Ukraine: Behind the numbers

A sports complex hosting internally displaced persons from affected areas by Russian Federation attacks in Uzhhorod, Ukraine. © Michael Fostik/OHCHR

“It is hard to remember the exact date of my concussion. Under shelling, you get into this endless process, which has no dates,” said a man who had just fled Kharkiv in the east of Ukraine.

Nataliia* sits on the floor in the sports complex in Uzhhorod, in Ukraine’s west, listening to the man’s story. Nataliia is a Human Rights Officer (HRO) working with the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU).

One of her jobs is to gather first-hand information on allegations of abuses and violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law resulting from the armed attack of the Russian Federation on Ukraine. She listens to people’s stories, documents what has happened to them or their loved ones and looks for information that can help verify civilian casualty incidents.

Using data to “clarify what happened”

Monitoring these violations requires HROs to consult a broad range of sources. Collecting accounts of victims and witnesses is a vital element of this work. In addition, the Mission relies on an extensive network of trusted contacts and partners. Data are often gathered through publicly available sources, such as reports by local authorities, police and emergency services. It also monitors photos, stories and video footage posted on traditional or social media platforms.

All of these data are carefully corroborated, said Olga*, another HRO. “I am looking into different kinds of data on each and every civilian casualty case to clarify what, when and with whom it happened,” she said. “Then, I can request our field teams to verify this information on the ground with available sources,”
Olga added.

Once these checks are complete and show that a civilian casualty happened, the HROs will consider the case to be verified.

More than just numbers

Since the beginning of the armed attack on Ukraine, the Mission has been publishing civilian casualty updates on a daily basis. As of 15 February 2023, 8,006 people had died and 13,287 were injured. For the HROs, these updates are more than just numbers.

“We try to get the information about individual incidents in which a [person] was killed or injured…,” said Uladzimir Shcherbau, Head of an HRMMU Unit. “We collect information on the cases that have been reported in previous days. [U]ltimately, we have a full picture of what happened to civilians.”

The HRMMU is recognized as a trusted source of verified information for governments, the media and international agencies reporting on or monitoring the war. “The civilian casualty information it provides is critical to advocating for change, ensuring justice for victims of human rights violations and holding perpetrators to account,” said Matilda Bogner, Head of the HRMMU.

“We need to ensure that we support victims and follow the do-no-harm principle. In the end, we [can] communicate…where there have been violations and how to take steps to remedy the situation and prevent further violations.”

An OHCHR Human Rights Officer stands in front of an improved collective grave covered with plastic in Kyiv region, Ukraine.
OHCHR Human Rights Officer visits an improvised collective grave containing the bodies of civilians in Bucha, Kyiv region, Ukraine. © OHCHR
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