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Ukraine: UN expert seriously concerned by housing rights violations

GENEVA (9 March 2022) – The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Balakrishnan Rajagopal, today expressed grave concerns about the serious violations of the right to adequate housing in Ukraine after Russian Federation forces invaded the country. He issues the following statement:

“Indiscriminate use of weapons such as cluster munitions, multiple launch rocket systems, tactical missile systems and artillery systems have been reported in multiple areas of Ukraine including in and around the cities of Chernihiv, Kyiv, Kherson, Mariupol, Okhtyrka, Zhytomyr and several others. Many homes, civilian infrastructure including fuel depots, water and power stations are under attack or threat of attack.

These armed attacks come on top of an ongoing armed conflict between Ukraine Government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014, which has already taken a heavy toll on civilians, including their homes and vital infrastructure, and has killed over 3,400 civilians, more than 10,000 combatants, and displaced over 1.5 million. More than 1.5 million people from Ukraine have now fled within 10 days into neighboring countries and an undetermined but large number have been internally displaced. Directly or indirectly, the aggression will have a massive toll on the access to and habitability of housing in Ukraine.

I call for an immediate end to all violations of the right to adequate housing in Ukraine, which may amount to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and crimes under international criminal law.

The deliberate targeting of civilian housing and vital infrastructure is prima facie, a violation of international law of armed conflict and gives rise to individual and State responsibility for such acts. All feasible precautions should be taken to minimize harm to civilians, their housing and civilian infrastructure, avoid indiscriminate attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian objects and attacks that would cause disproportionate harm to civilians, their housing and infrastructure. The use of indiscriminate shelling of residential areas and use of cluster munitions is, by these standards, incompatible with international law. These provisions of international humanitarian law are applicable to the armed conflict in Ukraine as they are to previous conflicts such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where States used cluster munitions and attacked civilian housing and infrastructure. The failure to hold States accountable for these serious violations of international humanitarian law is undermining the very idea of rule of law.

Any bombardment of civilian objects in cities or other densely populated areas must immediately stop. All parties to the armed conflict in Ukraine must minimize harm to civilians including their housing and infrastructure. The Russian Federation and Ukraine must take all feasible precautions to minimize or avoid such harm, and provide effective advance warning of attacks when such attacks are justified by military necessity. Military forces deployed in cities or densely populated areas must, to the extent feasible, avoid locating themselves near civilian objects, housing and infrastructure, and must avoid shielding behind civilian infrastructure or housing.

Forced evictions and displacement are a severe violation of the right to adequate housing. In addition, the forcible transfer of population, whether by direct or indirect means, is a grave breach of the 1949 Geneva Convention, its first optional protocol of 1977, and a crime under the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The armed forces of the Russian Federation are, in parts of Ukraine under their control, governed by the obligations that apply to occupying powers. This includes the obligation not to forcibly alter population ratios in specific areas by causing one of the largest mass exodus of people in Europe or transferring its own population into Ukrainian territory under occupation. 

Ukraine and the Russian Federation are parties to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1977 Protocols, and major human rights treaties. While the Russian Federation is not a party to the Rome Statute establishing the ICC, Ukraine has accepted the jurisdiction of the ICC for all acts that occur on its territory. I welcome the announcement by the ICC that it has opened an independent investigation into the situation in Ukraine and I call on all States to cooperate with the court. Mass, indiscriminate or deliberate destruction of civilian housing are acts that incur liability under the Rome Statute and could potentially also be prosecuted by other States under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Ukraine and the Russian Federation are both parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which does not permit derogations during a State of Emergency or armed conflict. Thus all parties are under an obligation to respect, protect and fulfill the right to adequate housing even when armed conflict occurs. The right to adequate housing has at its core, the right to live in a home in peace, security and dignity. The hostilities have already resulted in a gross violation of this right, as several million civilians in Ukraine have fled their homes or are trapped or seeking shelter in basements, subway stations, bathrooms or other locations in constant fear for their life.

Lastly, I strongly welcome the decision of EU countries to offer temporary protection to refugees fleeing Ukraine and the humanitarian assistance provided by many civil society organisations and States. I urge States to offer assistance to all victims of the gross violations of the right to adequate housing in Ukraine, including access to housing, physical and mental health care, education and livelihoods. Everyone fleeing this armed conflict should be offered safe passage, shelter, emergency housing and humanitarian support without any discrimination, irrespective of nationality, race, gender or age.”

Mr. Balakrishnan Rajagopal is the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context. Rajagopal took up his mandate in May 2020. He is a Professor of Law and Development at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). A lawyer by training, Rajagopal is an expert on many areas of human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, the UN system, and the human rights challenges posed by development activities.
Follow the Special Rapporteur’s work on Twitter: @adequatehousing
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