The United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly produces a “Ukraine: civilian casualty update” – an important record of the lives lost since Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022 invasion. But it has a significant omission. The tally nowhere references a vast group of individuals killed in Putin’s war: the combatants.
With the war entering its fourth month and casualties mounting, it’s important for the United Nations – and others – to more loudly and more forcefully address the killing of Ukrainian soldiers as well as Russian conscripts and other fighters who Putin has effectively sent to their deaths.
Including military personnel casualties in the public ledger would be an appropriate acknowledgment of the war dead. It would also be an important step in communicating to the Russian people that their leader has engaged in gross and systematic violation of the human rights of their sons and daughters in furtherance of his unlawful and grotesque aims.
In providing such a public accounting, the United Nations would be on firm footing. Those who wage a war of aggression are responsible for all the people killed in the conflict, and all those deaths are, in short, human rights violations at the hands of the aggressor state. Five years ago, the U.N. Human Rights Committee explained that states “engaged in acts of aggression as defined in international law, resulting in deprivation of life, violate ipso facto” the prohibition on arbitrary deprivation of life under article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (Russia and Ukraine are both parties to the treaty.) Along these lines, the special Mission appointed under the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism to investigate human rights and humanitarian law violations in the Ukraine war, reported the total number of Russian and Ukrainian military casualties under the heading of the “right to life.” The Mission’s report goes on to explain that “the state which starts an unlawful war is, at least politically and morally, if not legally, responsible for any death that occurs in the course of such an unlawful war.”
The idea that responsibility for waging a war of aggression encompasses all the harm that follows can be traced to the historical foundation of the crime of aggression. At Nuremberg, the judgment of the International Military Tribunal stated, “To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” The “accumulated evil of the whole” must include the Ukrainian soldiers and, yes, the Russian ones too — regardless of whether their deaths in battle resulted from actions in conformity with international humanitarian law (jus in bello). Indeed, the latter body of law – and the many ongoing war crimes investigations of Russia’s violations – will largely overlook the deaths of combatants. The path we propose accounts for them.
Based on the war of aggression, we can understand all these deaths in modern human rights terms as an arbitrary deprivation of life on a horrific scale. And international and national bodies that go on to assess the human rights situation in Ukraine should include these deaths resulting from Russia’s aggression in their remit.
Accounting for the human toll through the framework of aggression can also help acknowledge many of the civilian victims too. Russian armed forces have engaged in systematic war crimes across Ukraine. But a subset of the civilian casualties will not be considered the result of an international humanitarian law violation, for example, if their death was incidental to a proportionate attack. That should not let Russia off the hook, or suggest that their deaths too are the result of anything less than an international crime. Not a war crime in the heat of battle, but most certainly the horrific crime of aggression in furtherance of a war of conquest and its ongoing execution. Put another way, Putin’s unlawful aggression is the but for and proximate cause of these deaths and in the public accounting should be understood as nothing less.
To be sure, when it comes to the public recording of military casualties, as a practical matter the initiative may pose special challenges. However, debates over how exactly to undertake the task are more about specifics of implementation. Such concerns can be met and should not distract from the overarching objective.
The practical difficulties in this domain include the availability of full and reliable information (though a form of that problem also plagues civilian casualty reporting) and the sensitive nature of releasing such information while a nation is battling an aggressive assault on its country. The OSCE Mission handled it thusly: Its report stated, “By 28 March 2022, the Ukrainian army reported 1,300 military casualties (US estimates are 2-3 times higher) and the Russian army reported 1,350 military casualties (NATO estimates are 5-10 times higher).” One can imagine other ways to address the reporting that would also suffice. For example, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights could issue an occasional reference to numbers of military personnel killed in particular moments or could keep a tally but release it only after a certain amount of time has passed. But the important point would be to assign responsibility for these deaths based on the root cause – the crime of aggression.
Regardless of how it is implemented, the UN – and others – should start to raise more prominently the fact that the Russian state is — politically, morally, and legally – responsible for all Ukrainian and Russian lives lost in the battle. Of that we should all be routinely reminded.