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U.N. investigators have documented nearly 3,000 civilian deaths in Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine have led to widespread accusations of war crimes. Some world leaders, including President Joe Biden and Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have gone further and called it a genocide. The United Nations is investigating possible human rights violations. Here with us now, Matilda Bogner. She is heading this team of investigators and joins us now. Thank you so much for making time.

MATILDA BOGNER: Thank you.

MARTIN: What have you and your team found on the ground at this point?

BOGNER: Unfortunately, the longer this conflict goes on, the more violations we are finding. In the beginning, the main violations were related to the indiscriminate use of weapons; in particular, those that are used in populated civilian areas with wide explosive impact. We have documented over 5,900 civilian casualties, which include more than 2,780 killed and over 3,000 injured. And many of those have been in cases where the evidence leads us to believe that weapons were being used indiscriminately. We've also seen the destruction and damage to a lot of civilian objects, including in particular medical facilities. So we have civilians who have been unlawfully killed, sometimes in summary executions. We're currently investigating over 300 cases in more than 34 settlements across the country. We're also looking at arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances. We have documented more than 150 cases of those. So there's a range of different violations going on.

MARTIN: I imagine your team has also been looking into sexual violence as a weapon in this war. What have you found there?

BOGNER: We have also been looking at sexual violence. We have dozens of allegations. We have been able to confirm some of them. It is difficult to fully confirm sexual violence because it's often the type of case where victims don't want to speak publicly. And they're often not in safe areas where it feels safe for them to speak out or where they have received the services that they need. So it's difficult. But we are particularly concerned the areas around Kyiv where Russian forces were and then left. There are high numbers of allegations of sexual violence in those areas. But there are allegations in other parts of the country, too, and by both sides in the conflict, unfortunately.

MARTIN: Whether it's indiscriminant bombings, targeted civilian killings, rape, these are very, very grim things. And part of your work and your team's work is to hear people's testimony. Is there a story, without revealing an identity, but can you share the story of someone that has captured for you the nature of the crimes taking place?

BOGNER: We've been speaking to people who have been able to evacuate from Mariupol, and we've been hearing a lot of awful stories from them. One story was from a medical doctor who remained to work in the hospital, and he said that more than 90% of the patients that he was so-called treating, it was by telephone because they could not reach him. It was too dangerous for them to get to him. People have been stuck in basements without food, without water.

MARTIN: The word genocide carries legal weight under international law, and responsibilities come with that term with deploying it. Is what you're seeing evidence of genocide?

BOGNER: So far, what we've been documenting are individual violations of international human rights law, as well as violations of international humanitarian law, which may constitute war crimes. So far, we have not looked into the question of genocide in Ukraine. We have enough to try to document these individual cases. I think it will be something for courts to look at at a later stage.

MARTIN: When it comes to documenting the war crimes, though, how would they be prosecuted, under exactly what law and through what institution?

BOGNER: Well, there are different levels that which people can be prosecuted. Certainly, the government of Ukraine has already opened cases. Other countries can also look at that. Some of these crimes have universal jurisdiction, so different countries could also prosecute. But then there are regional courts. There's the European Court of Human Rights, and then there are international courts, such as the International Criminal Court.

MARTIN: Does it make a difference, though, that Russia is not party to the International Criminal Court, the ICC?

BOGNER: Well, it is a pity neither Russia nor Ukraine are parties to the ICC. However, Ukraine has given permission for the ICC to look into conflict-related issues within its territory. That happened before the 24 of February, when this international armed conflict started. But it can apply to this also. So the ICC is looking into what is happening in Ukraine at the moment. But at this stage, what is important is to ensure that the crimes are being documented so when opportunities arise in the future, then they can be prosecuted.

MARTIN: Matilda Bogner - she's heading a team of U.N. investigators looking into possible war crimes in Ukraine. She joined us on Skype. Thank you so much for making time.

BOGNER: Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.