On the use of civilians and civilian objects as ‘human shields’: 24 February 2022-7 February 2023 (Kharkiv Region)

The article analyzes information the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group collected on using civilians and civilian objects as cover during military operations.
Vladyslav Dolzhko, Mykola Komarovskyi27 December 2023UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

Балаклійська лікарня, яку російські військові перетворили на свої казарми. Фото: “Факти ICTV” Балаклейская больница, которую российские военные превратили в свои казармы. Фото: “Факты ICTV”

Balakliia Hospital, which the Russian military turned into their barracks. Photo: ICTV Facts

KHPG is documenting international crimes (allegedly genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes) committed by Russian occupiers in Ukraine, particularly in Kharkiv and the Kharkiv Region.

The publication examines the collected information on cases of using civilians and civilian objects as cover during military operations (probably as part of the “human shields tactic”[1]) on the territory of the Kharkiv region for the period from February 24, 2022, to February 7, 2023.

General information on documented incidents

During the study period, KHPG documented 242 incidents that contained information about using civilians and civilian objects as cover during combat operations.

Regarding geographical distribution, most cases were recorded in the Kupiansk district of Kharkiv Region — 94 incidents.

An almost identical number of incidents was recorded in the Izium district — 93.

In the Kharkiv district of the Region, KHPG documenters and journalists collected information about at least 43 cases.

In addition, seven incidents were recorded in the Chuhuivskyi district. Four more episodes were recorded in the Kharkiv city and in the Bohodukhivskyi district — one more case.

[використання цивільних осіб та об’єктів як “живих щитів”]

Distribution of cases of using civilians and civilian objects as a cover for military operations in the Kharkiv Region

It should be noted that according to Article 8(2)(b)(xxiii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (RS ICC), it is a war crime to use the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations.

Article 28 of the Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of August 12, 1949, also unequivocally states that the presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.

Information on the use of protected persons and facilities as human shields

In most documented incidents, residential buildings were used as cover during combat operations. They were mentioned in 192 incidents, or 79.3% of the total.

At the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, on February 27, 2022, the Russian military troops managed to break into Kharkiv. As it was found from a study of Internet sources, on that day, the RF armed forces used residential high-rise buildings as cover. One of the photos published in the Telegram messenger shows how Russian military vehicles stand a few meters away from the entrances of high-rise residential buildings, where many civilians usually live.

Російська військова техніка біля житлового будинку в Київському районі Харкова 27 лютого 2022 року. Фото: телеграм-канал “Харьков LIVE” Российская военная техника возле жилого дома в Киевском районе Харькова 27 февраля 2022 года. Фото: телеграмм-канал “Харьков LIVE”

Russian military vehicles near a residential building in the Kyivsky district of Kharkiv on February 27, 2022. Photo: Kharkiv LIVE Telegram channel

In one of the villages of the Kharkiv Region, the occupation troops placed heavy military equipment adjacent to private houses. Videos showing this equipment were posted on the Facebook page of the 40th Separate Artillery Brigade, named after Grand Duke Vitovt.

Російські танки біля житлових будинків. Скріншот із відео з фейсбук-сторінки 40-ї Окремої артилерійської бригади імені Великого князя Вітовта Российские танки возле жилых домов. Скриншот из видео с фейсбук-страницы 40-й Отдельной артиллерийской бригады имени Великого князя Витовта

Russian tanks near residential houses. A screenshot from a video posted on the Facebook page of the 40th Separate Artillery Brigade, named after Grand Duke Vitovt

In a significant number of incidents recorded in the T4P database, commercial and industrial facilities were used as cover. So far, at least 19 such episodes have been documented by the T4P documenters and journalists on the region’s territory. In the town of Izium, the occupants were deployed at the instrument-making plant and shelled nearby villages from there. The Russians turned the local motor depot in Balakliia, located on the city’s outskirts, into a storage place for equipment and fuel.

Quite often, the Russian military is deployed to educational institutions. A total of 15 such incidents have already been recorded in our database. For example, one of the schools in the village of Strilech’ye was converted into a military rear base. Another example is the school in the village of Oskil. According to residents, the Russian military lived on the territory of the local school for two days. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine also confirmed that Russians use educational institutions for troops’ accommodation.

Школа в селі Оскіл, в якій жили російські військові. Фото: “Суспільне Харків” Школа в селе Оскол, в которой жили российские военные. Фото: “Суспільне Харків”

A school in the village of Oskil, where the Russian military lived. Screenshot from the video published by Suspilne Kharkiv

Among other facilities, the Russian military used buildings of state institutions (5 incidents), medical and recreational institutions premises (3 incidents), facilities of cultural and entertainment institutions (3 incidents), and structures of religious purposes (2 incidents).

We want to stress separately the use of one of the hospitals in Balakliia by the Russian military. Russian troops occupied this small town on March 2, 2022, and a few days later, they set up the military hospital in the infectious disease department of the hospital. At the same time, according to the hospital director, Maryna Rudenko, medics continued to provide care to civilians in other departments. Later, after the doctors and patients were kicked out of the institution, the hospital was turned into a military barracks. Thus, the RF occupying forces probably tried to protect themselves from potential shelling by the Armed Forces of Ukraine by using the treated civilians and the hospital itself as a human shield.


The analysis of the information collected allows us to provisionally qualify the above acts as violations of international humanitarian law and as war crimes under RS ICC Article 8 (2) (b) (xxiii), namely, utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected person to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations.

[1]In the article, the term “human shield” is used in a sense defined in the ICRC Study on Customary Rules of International Humanitarian Law published by Cambridge University Press in 2005 (see Rule 97).

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