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Human Rights Watch urges investigation of alleged use of land mines by Ukraine

A "Danger Mines!" sign is pictured in Izium, Ukraine.
Future Publishing via Getty Images
A "Danger Mines!" sign is pictured in Izium, Ukraine.

Updated January 31, 2023 at 7:37 AM ET

KYIV — A human rights group says it has documented "numerous cases" of Ukrainian forces firing land mines into territory that was controlled at the time by Russia.

In a new report, Human Rights Watch suggests that Ukraine scattered so-called petal mines in and around the eastern Ukrainian city of Izium. Petal mines are prohibited under the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Treaty, of which Ukraine is a signatory, because of their ability to indiscriminately maim and kill.

The report contradicts previous claims, including from Human Rights Watch itself, that Ukraine has only used anti-vehicle mines since Russia invaded in February 2022. Those types of mines are generally permissible under the laws of war.

"Russia has used these weapons in even greater numbers than Ukraine in a much more widespread fashion in different parts of the country," Steve Goose, the director of Human Rights Watch's Arms Division, told NPR. But, with these revelations, Ukraine's "moral high ground has been compromised."

A PFM-1 "petal" mine on display at the United Nations, as Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine of using the weapon in areas occupied by Russian troops, Aug. 24, 2022.
Lev Radin / Sipa USA via Reuters
Sipa USA via Reuters
A PFM-1 "petal" mine on display at the United Nations, as Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused Ukraine of using the weapon in areas occupied by Russian troops, Aug. 24, 2022.

Russia has not signed on to the Mine Ban Treaty.

Ukraine's Defense Ministry did not respond to NPR's calls and messages asking for comment on the allegations.

In a statement to Human Rights Watch, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Oleksandr Reznichenko said Ukraine is adhering to international humanitarian law, but that Ukrainian authorities cannot comment on specific weapons "before the end of the war and restoration of our sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Human Rights Watch conducted interviews with several civilian eyewitnesses and Ukrainian emergency workers around the eastern city of Izium shortly after Ukrainian forces liberated the area from Russian control in September 2022. Researchers documented 11 cases of civilians injured by petal mines over the course of five months, including one man who eventually died.

The report says the mines consistently fell near known Russian positions, suggesting they were the intended targets. Those positions were allegedly within firing range of Ukrainian artillery, which could have delivered the mines on several occasions.

"The massive use of these things makes it highly unlikely that it's a mistake or that it's a rogue commander," Goose tells NPR.

Many mines reportedly ended up in private vegetable gardens, near sidewalks and on residential roofs, prompting Russian forces to dispatch demining teams and issue public safety notices. Local residents also report that the Russian military transported injured civilians to Russia for treatment.

Petal mines are often green or brown and blend in with the earth. They're generally small, and can be launched with artillery from a distance. They flutter from the sky and can explode at the slightest touch. They are also made of the same material as the hollow plastic playground toys that are ubiquitous in North America.

"You find that children would like to play with them, think that they are not posing a danger, and that's just not the case," Goose says.

The report cites Ukrainian medical workers who said they had to amputate limbs from almost as many as 50 people, including five children, as a result of mine injuries. NPR was also unable to reach the Emergency Services working in Izium.

Izium is not the only Russian-occupied place where petal mines have been deployed. In August, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defence accused Russia of scattering petal mines onto the streets of Donetsk, the largest Ukrainian city under Russian control.

"How are we supposed to defend ourselves if we can't use antipersonnel mines?" asks Oleh Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military analyst.

Tuesday's report says that Ukraine has destroyed 3.4 million antipersonnel mines it once had in its arsenal, but, in documents submitted to the United Nations, the country said it still has 3.3 million stockpiled.

Zhdanov says there's no public record that proves the Ukrainian military continues to use mines that scatter indiscriminately.

In the past, Ukraine and some of its allies have suggested backing out of the Mine Ban Treaty, citing the weapons as an important tool to keep Russian forces at bay. (The United States is not party to the treaty.)

"Insofar as they are able to under the circumstances of this brutal war, Ukrainian troops are maintaining their commitment to international law," Zhdanov says.

Last August, Amnesty International suggested Ukraine may have committedwar crimes for placing weapons too close to civilian areas. The human rights group later backpedaled on some conclusions after its local staff resigned and Ukraine's government accused the organization of creating a false equivalence between Russia and Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch says its evidence of Ukrainian mining activity in Izium, however, is more unequivocal than past allegations of Ukrainian war crimes. The group is calling on the Ukrainian military to conduct an internal investigation into its adherence to the country's international obligations.

"I think, without question, this is the worst violation of the Mine Ban Treaty in its 25 years of existence," says Goose.

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Julian Hayda