Ukraine’s Prosecutor General has commenced a criminal inquiry following the surfacing of drone footage suggesting that Russian soldiers engaged in an assault, utilizing Ukrainian prisoners of war as human shields. International law explicitly prohibits the use of prisoners of war (POW) or civilians as human shields, categorizing such conduct as a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Although documenting such crimes and identifying perpetrators are imperative, regrettably, these incidents are not unprecedented.
In October 2023, the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine condemned numerous war crimes perpetrated by Russian forces in Ukraine, including the reprehensible practice of employing civilians as human shields.
The Ukrainian drone footage, initially surfacing in late November and subsequently verified and disseminated by Radio Svoboda, the Ukrainian Service of RFE/RL, unveils the Russian army’s attempt to reclaim a position near the village of Robotyne (Zaporizhzhia oblast), liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in August 2023. The footage captures what appears to be Russian soldiers advancing toward Ukrainian positions, pushing three Ukrainian POWs forward while firing from behind them. Radio Svoboda, while refraining from disclosing precise coordinates as per the Ukrainian military’s request, has confirmed the involvement of Russian military personnel from the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, a component of the notorious 234th Guards Air Assault Regiment implicated in the 2014 Crimea invasion and suspected of war crimes in Bucha in 2022.
The Prosecutor General’s report on December 14 stated the initiation of a criminal investigation under Article 438 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, addressing violations of the laws and practices of war.
The use of prisoners of war as human shields is expressly forbidden by the Third Geneva Convention, while the Fourth Geneva Convention and its Additional Protocol extend this prohibition to actions involving civilians. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, employing the presence of civilians or other protected persons to shield military operations constitutes a war crime in international armed conflicts.
Russia’s use of civilians as human shields dates back to 2014
In February 2019, Ukrainian human rights groups and the Crimean Prosecutor formally alerted the International Criminal Court about Russia’s exploitation of the civilian population as human shields during its invasion and annexation of Crimea. The submitted report documented instances where Russian forces intentionally positioned civilians in proximity to Ukrainian military installations, concealing themselves behind these individuals during the blocking or seizure of such facilities to hinder Ukrainian soldiers from responding to attacks (additional details available here).
Similar evidence of the use of civilians as human shields emerged in occupied areas of Donbas. Russia’s attempts to portray the conflict as a ‘Ukrainian civil war’ were debunked even before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, as demonstrated by the Joint Investigation Team’s findings on the Russian BUK missile’s downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 and revelations from Russian fighters themselves.
In early 2014, women in Kramatorsk took a stand, attempting to compel fighters to vacate their streets and cease using women and children as human shields.
Over the years, numerous Russian or Russian-controlled fighters have openly confessed that Moscow was orchestrating operations. Igor Girkin, the former FSB officer who spearheaded the Donbas assault after participating in the Crimea invasion, admitted both Russia’s direct involvement and his utilization of civilians as human shields.
Since 2022, instances of the Russian military employing civilians as human shields have recurred. During the retreat from Kherson on the right bank of the Dnipro, invaders forcibly relocated civilians alongside their armed forces, employing this tactic to use the civilian population as a shield for their soldiers.