Ukraine’s fight for justice for women, men and children who suffer terrible sexual crimes shows this battle goes far beyond territory

Kateryna Busol

25 Mar 2024


Atrocities are Russia’s means of warfare. Since the beginning of its aggression against Ukraine in 2014, the Kremlin has weaponised actions that are internationally considered as crimes, including sexual violence. With the all-out invasion in 2022, Russia’s sexual violence has expanded in its prevalence and gravity. It makes for difficult reading, but the extent of documented crimes includes rapes; gang rapes; sexual slavery; beating and mutilation of genitalia; castration; threats of rape and forcing family members to witness abuse of their loved ones.

Sexual violence is common in war. But these are not only isolated battlefield incidents. Russia has allowed toxic gender hierarchies to become the norm within its borders, and allowed more brutal expressions to flourish on the frontlines of its war. This begins at the top, with President Putin demanding Ukraine’s fulfilment of the Minsk agreements with a joking reference to sexual coercion, saying “My beauty, it’s your duty”. His words won’t shock a country with an ingrained tolerance to violence against women and sexual and gender minorities. Russia has all but decriminalised domestic abuse. Its persecution of gay people has peaked in designating the LGBTQ+ movement as extremist. The same labelling for feminism and child-free movements is looming, as are the proposals to limit abortions.

It is easy to see how this creates a permissive environment for sexual violence in times of war. At the same time, Russia pardons rapists in return for joining the war against Ukraine, and military recruits undergo brutal and pervasive hazing in the Russian army. Soldiers going to the front also know that troops and and Wagner mercenaries were largely not held accountable for atrocities in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Syria and Mali.

According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, Russian servicemen perpetrate sexual violence “at gunpoint, with extreme brutality”, with torture and summary killings. Victims include girls and boys, women and men, aged from age four to 80. Civilian women and girls are largely targeted in occupation. In detention, victims are civilians and PoWs, mostly men. The perpetrators do not spare pregnant women, some of whom have suffered miscarriages or fear that their newborns will be deported to Russia. Assaults against LGBTQ+ people are amplified by Russia’s acute homophobia. Russian servicemen often accompany their sex crimes with dehumanising rhetoric and assertions that Ukrainians should stop procreating.

Such sexual violence may officially constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or gross human rights violations. It can also be part of genocidal acts or indicate Russia’s genocidal intent

against Ukrainians as a national group. Valuable work has been done documenting these crimes so far, but in all armed conflicts, from Colombia to Bosnia, reporting and prosecution are often slow due to shame, social gendered stigmas and survivors’ other pressing healthcare or security needs. We must ensure holistic justice for Ukrainian sex crime survivors in order to set a new and better precedent. Several routes to such justice are available.

First, the international criminal court (ICC). While the court’s first four arrest warrants for crimes associated with the war allege child deportations and attacks on energy infrastructure, its further charges may concern sexual violence. This would allow the ICC to redress its past failures to hold top commanders accountable for instrumentalising sexual abuse during conflicts, and bring attention to an underreported crime.

Second, domestic prosecutions in other countries, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Kyiv strongly supports such proceedings as they will alleviate Ukraine’s enormous caseload and bring an additional seal of impartiality. German prosecutors have recently received a submission on sexual violence in the occupied Kyiv region. Which cases will eventually go to courts depends on prosecutorial discretion. Prosecutors working on Ukraine cases around the globe should prioritise sex crimes.

Finally, and crucially, Ukraine itself is the first responder to crimes within its borders, and Ukraine’s criminal justice system is still functional. In September 2022, the office of the prosecutor general (OPG) established a specialised conflict-related sexual violence unit. Led by a female prosecutor with many female peers, the unit gives survivors a wider gender choice of professionals to work with. The same gender diversity of investigators and prosecutors is needed at regional and local levels, to facilitate the reporting. The OPG adopted a strategy on sexual violence to pave the way for survivor-sensitive proceedings.

Such sensitivity should be deepened to address particular harms experienced by women and girls, but also men, boys and LGBTQ+ people. Witness protection schemes should be strengthened. Ukraine should also bring its criminal legislation into compliance with international law, by criminalising all types of sex crimes and introducing provisions on command responsibility, which would allow it to punish not only immediate perpetrators but also their superiors.

Justice, however, is served not only in courtrooms. As the Nobel peace prize-winning gynaecologist Dr Denis Mukwege and Yazidi survivor and activist Nadia Murad advocate, being implicated in conflict-related sexual violence should be a stand-alone ground for sanctions, followed by assets freezing and repurposing for the benefit of victims. Ukrainian survivors need reparations, to address numerous medical and psychological needs. Ukraine’s readiness to launch pilot urgent interim reparations for conflict-related sexual violence survivors is commendable and should be supported by international partners. Reparations should be available to victims assaulted not only since the full-scale invasion, but since the beginning of Russia’s aggression in 2014.

For us Ukrainians, this is as much an existential war as it is a war of values. We went through the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity, which sealed our unambiguous pro-rule-of-law choice, with

the motto “Human rights above everything”. Any proposals about territorial bargaining with Russia defeat this pursuit: the Kremlin’s track record of human rights compliance is devastating and would doom Ukrainians in occupied territories to more atrocities, including sexual violence. Instead, Ukraine needs all the support it can to win on the battlefield – and save its people.

Ukraine also must continue to solidify and sensitise its state institutions. The female presence and voices should increase now, at all levels of state governance, in in-conflict decision-making and post-conflict recovery. Civil partnerships should be extended to gay people, many of whom are defending the country. Ukraine’s comprehensive human-centric transformation will solidify its victory on the battlefield, inspire civil societies in the region and guide the nation’s development to be true to the spirit of the Revolution of Dignity.


Kateryna Busol is a Ukrainian lawyer. She is an associate professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, a fellow at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law and a former academy associate at Chatham House.