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The Realities of Recording History: The Importance of Documenting War Crimes

08 February 2024

“These crimes are not incidental or accidental…”

– Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin speaking at Georgetown Law School in February 2023

Preserving the dignity of individuals affected by modern-day conflicts is an ethical imperative. Documentation serves as a crucial tool for providing evidence for reparations and overall human rights advocacy. Yet, creating a historical record has proved an upward battle for civil society in Ukraine. Most of the partners of the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (NHC) have remained in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion. They continue providing services to the affected populations, documenting war crimes and monitoring attacks against civil society activists. However, since the outbreak of the war, these organisations have been operating in a constant state of crisis, experiencing significant hardships. Furthermore, since 2022 documenting war crimes has once again gained unfortunate pronounced importance in international humanitarian law. Partners working on documentation on the ground in Ukraine face challenges, including a high turnover of volunteers and a lack of time and material to sustainably train those documenting the crimes.

Emergency support to Ukrainian CSOs

To address these needs, the NHC has continued its work with well-established NGOs and grassroots initiatives working on the protection and promotion of human rights in Ukraine. In total, the NHC disbursed up to EUR 290.000 in emergency grants in 2023 as part of the project funded by the European Union. The aim of this support was to help these organisations become more resilient and adapt better to the evolving needs of those affected by the ongoing war. The grants also supported initiatives of local CSOs in documenting war crimes on the ground. See more about the project here.

Documenting the “intent” of war crimes committed

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has resulted in numerous crimes committed by its military and civil representatives against the civilian population, prisoners of war, civilian infrastructure and the environment of Ukraine. While a lot of attention worldwide has gone to mapping what potentially criminal acts have been committed, ‘just’ knowing what has happened is not enough for proving criminal responsibility of individuals who committed these crimes, nor the international responsibility of Russia as a state. This step requires not only sufficient crime-based evidence, but also identifying the decision-makers and linking them to the crimes committed on the ground. At the same time, (international) criminal law requires proof of intent or knowledge for individual criminal responsibility to be proven.

To complement the efforts of our partners documenting war crimes on the ground in Ukraine, the NHC has been supporting an initiative focused on documenting the subjective element (intent) of crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of genocide committed in Ukraine since February 2022.

Strengthening capacity of war documenters

By its very nature, international humanitarian law is a compromise between two opposites: The principle of humanity and the principle of military necessity.” – Andriy Yakovlev, Expert of the National Criminal Court of Ukraine, lawyer, and managing partner of JSC “Umbrella” speaking in the first video of the series ‘Documenting War Crimes’ on the topic of ‘An Introduction to International Humanitarian Law’

In addition to these efforts, the Regional Center for Human Rights with the support of the NHC has developed an online training collection of videos to better aid volunteers working on war crime documentation. ‘Basics of International Humanitarian Law’ is a video series on a wide variety of themes. The 15 videos highlight the often-ambiguous field of international humanitarian law (IHL) and the necessary accountability mechanisms needed to achieve a more just society. Further, this series of videos highlight the ripple effects of war crimes on cultural heritage, women’s rights and the environment. They conclude by describing the different forms of documentation – essential for preventing future atrocities and preserving Ukraine’s historical memory.

These videos are aimed not only at volunteers involved in documenting war crimes, but intended also for a wider audience – both beginners just learning about international law, as well as more advanced professionals wanting to update their knowledge of IHL.

Find out more and watch the videos (with English subtitles) on Youtube.


The development of these training videos was made possible with the support and generous financial contribution of the Dutch Postcode Lottery and the European Union.

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The content of the videos are the sole responsibility of the Regional Center for Human Rights and the Netherlands Helsinki Committee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.