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The UN Human-Rights Team in Ukraine, Recording the ‘Hardship That People Are Going Through’

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Matilda Bogner, an Australian who runs the UN’s human-rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, describes her team’s work documenting the Russian invasion in the country now and since 2014 as a way to offer “victims a voice” amid “all the hardship that people are going through.” UNOHCR

Two months since Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in the country has recorded at least 2,224 civilian deaths and 2,897 injuries, as of April 19. The numbers, however, are likely to be much higher. 

In an email interview conducted on April 15, Matilda Bogner, the head of the UN mission and based in Kyiv, the capital, said that while the office records casualties, delivers somber news and works on the front lines amid fierce fighting, the work provides “victims a voice” and a chance “to listen to their stories and to document all the hardship that people are going through.”

Bogner has been employed with the UN since 2006. Originally from Australia, she has worked as a criminal defense lawyer and in human rights efforts around the world. She headed regional offices for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and has led the Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Rule of Law Division of the UN support mission in Libya. She has also worked as the UN’s senior human-rights adviser in Belarus. Bogner is leading a team of 57 people for the UN in Ukraine. She is fluent in Russian. — CATHERINE MORRISON 

The interview, which focuses on the methodology of the UN mission’s work in Ukraine, the emotional toll and whether Russia is forcing some captured Ukrainians to Siberia, has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

PassBlue: How is your office recording the number of deaths and injuries in Ukraine since the invasion started on Feb. 24, both during and post-attacks?

Bogner: [The mission] has been recording civilian casualties in Ukraine since 2014 [when Russia invaded Crimea]. We collect information from a broad range of sources that are evaluated on credibility and reliability, including interviews with victims and witnesses, satellite imagery, official information, open-source information and reports. We also do site visits, though we have not been able to do as many since 24 February 2022, as we had to relocate on a number of occasions, given the security situation. We report figures based on our independent verification of incidents and casualties involved. Our figures do not include military casualties or deaths or injuries of civilians that were not a direct consequence of hostilities. In some instances, corroboration may take time and lead to revision of civilian casualties as more information becomes available. 

PassBlue: How does the UN keep track of weapons being used in attacks, areas that need food and other basic humanitarian supplies and the number of detained journalists, war criminals, sexual violence cases and refugees?

Bogner: All figures that appear in our public reports and updates are based on our own monitoring. The mission does not have information about the number of alleged war criminals detained by Ukrainian authorities. According to the information published by the office of the [Ukraine] prosecutor general, some of the captured Russian soldiers are facing war crime charges. However, in order to establish their involvement and criminal responsibility for war crimes committed on the territory of Ukraine, comprehensive investigations will be needed. The mission makes information available to the public through a wide range of reports, including periodic ones every six months, thematic reports twice a year, as well as briefing notes and other shorter documents. We are active on social media and give interviews to the media to also share and advocate for improved compliance with human rights.

PassBlue: What’s it like to be working in Ukraine and covering the war? How do you motivate yourself to continue covering such traumatic events?

Bogner: Our mission has been working in Ukraine since 2014, before the hostilities started in eastern Ukraine. So sadly, this work is not new for us. We have been documenting civilian casualties, damage to infrastructure, torture and ill treatment and other grave human rights violations for the past eight years. The work we do is challenging as we need to clearly separate rumors and emotions from facts. We need to do this not only with the emotions that people share with us as we interview them but also our own emotions. Human rights officers face human tragedies every time they collect information. They also have to make sure to “do no harm” and avoid exposing victims to additional risks or to re-traumatize them. We know that it is vitally needed to have verified, credible information in times of war, when emotions and disinformation prevail. Establishing facts and providing them to the public  motivates us.

PassBlue: Why is your work documenting human-rights violations and the casualties in Ukraine so important?

Bogner: The information that we provide can pressure perpetrators and may help to prevent further violations. It also can be used by different justice mechanisms to ensure justice to victims and witnesses of human rights violations and bring perpetrators to account. This is a strong motivation for doing this  work.

PassBlue: What dangers are you facing and how do you protect yourself while working on the front lines?

Bogner: We are a civilian monitoring mission, so when we are working in areas of hostilities we can face the same danger as every civilian in Ukraine — danger to be caught in shelling or shooting as well as facing threats of mines and explosive remnants of war. However, we do have a security system that allows us to minimize the risks for the staff.

PassBlue: What is your response to claims that Russia is planning to send Ukrainians as far as Siberia and the Arctic Circle?

Bogner: The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR, based in Geneva] has been looking into these [claims], including alleged forced evacuations of children to the Russian Federation. Some civilians in Mariupol have been evacuated to territory controlled by self-proclaimed “republics,” and in some cases further towards the Russian Federation. In some cases, people expressed their clear preference to be evacuated to Government-controlled territory but were told that only evacuation towards territory controlled by self-proclaimed “republic” or towards the Russian Federation was possible. So far, OHCHR has not been able to corroborate a factual basis of forced evacuations and will continue to monitor the situation, look into allegations and publish its findings.

PassBlue: What would you like to see foreign governments do, if anything, to better support Ukraine? 

Bogner: We encourage everyone to use our verified information from the ground to guide decisions and policies. It is important that all parties to the conflict adhere to international human rights law and international humanitarian law. Combatants who breach these obligations and commit crimes must be held to account through a rule of law process.

PassBlue: Do you feel that the UN’s work in Ukraine is making a positive difference?

Bogner: One of our main responsibilities during this difficult time is to receive firsthand information from victims and witnesses of human rights and humanitarian law violations. [Our] human rights officers, many of whom have themselves been displaced, regularly interview victims and witnesses of human rights violations to document their stories, report the cases and provide advice on available mechanisms to protect and prevent violations.While [we] cannot stop hostilities, [the mission] is also here to give victims a voice, to listen to their stories and to document all the hardship that people are going through. This is an important contribution to build accountability of those responsible in the future.

Catherine Morrison is a recent graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. She has a B.A. in social justice studies from McGill University in Montreal.

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The UN Human-Rights Team in Ukraine, Recording the ‘Hardship That People Are Going Through’
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Adem Carroll
Adem Carroll
3 months ago

Good questions, but I worry that this very professional, even bureaucratic method of corroborating evidence, while offering a form of credibility, is likely to minimize the number of casualties. The number of deaths could very well be ten times the number reported so far.

Not sure I understand why the number of combatants killed is not included in their calculations. Glad that Passblue asked about civilians forced into Russia.

The UN does need to be pressed on conducting a special mechanism or a Commission of Inquiry, without delay. We trust that the efforts of this office will lead towards that level of response, together with efforts by independent human rights groups.

As long as its propaganda machine is working, the Russian Government of Vladimir Putin will refuse responsibility for targeting civilians on a massive scale. It is still unclear what further cost Russia will pay for utterly undermining the UN Charter. In the Security Council, Russia should have recused itself from all votes on the matter of Ukraine.

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