A new armed conflict in Ukraine would have devastating consequences for the human rights of millions of people

As Russia threatens to use military force, Amnesty International warns further escalation of armed conflict in Ukraine will have devastating consequences for human rights in the region; threatening civilian lives, livelihoods and infrastructure; leading to acute food shortages; and may cause mass displacement.

Economic and social rights have already been negatively impacted. Rising prices for food and basic goods, including medical supplies, affect citizens’ right to health care and an adequate standard of living in Ukraine. This is particularly felt by the very old, the very young and those on low incomes. The right to education has also been affected, with schools closing intermittently over the past two weeks due to security concerns. In Russia itself, the ruble has lost value and prices are rising.

“Russia’s threat to use military force is already affecting the human rights of millions of people in Ukraine and beyond,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.

“The consequences of actual military force are likely to be devastating. Ukraine’s recent history is punctuated by conflicts involving Russian troops in the Donbass and the illegal annexation of Crimea. These episodes have torn communities and lives apart, as military forces have trampled on the rights of civilians with impunity; it’s time to break this vicious cycle.

The consequences of actual military force are likely to be devastating

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

In military conflict, civilians must be protected and anyone who commits abuses must be held accountable. Amnesty International will be monitoring the situation closely to denounce violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war) and international human rights law by all parties.

In 2014-2015, at the height of the armed conflict in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, all sides violated international humanitarian law, resulting in the displacement of over a million people. More than 13,000 people have died and the toll continues to rise.

The Russian military – a litany of abuse

Given the lack of respect for international law by Russian troops in other contexts in recent years, which has been met with impunity, Amnesty International is extremely concerned about the likelihood of history repeating itself.

For example, in Syria in 2015, a series of Russian airstrikes on residential areas in Homs, Idlib and Aleppo between September and November killed at least 200 civilians. And in 2020, Amnesty International reported that Russian planes targeted both schools and hospitals in Syria, some of which the UN said needed to be protected from attack.

In the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatist forces have violated international humanitarian law by using inaccurate explosive weapons in populated civilian areas, as have Ukrainian forces. They also stationed and fired these weapons from homes and civilian infrastructure.

“The history of Russia’s military interventions – whether in Ukraine or Syria, or its military campaign in Chechnya – is marred by a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law. The Russian military has repeatedly flouted the laws of war by failing to protect civilians and even attacking them directly. Russian forces launched indiscriminate attacks, used prohibited weapons and sometimes apparently deliberately targeted civilians and civilian objects – a war crime,” said Agnès Callamard.

The history of Russia’s military interventions – whether in Ukraine or Syria, or its military campaign at home in Chechnya – is tainted by a blatant disregard for international humanitarian law.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

Amnesty International is also particularly concerned about the prospect of the creation of new militias on Ukrainian territory. These Russian-backed armed groups in the Donbass are notorious for their disregard for the rules of international humanitarian law and their lack of accountability, as are the pro-government Ukrainian paramilitaries.

Potential refugee crisis

The conflict in eastern Ukraine caused a real human rights crisis in 2014-2015, the consequences of which continue to be felt to this day. Millions of people were forced from their homes, and those who returned or remained in the conflict zone lived hand to mouth as the region’s economy was devastated. Hundreds of people have been victims of extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings, torture, abductions, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions by separatist and government forces.

According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, about 1.45 million people are still moved inside after fleeing the conflict in Donbass and occupied Crimea.

“It is frightening to imagine the magnitude of the refugee crisis if hostilities in Ukraine escalate. It will be a continent-wide humanitarian catastrophe with millions of refugees seeking protection in neighboring European countries,” said Agnès Callamard.

It is frightening to imagine the magnitude of the refugee crisis if hostilities in Ukraine escalate. It will be a continent-wide humanitarian catastrophe.

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

“Ukraine is currently the destination for those seeking protection when fleeing Russia, Belarus and Central Asian countries. If Russia uses military force against Ukraine, this will no longer be the case and they will have to take refuge in other countries.

Impact on the region and beyond

The conflict will further undermine human rights in the region due to the likelihood of prolonged guerrilla warfare in Ukraine, accompanied by illicit arms outflows, an influx of irresponsible private military contractors and a general increase violence and impunity. The economic devastation and its repercussions for the region, including wider Europe which depends on Russian gas passing through Ukrainian territory, could be enormous.

“A new armed conflict in the very center of Europe involving a nuclear power and potentially drawing in other countries threatens to disrupt the entire system of geopolitical checks and balances with unpredictable implications for human rights around the world. “said Agnès Callamard.

A new armed conflict in the very center of Europe involving a nuclear power and potentially drawing in other countries threatens to disrupt the entire system of geopolitical checks and balances with unpredictable implications for human rights around the world

Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International

“If the West and Russia enter a more bitter confrontation, it could potentially lead to more active intervention by parties in regional conflicts around the world, the militarization of energy policy and more countries ready to use force as part of their foreign policy.”