“I fear that what we are already seeing could get much worse”

Human Rights Watch observes war crimes. In Ukraine, the organisation is gathering evidence to bring Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to justice, explains Director Kenneth Roth.

Interview: Peter Hossli

US President Biden this week called Russia’s President Putin a war criminal. Rightly so?
Kenneth Roth:
Putin has been pursuing a war criminal strategy for years. The indiscriminate destruction of Grozny in Chechnya, the destruction of hospitals, schools, markets and homes in the Syrian province of Idlib were all war crimes. We now fear that the strategy will continue in Ukraine.

How can you tell?
We are already seeing indiscriminate shelling of quite a few civilian areas. I am concerned that this is moving even more towards the targeted destruction of civilian facilities. If this is done deliberately, the commanders will become war criminals.

But is the timing of Biden’s preliminary condemnation wise? You don’t sit down at the negotiating table with war criminals.
There is no rule that says you cannot negotiate peace with someone who commits atrocities. Denouncing atrocities is one way to prevent them.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has published satellite images of a theatre in Mariupol. They show the word «children» in cyrillic letters on the ground in front of and behind the building. Nevertheless, the Russians have bombed the theatre. What does this say about Russian strategy in Ukraine?
It reminds me of Syria, where Russians and Syrians deliberately bombed hospitals. The hospitals were moved underground to protect them. The UN had given the coordinates of the hospitals to the Russians and the Syrians with the intention that they would stop bombing. The Russians used these coordinates to hit their targets even more accurately.

HRW investigates whether international law is being violated in war. What do you see in Ukraine?
We see a very ugly picture. There is the use of cluster munitions. Shells and rockets are hitting civilian neighbourhoods. We recognise a tactic that was widely used in Syria: the siege of civilians. The most blatant example so far is the city of Mariupol, where more than 400 000 people lived for days without electricity, running water, heating and food while being bombed.

Are there signs that chemical or biological weapons are being used?
Not so far. But the Russian government has already used the nerve agent Novichok to try to murder people in England and in Russia.

Would the use of such weapons in Ukraine be a red line, the crossing of which would justify a Nato deployment?
Human Rights Watch does not advocate military intervention. We do not want to start World War III. This risk exists should Nato become directly involved.

Most of the world community agrees that the war in Ukraine is an illegal war of aggression. Why does Human Rights Watch not condemn Russia?
We don’t do that in any war. We are pretty good at documenting war crimes. We look very closely at how wars are fought, whether both sides are abiding by the Geneva Convention and protecting civilians. If we were to name an aggressor and a defender, we could no longer do it neutrally.

Can you still be neutral as a private person?
Neutrality is at the heart of Human Rights Watch. I have been the director of the organisation for almost thirty years. Everyone who works for us knows these rules. We train our people to be completely neutral.

They are also investigating Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has released photos and videos of captured Russian soldiers.
The Geneva Convention requires that prisoners of war not be publicly ridiculed. Filming frightened young soldiers and publishing the videos on social media contradicts the requirement to treat prisoners of war with dignity.

Do you observe further Ukrainian violations of the Geneva Convention?
This war started only three weeks ago. But the war between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine has been going on for eight years. There, both sides have violated international law by abusing prisoners and shelling civilians. Currently, we don’t see that with Ukrainian forces. But we are looking closely.

What do you fear most in Ukraine?
Grozny and Syria have shown that the Russian military accelerates its attacks in the face of real resistance. Not just by sending more troops, but by stepping up attacks on civilians. I fear that what we are already seeing could get much worse. That Russian troops, frustrated by little progress, could start to Ukrainian cities.

A frightening idea. How can this be prevented?
The reactions of the states so far have been strong. The effects of the economic sanctions are only beginning to be felt. But will this be enough to bring Putin to a face-saving compromise? Or will he continue to kill Ukrainian civilians? I don’t know, I can only hope.

Millions and millions of documents, videos and pictures are circulating on this war. Some of them are probably fake. How do you make sure what is authentic?
We have investigators on the ground taking statements from victims and eyewitnesses. We monitor remotely by conducting so-called open-source investigations. We look at photos and videos on social networks, compare multiple videos of the same incidents with the utmost care, and take witness statements and satellite images.

You work with boots on the ground and eyes on the sky?
We have a partnership with the satellite company Planet, which photographs the Earth every day. We trust these images. They help us verify the authenticity of videos that circulate online. We only make something public when we are absolutely sure we are right.

But you publish continuously. Why?
To give the international community facts to put pressure on the Russian government to stop the atrocities. An equally important audience is the Russian people. They have the greatest influence on Putin.

Putin is doing everything he can to keep information about the war away from the Russians.
Censorship and disinformation in Russia are more intense today than at any time since the end of the Soviet Union. Those who protest face 15 years in prison. Yet tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in 53 cities across the country. By spreading information about the reality in Ukraine, we are helping to increase Russian pressure on Putin.

Human Rights Watch has been active since 1978. How has technology changed your work?
In the past, we mainly relied on testimonies from victims and witnesses. Nowadays, videos and photos are ubiquitous. They are a powerful and useful complement to human testimony.

You are using it to try to create chains of evidence to bring those responsible for atrocities to justice. How do you go about it?
In Syria, we were able to document 46 cases in Idlib where Russian planes deliberately bombed hospitals, schools, markets and homes. We even established which planes dropped which bombs. Then, using material from the Russian internet, we determined who the generals were who gave the orders to the bombers. We managed to establish a chain of command all the way to Putin. After that, we designated him as a person with command responsibility for war crimes.

The elaborate research work in Syria now serves as a blueprint for Ukraine?
I am confident that we will achieve something similar in the case of the war crimes in Ukraine. We are trying to keep the chain of evidence as tight as possible. If it concerns Putin, we will name him. The priority for prosecution is the commanders.

But does this have legal consequences? They did find that Putin ordered war crimes in Syria. He was not charged.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) did not have jurisdiction in Syria. It has jurisdiction in Ukraine. The judiciary is stronger here.

40 countries have asked the ICC to open an investigation in Ukraine. Putin himself does not seem to care. 
I would not go that far. For now, it is important that the atrocities stop. In the longer term, it is about justice – as a deterrent and out of respect for the victims.

Justice is only possible when alleged perpetrators are brought before a court. The Russian leadership feels untouchable in the Kremlin.
Slobodan Milosevic had felt safe in the presidential palace in Serbia. Omar al-Bashir had felt safe in Khartoum in Sudan. Both were brought to justice. Heads of state cannot predict how politics will change in their countries. A new government may find it advantageous to extradite an autocrat, a perpetrator of violence or a war criminal.

Nevertheless, the fear that Putin will once again get away with impunity seems justified.
That is what we are trying to prevent. Step one is to gather enough reliable evidence. Step two is to hand it over to a prosecutor and hope for an indictment. And if the person is charged, you do everything to get him arrested.

The chance that Putin will ever be brought before a court is extremely small.
If the ICC accuses someone, his life is immediately severely restricted. Where else can he go? To North Korea or Belarus. And Russia’s policy can change.

The hopes placed in the ICC were not fulfilled. It is not powerful.
With Karim Khan, a new prosecutor has taken up his post who is experienced both in the prosecution and as a defence lawyer. I expect the cases to be handled more efficiently than before. But the evidence will be decisive.

They want to use information to get the Russian people to put pressure on their own government. But the sanctions imposed by the West mean that hardly any information gets through to Russia.
The Russian government has shut down the channels of social media companies. But we are concerned that the sanctions are having unintended side effects by making it harder for Russians to access independent information. To get around the censorship, many use virtual private networks (VPNs). Since they are no longer allowed to use their credit cards, they cannot pay for the VPNs. It would stand to reason that someone would finance free access to VPNs for the whole of Russia.

US technology companies could do that.
On Wednesday, I met with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken. He pointed out that many technology companies are pulling out of Russia because they don’t want to put their employees at risk there. They don’t want the stigma of operating in Russia. I pointed out to him that the US government can help counteract this stigma by encouraging technology companies to stay in Russia to help provide access to independent information.

Russia is changing abruptly. Where is the country heading?
I am very concerned that there is no more room for independent voices in Russia. The country is as close to the Soviet era as it has ever been since the fall of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the Russian people are showing themselves ready to take to the streets. Which is an incredibly courageous act.

The American Senator Lindsey Graham has called on the Russian people to murder tyrants. What do you think of that?
This kind of language is not helpful. But it is appropriate to encourage the Russian people to do everything in their power to get the Kremlin to stop bombing civilians.

Is it a good idea that neutral Switzerland has joined the sanctions?
I recognise the importance of Switzerland as a negotiating venue. I spend a lot of time in Geneva, and I am glad that disputing powers always come together in Geneva. But Switzerland can keep its door open as a negotiator and still stand up for human rights. If neutrality were understood as indifference to oppression, it would be wrong.

How will the world order change if the Ukrainian government falls?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is taking place in the context of a contest between democracy and autocracy. I believe that this global contest is moving in a pro-democracy direction.

You are pretty much alone with this optimistic view.
Look at the waves of protests for democracy – in Thailand, Myanmar, Russia, Belarus, Uganda, Sudan, Cuba and Nicaragua. Autocrats are increasingly losing their legitimacy. They no longer succeed in manipulating elections; instead, they conduct zombie elections. For them, this is not a solution. In Ukraine, too, things look bad for autocrats.

Because the people there are unbending and long for democracy?
It is exciting to see why the Ukrainian people are resisting so strongly. It is about the sense of national belonging and the desire for autonomy. Above all, they are defending democratic aspirations.

In order to create peace, the idea of a smaller Ukraine is circulating. What does it mean when borders change through wars of aggression?
Putin has a vision of ethno-nationalism, according to which the borders should be roughly based on the ethnic Russian population. This is a very dangerous endeavour. It has led to the Bosnian war. It cost many lives during the Indian partition. A few weeks ago, the Kenyan ambassador to the UN gave an eloquent speech at the UN and said that ethno-nationalism would be a disaster for Africa. Yes, borders are arbitrary and colonial. There are ethnic groups on both sides. But when you start reordering borders, it is an invitation to total chaos.

Petrol prices are rising all over the world. Now the West is talking about easing sanctions on Venezuela and getting Saudi Arabia to increase production. In both countries, human rights are clearly being disregarded.
In the contest between autocracy and democracy, we should not violate democratic and human rights principles. Otherwise, we risk winning the battle and losing the war.

However, a boycott of Russian oil would have devastating consequences for the world economy. They could be cushioned by Saudi Arabian and Venezuelan oil. Would that be legitimate?
This must not be done at the expense of human rights. In Venezuela, the proceeds from the sale of oil could be used to address the humanitarian crisis. But if the money flows into the pockets of the officials of Nicolás Maduro’s repressive government, it would cause very great harm.

Saudi Arabia recently executed over eighty people in a single day.
The Saudis are basically saying they will pump more oil if they are allowed to continue bombing Yemeni civilians. And if their crown prince gets immunity from American lawsuits over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Under no circumstances should the US government or anyone accept this kind of blackmail.

Are you confident that it won’t happen?
The Saudi government is dependent on the support of the West. It cannot rely on Russia and China for defence. There is no need to bow to Saudi blackmail. We can say: we need the oil and condemn the killing of civilians in Yemen.

The guardian of the Geneva Convention is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). How does it differ from Human Rights Watch in a war like the one in Ukraine?
HRW and the ICRC are closely related. I like to describe us as opposites pulling in the same direction with opposing methods. The ICRC sacrifices voice to secure access to theatres of war. HRW is willing to sacrifice access to preserve voice.