By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) – The United Nations’ human rights chief said on Thursday that tens of millions of lives were at risk in Ukraine as the conflict there intensified.
Michelle Bachelet called for an immediate halt to hostilities as she opened a debate at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on setting up an international commission of inquiry into alleged violations by Russia.
“Tens of millions of people remain in the country, in potentially mortal danger. I am deeply concerned that the current escalation of military operations will further heighten the harm they face,” Bachelet said.
Russia’s ambassador to the council, Gennady Gatilov, dismissed calls for an inquiry, denounced what he called the “criminal regime in Kyiv” and accused the United States and EU of supplying lethal weapons.
“We do not see any added value in today’s debate,” he said.
Emine Dzhaparova, Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister, told the talks by video message that Russian troops were carrying out acts tantamount to war crimes and called for perpetrators to be held accountable.
“Recent events clearly point to the fact that the Russian troops fighting in Ukraine carry out the most blatant violations and abuses of human rights, systematically engage in acts that clearly amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity,” she said.
Dzhaparova urged the council to adopt a resolution brought by Ukraine and allies including the United States and European Union that would launch the international inquiry. The resolution is expected to be adopted in a vote on Friday, Western diplomats said.
Hundreds of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians have been killed since President Vladimir Putin sent his troops over the border on Feb. 24.
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation”, denies targeting civilians and says its aim is to “disarm” Ukraine and arrest leaders it falsely calls neo-Nazis.
France’s ambassador Jerome Bonnafont, speaking for the EU, said: “The gravity of the situation fully justifies the creation of a commission of inquiry. Russia must be held accountable for its acts.”
U.S. ambassador Sheba Crocker told the forum: “We are deeply alarmed by daily reports of civilian casualties and of Russia’s deployment of weapons such as cluster munitions and thermobarics against cities where innocent people are sheltering.”
China’s ambassador, Chen Xu, in a speech that did not refer to Russia, said that Beijing always opposed the politicisation of human rights issues and “opposes using human rights issues as a pretext to exert pressure on other countries”.
“Therefore we oppose establishing an independent international commission of inquiry on Ukraine,” Chen said.
A team from the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague left for “the Ukraine region” on Thursday to see if there was evidence of atrocities by all sides, its top prosecutor told Reuters.
(Reporting and writing by Stephanie Nebehay; additional reporting by Paul Carrel; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Heavens)