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Izyum’s petal mines Human Rights Watch documents the Ukrainian military’s apparent use of thousands of banned rocket-fired landmines during the city’s Russian occupation
In a new report, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch calls on Kyiv to investigate the Ukrainian military’s “apparent use of thousands of [banned] rocket-fired antipersonnel landmines” in and around the city of Izyum. The findings are based on interviews with more than 100 people, including “witnesses to landmine use, victims of landmines, first responders, doctors, and Ukrainian deminers.” HRW also found copious physical evidence in and around Izyum showing the use of PFMs (anti-infantry high-explosive mines) — colloquially known as “butterfly mines” or “petal mines” — and observed blast signatures consistent with these weapons, which have reportedly maimed dozens of local civilians. Meduza summarizes the report’s key findings.
Update: Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has responded to the report, reiterating Kyiv’s commitment to the Ottawa Convention and pledging in a public statement that “the competent authorities of Ukraine” will “duly study” HRW’s findings.
In a June 2022 report, Human Rights Watch wrote, “There is no credible information that Ukrainian government forces have used antipersonnel mines in violation of the Mine Ban Treaty since 2014 and into 2022.” In new research published on January 31, 2023, however, the organization’s assessment has changed.
According to HRW’s latest report, Izyum is so blanketed in petal mines today that everyone in the city who spoke to researchers said they had “seen mines on the ground, knew someone who was injured by one, or had been warned about their presence during Russia’s occupation.” Deminers told HRW that it could take decades to clear the landmines from Izyum entirely.
Human Rights Watch verified 11 cases of civilian casualties from PFM-series mines, and healthcare workers told the organization in late October that they had treated nearly 50 civilians, including at least five children, for injuries caused by these weapons, most cases resulting in amputation. HRW researchers were unable to confirm if any Russian soldiers were injured or killed in the rocket attacks that dispersed the mines.
Russian war crimes are legion, and Moscow continues to use all manner of banned landmines
HRW has previously published three reports about Russia’s use of antipersonnel landmines in Ukraine in 2022 alone. The organization has also reported on how Russian forces arbitrarily detained, interrogated, tortured, and sometimes “disappeared” or executed civilians in the Izyum area. HRW’s research includes evidence that Moscow has used at least eight different types of banned antipersonnel mines throughout eastern Ukraine. Though Russia is not a party to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the use of such weapons is nevertheless prohibited by Article 51 of the Geneva Conventions Protocol I (which bans attacks that cannot discriminate between military and civilian objects) and by customary international law.
Ukraine, on the other hand, is a state party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. While it destroyed more than 3.4 million mines (including PFM-series antipersonnel mines) between 1999 and 2020, Ukraine still had 3.3 million PFMs stockpiled as of 2021, based on Kyiv’s own reports to the United Nations.
“Russian forces have repeatedly used antipersonnel mines and committed atrocities across the country,” HRW Arms Division director Steve Goose says in the January 31 report. “But this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons.”
“Ukraine is a reliable member of the international community, and it fully commits to all international obligations in the sphere of mine usage. This includes the non-use of anti-personnel mines in the war,” Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Polishchuk told HRW in a statement on November 24 after the organization presented Ukrainian officials with a summary of its findings in Izyum. Polishchuk declined to comment on the types of weapons Ukrainian forces are using currently in the war, arguing that such disclosures must wait until “the restoration of our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
In addition to urging Russia to stop using antipersonnel landmines and to investigate their forces’ use of these indiscriminate weapons, Human Rights Watch is calling on Kyiv “to identify and assist victims” of any PFM-series mines placed by Ukrainian troops and to provide “appropriate and timely compensation, medical care, and other assistance, such as the provision of prosthetics where appropriate and ongoing rehabilitation support, including psychosocial support.”
On what grounds does HRW attribute the use of “petal landmines” in Izyum to the Ukrainian military?
Witnesses in six of the nine areas where researchers documented the use of PFMs “described attacks consistent with landmines delivered by rocket artillery.” In multiple areas across the city, HRW researchers found the metal cassettes that carry the mines in rockets, as well as the remnants of Uragan-series artillery rockets that indicate the weapons were fired from directions leading back to territories under Ukrainian control during Russia’s occupation of Izyum. These sites were also within these missiles’ 35-kilometer (22-mile) maximum range.
The nine areas where HRW found evidence of PFMs “were all close to where Russian military forces were positioned at the time, suggesting they were the target,” the organization says in its report. Additionally, Human Rights Watch describes landmine attacks near schools and a hospital where Russian forces occupied parts of these compounds. The PFMs were also scattered over numerous private residences.
Residents told HRW that Russian soldiers and combatants from the self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic” regularly responded to civilians’ requests to demine streets and private property, typically by shooting the PFMs with their rifles. Occupation forces also distributed flyers warning residents about the mines, attaching contact information for demining requests. Locals in Izyum told HRW about multiple instances where Russian forces aided landmine victims (including two people who say they were transferred by military helicopter to inside Russia for emergency medical care). HRW also documented one case where Russian soldiers atop a passing armored vehicle instead fired at a civilian who requested help for a wounded neighbor.
Residents told HRW that both Russian occupation troops and Ukrainian liberation forces “proactively engaged in demining and responded to individual requests to remove or destroy the PFM mines.”
Russian invasion forces controlled Izyum and the surrounding area from April 1 until early September. Throughout this five-month period, eyewitnesses told HRW that the area was regularly seeded with bombs researchers identified as PFMs. While it’s technically possible that Russian forces fired these rockets from positions at least 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) away (the Uragan-series missile’s minimum range), Human Rights Watch argues that this is improbable: “A scenario in which Russia, repeatedly over the course of five months, used antipersonnel landmines against its own troops and across territory it hoped to control permanently is highly unlikely.”
Cover image: Human Rights Watch / YouTube
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