By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA – The United Nations’ human rights chief said on Thursday that tens of millions of lives were at risk in Ukraine as the conflict there intensified.
Michelle Bachelet called for an immediate halt to hostilities as she opened a debate at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on setting up a commission of inquiry into alleged violations by Russia.
“Tens of millions of people remain in the country, in potentially mortal danger. I am deeply concerned that the current escalation of military operations will further heighten the harm they face,” Bachelet said.
Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister, told the talks by video message that Russian troops were carrying out acts tantamount to war crimes and called for perpetrators to be held accountable.
“Recent events clearly point to the fact that the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine carry out the most blatant violations and abuses of human rights, systematically engage in acts that clearly amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.
Dzhaparova urged the council to adopt a resolution brought by Ukraine and allies including the United States and European Union that would launch the international probe.
“We must stand together to ensure accountability for the war criminals spilling the blood of Ukrainian children,” she said, referring to President Vladimir Putin as a “a weak leader who wants to look strong”.
An advance team from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague left for “the Ukraine region” on Thursday to start investigating possible war crimes, its top prosecutor told Reuters.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” that is not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s ambassador, denounced the “criminal regime in Kyiv” and accused the United States and EU of supplying lethal weapons.
“We do not see any added value in today’s debate,” he said.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called for the urgent inquiry to investigate what she called human rights violations committed by Russia during its invasion.
“We are witnessing at this moment one of the greatest violations of the UN Charter in our time and we must work together to hold the Russian government accountable for this grave act,” U.S. ambassador Sheba Crocker said in a statement.
John Fisher of Human Rights Watch called for widening the probe to include alleged violations in Russia.
“When Russia is arresting peaceful anti-war protesters and suppressing freedom of expression, then there should also be scrutiny by the Human Rights Council,” he told Reuters.