Ukraine Urgently Needs a Special Law to Address CRSV

In a recent interview, Kateryna CHEREPAKHA, President of La Strada-Ukraine, and Dr. Maryna LEHENKA, Vice President of La Strada-Ukraine, emphasized the urgent need for legislation addressing conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV). The conversation focused on the specific legal support needed for survivors of CRSV, aligning with international standards, holding Russian perpetrators of this war crime accountable and the involvement of civil society in the process.

What are the characteristic features of conflict-related sexual violence

Maryna LEHENKA: – This is a type of gender-based sexual violence associated with armed conflict, or war, whether directly or indirectly. This association may be temporal, spatial, or causal in nature. Today, Ukraine demonstrates all the indicators that define sexual violence during war as a war crime. We assert that Russian soldiers use CRSV as a tactic of warfare, directly targeting the Ukrainian civilian population to intimidate and accomplish specific military objectives. Their goal is never sexual satisfaction; rather, it is mainly to humiliate, torture, and assert control over individuals.

Perpetrators also engage in CRSV targeting prisoners of war, leaving them vulnerable similar to civilians.

Typically, this kind of violence is committed by soldiers, but it can also be carried out by members of other militarized groups of the Russian Federation and representatives of the aggressor’s authorities in temporarily controlled territories. Therefore, when talking about the person committing such actions, it is important to acknowledge war as the primary factor. If a civilian perpetrates an act of violence associated with armed conflict, like during a temporary occupation, it must be recognised and labelled as conflict-related sexual violence.

– Which international conventions do the Russians breach in this respect?

Maryna LEHENKA: – Speaking of international criminal law, the principal document in this domain is the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Although Ukraine has not ratified it, it has allowed all war crimes committed on its territory to be investigated under the Rome Statute. This document explicitly identifies CRSV as an international crime.

In the meantime, Russian aggressors have blatantly violated several other international agreements, including the Geneva Conventions and their additional protocols, notably the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Additionally, they’ve violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which explicitly prohibits torture in Article 3.

It’s vital to draw attention to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Regrettably, children are also affected by sexual violence during the Russian-Ukrainian war. As we discuss CRSV as a form of gender-based violence, we emphasize the extensive breaches by the aggressor of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, ratified by Ukraine.

 Who documents cases of CRSV in Ukraine and how?

Maryna LEHENKA: – Several institutions in Ukraine are engaged in documenting cases of CRSV. Agencies within the criminal justice system are responsible for initiating criminal proceedings and documenting CRSV as a breach of laws and rules of war. These include the Prosecutor General’s Office, the National Police, and the Security Service of Ukraine, along with other public authorities that become aware of such occurrences. To ensure proper compliance with the procedures for subsequent criminal prosecution of perpetrators, pertinent information needs to be submitted to the relevant agencies of criminal justice.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine and the National Police have set up special units to thoroughly investigate such crimes and collect evidence. One significant aspect of these crimes is that they do not always require mandatory forensic examination. Even if such an examination is carried out, it may not uncover any injuries or viable biological evidence over time. Hence, to prove the guilt, prosecute the accused, even in absentia, and prepare documents for the international criminal court, a range of other evidence must be collected. This includes establishing a clear link to the war, identifying the specific territories the individual was associated with, and correlating their presence with the timing of Russian Federation representatives in those areas.

Kateryna CHEREPAKHA: – Similarly, CRSV cases are also documented by civil society and international organisations. Occasionally, journalists arriving early in liberated territories or individuals delivering humanitarian aid may come across, identify, and document such cases.

Several civil initiatives are actively engaged in documenting cases and gathering evidence, ready to submit them to the relevant authorities. Among them are the Ukraine 5AM Coalition and the global human rights initiative “Tribunal for Putin”.

– How is La Strada-Ukraine engaged in documenting CRSV?

Kateryna CHEREPAKHA: – Mostly, we receive reports about CRSV through our hotlines – the National Hotline on prevention domestic violence, human trafficking and gender-based discrimination (0 800 500 335 from mobile or landline, or 116 123 from mobile) and the National Children and Youth Hotline (0 800 500 225 from mobile or landline, or 116 111 from mobile). These reports are either made directly by the victims or by witnesses of such acts of violence, or referred from other institutions, including public authorities.

It should be noted that the main purpose of the calls is not to report a crime but to seek assistance. This is why we focus on providing support. We consistently guide individuals on where to access support and how to report such crimes.

To provide more opportunities and ways for people to report CRSV crimes, our organisation has created a chatbot (@survivors_support_bot). Here you can learn about what wartime sexual violence involves, its different forms to help identify CRSV, and find information where survivors can access necessary assistance. The chatbot also allows you to forward your concerns to the National Hotline for on prevention of domestic violence, human trafficking and gender-based discrimination via Telegram @NHL116123. All calls are anonymous and confidential. additionally, you can report your story or a CRSV case through an online form, even anonymously. This information will then be passed on to the Prosecutor General’s Office, as the chatbot was developed in collaboration with them.

We don’t pressure survivors seeking help from us to go to law enforcement and report their experiences. However, our consultants inform them of the choice and importance of making such a report, as well as where to find support throughout the process. Ensuring they have all the necessary information is vital for making a well-informed decision.

– Does this encourage survivors to seek assistance from law enforcement?

Maryna LEHENKA: – Each survivor may have their own reasons for cooperating with law enforcement. The key factor to consider is whether he or he is ready to go through the entire process. Despite a decrease in the number of interrogations for survivors, it is still stressful and significantly challenging, and may trigger the reactivation of trauma.

What motivates them? Some survivors may be driven by reparations, financial compensation for their experiences. When they realise that receiving compensation requires reporting to law enforcement and having a well-documented case, they may choose to move forward.

Others are motivated by the desire to hold perpetrators to account, particularly on an international level, seeking justice or revenge. Each situation is unique.

Is a child born of CRSV classified as a victim?

Maryna LEHENKA: – A victim is someone, including a child, who has directly experienced or witnessed abuse. Ukrainian law doesn’t recognise a child born of rape as a victim.

Kateryna CHEREPAKHA: – Currently, there’s not enough attention given to children born of CRSV in Ukraine, as highlighted by multiple civil society groups, among others. Looking at the experiences of other countries, there are different initiatives in this area. Mostly, they focus on adult children who are aware of the circumstances of their birth. Some of these initiatives are started by the children themselves, like support groups. However, some may not even know their birth story.

Certainly, these children already exist in Ukraine. Contraceptives were not used in any of the known cases of CRSV, making subsequent pregnancies highly likely.

It would be wrong to say that Ukraine is not preparing to address this issue. Several organisations are actively engaged in tackling, researching, and highlighting the importance of including this category of people in different programs or initiatives. They also recommend considering this when designing support programs for women who become pregnant as a result of CRSV. However, we still lack a legal framework in this area.

What is the time limit on reporting CRSV to public authorities?

Maryna LEHENKA: – People who suffered CRSV can seek help from state authorities at any time. There is no time limit for reporting this crime. Our state treats CRSV seriously and will conduct an investigation regardless of when the survivor comes forward—whether it’s 5, 10, 20, or even 30 years later.

For instance, in Croatia, there were cases where survivors reported CRSV incidents 30 years later. Regrettably, Ukraine also has numerous such cases, and we anticipate years of investigation ahead.

What mechanisms does Ukraine have in place to respond to cases of CRSV?

Maryna LEHENKA: – These crimes are investigated under Article 438 of the Criminal Code, as breaches of laws and customs of war. Ukraine doesn’t criminalise CRSV as a crime or contain a definition of it in domestic laws, including criminal legislation.

Despite the ongoing war on our soil since 2014, we still lack specific legislation addressing this issue. Since then, our hotlines have consistently received reports of CRSV cases.

The penalty outlined in Article 438 presents some challenges. The first part of this article stipulates imprisonment for a maximum of 12 years, while the second section, addressing the intentional killing of the victim, mandates life imprisonment. However, the issue arises from the fact that CRSV often leads to severe consequences not covered by the latter part. Additionally, the initial segment is less severe than, for instance, Article 152, which deals with rape in civilian settings. Nevertheless, all CRSV cases are presently investigated under Article 438 of the Criminal Code. This approach ensures they are treated within a consistent legal framework and enables appropriate action at the International Criminal Court for such instances.

Does Ukraine need a specific law? Absolutely. It’s essential. It is also crucial to determine the status of individuals affected by CRSV. Our country urgently requires guidelines for compensating damages, particularly when the perpetrator fails to pay compensation. How will the state provide compensation? Thus, indeed, a specific law that addresses all aspects, including providing comprehensive assistance to survivors, is urgently needed at this time.

Is it essential for Ukraine to have a specific section in the Criminal Code? Yes, it’s crucial. Work on drafting these regulations has been in progress for a while, even before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, but they are still incomplete. I know that there are ongoing efforts to develop draft laws with public involvement and relevant discussions taking place. Thus, progress is being made in this area. However, given the increasing number of affected individuals, this work needs to be sped up.

Kateryna CHEREPAKHA: – It is important to engage civil society organisations in crafting such legislation, particularly those focusing on responding to CRSV and providing assistance to survivors. Their specialists often advocate for the perspectives of those directly affected by CRSV who may not be ready to engage actively in current initiatives. These organisations can effectively convey the experiences, challenges, viewpoints, and needs of survivors.

When it comes to drafting various laws, including amendments to the Criminal Code, La Strada is actively involved in this endeavor.

What helps Ukraine overcome challenges related to wartime sexual violence?

Kateryna CHEREPAKHA: – Currently in Ukraine, we encounter a unique situation, where addressing CRSV challenges requires the involvement of not only governmental agencies but also international donors and national civil society organisations. The success of these efforts greatly depends on their collaboration, as neither sector alone can adequately address this issue.

The role of civil society organisations is significant. Survivors of CRSV often reach out to them and share their experiences. These organisations possess strong professional expertise and are highly trusted, especially when it comes to anonymity, confidentiality, and informal support.

Civil society organizations focused on addressing sexual, domestic, and gender-based violence are actively engaged in the efforts. Of particular significance are those with expertise and well-established networks, fostering collaboration with various organisations, both governmental and non-governmental. Women’s NGOs consistently prioritize the needs of survivors.

On the other hand, many issues cannot be resolved without the involvement of the government. It is commendable that Ukraine not only recognises these issues as relevant but also addresses them extensively, both domestically and internationally. This is made possible through initiatives led by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, and other institutions. Their acknowledgment of the importance of supporting and promoting initiatives in this field positively impacts the development of effective support mechanisms, systems, and services. Furthermore, these systems must operate efficiently at national, regional, and local levels.

A good example of coordinated efforts among diverse institutions in tackling CRSV issues is the formation and functioning of the Inter-Agency Working Group on Combating CRSV and Assistance to the Survivors. Led by Kateryna Levchenko, the Government Commissioner for Gender Policy, this group includes representatives from key governmental authorities, international experts, and civil society organisations, including members of La Strada-Ukraine.

Support of international organisations, both in terms of resources and expertise, is crucial. Many projects and initiatives have valuable experience in addressing CRSV issues and have successfully tailored them to fit our country’s circumstances.

Volodymyr DOBROTA,

National Press Club Ukrainian Perspective

The material presented herein was prepared as part of the Project “RESILIENT TOGETHER: Improving the system of response to Conflict-Related Sexual Violence (CRSV)”. The Project is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Ukrainian Women Fund in partnership with the Civil Society Organization La Strada-Ukraine” and the Ukrainian Lawyers Association “JurFem”, as well as the Office of the Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine and the Government Commissioner on Gender Equality Policy.