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Atrocity Alert No. 295: Ukraine, Venezuela and Nigeria

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Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

RUSSIAN RETREAT REVEALS MASSACRE OF CIVILIANS IN BUCHA, UKRAINE

Following the retreat of Russian forces from the suburbs of Kyiv, Ukraine, at the end of March, reports emerged of hundreds of civilian casualties in previously Russian-occupied areas. Ukrainian authorities have identified the bodies of at least 410 men, women and children in the town of Bucha, many of which were buried in mass graves while others were discovered slain in the street. Reports of targeted killings of civilians in other previously occupied suburbs have also started to emerge. The targeted killing of civilians is forbidden under international law and may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

On 5 April Liz Throssell, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, cited the horrifying images of people with their hands bound and bodies of women discovered naked and partially burned, stating that, “this is extremely disturbing, and does really strongly suggest that they were directly targeted as individuals… and directly killed.” Throssell stressed that, “it’s hard to see what was the military context of an individual lying in the street with a bullet to the head or having their bodies burned.”

Russian officials have denied that any civilians were harmed in their military operations and asserted that the bodies in Bucha were placed there after their retreat. Satellite images and video footage examined by The New York Times, along with eyewitness testimony, provide evidence to the contrary. Since 24 February the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented at least 1,563 civilian deaths, including 130 children, while asserting the real toll is much higher.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres joined the international condemnation of the killings in Bucha, as well as calls for independent investigations and accountability. He also echoed his previous warnings regarding the global impact of the war, stating, “I deeply regret the divisions that have prevented the Security Council from acting not only on Ukraine, but on other threats to peace and security around the world. I urge the Council to do everything in its power to end the war and to mitigate its impact, both on the suffering people of Ukraine, and on vulnerable people and developing countries around the world.”

ICC’S CHIEF PROSECUTOR ANNOUNCES OPENING OF A COUNTRY OFFICE IN VENEZUELA

On 31 March, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, announced the opening of a country office in Caracas, Venezuela, to advance justice for possible crimes against humanity. During November 2021 the Chief Prosecutor opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Venezuelan government, in which President Nicolás Maduro agreed to “adopt all necessary measures to ensure the effective administration of justice.”

Since 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have been accused of widespread torture, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances in an attempt to silence political dissent. State agents have also allegedly perpetrated thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of combatting crime. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela reported in September 2020 that serious human rights violations and abuses were authorized at the highest level of government and committed as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population that may amount to crimes against humanity.

Although the government has announced measures to address structural impunity in recent months, it has failed to investigate all perpetrators within the security and intelligence forces, including those at higher levels in the chain of command. In September 2021 the FFM warned that Venezuela’s judicial system has contributed to ongoing state violence by perpetuating impunity and facilitating ongoing crimes against humanity, in line with previously identified patterns of serious violations and abuses. The FFM further reported to the HRC on 18 March that “domestic investigations, when conducted, are limited in scope and target low-level, material perpetrators.” The FFM stated that “the lack of disaggregated data and key information on the crimes charged or the rank or level of responsibility of the perpetrators continues to be an obstacle to assessing the State’s real efforts to investigate and prosecute” systematic violations and abuses.

A formal presence of the Office of the Chief Prosecutor in Caracas provides a vital and important opportunity for the ICC to directly engage with victims and their relatives, as well as with civil society organizations monitoring and documenting ongoing state-led repression. Elisabeth Pramendorfer, Senior Human Rights Office at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, added that, “it also signals that despite significant efforts by the government to publicly claim a willingness to investigate alleged atrocity crimes and minimize international scrutiny, the domestic system remains ill-equipped to ensure accountability for victims who have been denied justice for so long. As long as high-level state authorities are not held to account, the risk of atrocity crimes in Venezuela persists.”

NEW SPATE OF ATTACKS BY SUSPECTED BANDITS IN NORTH-WEST NIGERIA

On Monday, 28 March, armed men attacked a passenger train traveling between Abuja and Kaduna in northern Nigeria, killing at least eight people. Survivors reported that two explosions derailed the train before armed men surrounded the carriages and opened fire. An estimated 168 passengers remain unaccounted for and are believed to be kidnapped. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari strongly condemned the incident, calling it a callous attack on “a safe means of transport to many.”

While the Kaduna State government has thus far been unable to identify the men responsible for this attack, reports indicate it may have been perpetrated by armed groups commonly referred to as “bandits.” Violent activity by armed bandits has been growing in north-west Nigeria in recent months, including deadly incidents in October and November in Sokoto State and during January in Zamfara State. Last week’s incident marked the second attack against the Abuja-Kaduna rail line since October 2021. Three days earlier, armed men also launched an attack on Kaduna International Airport. These attacks demonstrate a dangerous tactical shift by alleged bandits, which is instilling fear and increasing insecurity for civilian populations.

Many of the armed bandit groups have been formed in the past decade in response to growing inter-communal conflict over land and resources. While these groups are driven largely by criminal motives, their activities have exacerbated ethnic tensions as many bandits are ethnic Fulani and prey on settled farming communities. Violence between herding and farming communities has become increasingly deadly as armed groups and gangs engage in organized cattle-rustling, kidnapping, plunder, murder and rape. At least 4,900 people were killed in such violence between 2018-2020 and hundreds of thousands have been displaced in north-west Nigeria.

In an attempt to curb armed banditry, since September 2021 the Nigerian government has deployed a large number of troops to north-west Nigeria, cut off communication networks and imposed restrictions on movement in affected areas. Despite the government’s claim that it is defeating armed bandit groups, attacks against civilians continue unabated. President Buhari has urged the military to “deal ruthlessly with terrorists,” asserting that, “anyone found unlawfully wielding an AK 47 should not be spared!”

The government of Nigeria needs to urgently protect populations by investing in advanced security surveillance equipment, including on perimeter fences of airports and along train tracks. The government should also undertake efforts to comprehensively tackle the root causes of armed banditry, including endemic poverty, corruption, youth unemployment and environmental degradation.