraine or on the territory of the Russian Federation, where they may be held for prolonged periods of time, disappeared, or possibly killed by Russian or Russian-affiliated forces.

Russia’s filtration of Ukrainian civilians appears to be aimed at identifying anyone showing loyalty to Ukraine, including former members of the Ukrainian military or the Azov Battalion, those with close links to the Ukrainian government, civil activists, and human rights defenders. Filtration also appears to be part of a pre-planned, well-organized, widespread and systematic practice endorsed by Russian officials. Civil society members—including FRF and CCL—have noted that the filtration taking place in Ukraine since the February 24, 2022 invasion is a continuation of the loyalty-testing that began in Russian-occupied Crimea after Russia’s annexation of that territory in 2014.

The aim of this report is to build upon what has been documented previously and provide further legal analysis of the various bases upon which the Russian Federation as well as individual Russian authorities and other perpetrators of filtration-related abuses can be held accountable under international law. The report’s analysis focuses on three specific practices employed as part of Russia’s filtration of Ukrainian civilians: filtration-related detention, torture, and forced relocation. The report evaluates such practices under the frameworks of international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and international criminal law. The law across these three legal frameworks, while distinct, protects the same or similar fundamental rights of civilians and, as such, provides multiple avenues through which the perpetrators may be held accountable.

The report concludes by setting forth recommendations aimed to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of filtration-related detention, torture, and forced transfers and deportations. The report’s authors call on the international community and civil society actors support Ukraine’s war crimes investigations and prosecutions and coordinate efforts to examine the mounting evidence of atrocities in Ukraine—including those connected to filtration—that may be taken to international monitoring bodies, the International Criminal Court, or a national court or special tribunal.

The authors urge the Russian Government, Russian forces and Russianaffiliated forces to:

  • Respect the Russian Federations obligations under international law, including international human rights law and international humanitarian law;
  • Ensure that Ukrainian civilians are able to leave warzones freely and safely and enter Ukrainian controlled territories, without subjecting them to filtration processes;
  • Immediately stop the forcible transfer and deportation of civilians, including children, from Ukraine to the Russian Federation or Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine; and
  • Grant the international community access to filtration sites and facilities.

They also recommend that local civil society actors, NGOs and the international community:

  • Coordinate efforts to gather and examine the mounting evidence of atrocities committed in Ukraine by Russian and Russian-affiliated forces, including those associated with filtration; and
  • Support Ukraine’s investigations and prosecutions of perpetrators of war crimes and other international law violations related to filtration.

Read the full report here

This report was prepared by staff of the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights. The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the authors. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position of the Association or any of its entities. Further, nothing in this report should be considered as legal advice in a specific case. (ABA Policy and Procedures Handbook, Chapter 5, Part C)