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How to document war crimes so that they can be used in court? Recommendations from the Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group


Damaged house as a result of Russian missile attack in Solomianskyi district of Kyiv, 2 January 2024. Photo by Viacheslav Ratynskyi


The Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group (ULAG) is a non-governmental organisation that works for justice in the context of armed conflict. ULAG's lawyers represent victims in national and international courts, provide legal analysis, and work with archives. Their work also includes advocacy, analytical and advisory activities. All of this is to strengthen the justice system so that it is better able to deliver justice for the most serious international crimes.

"We have several thematic areas. And one of the areas of our work is, in particular, the development of infrastructure and documentation," explains Arie Mora, Communications and Advocacy Manager at Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group, "That is, we are making efforts to ensure that Ukraine has a proper infrastructure for the most serious international crimes: that people correctly collect, store and process information in accordance with international standards. It is important that this information can then potentially be used as evidence in court. We handle cases that are, so to speak, strategic, i.e. we represent victims in order to change the justice system and highlight certain problems with these cases. We also talk about issues related to the architecture of justice, its standards, as well as compensation and reparations, etc.

Before the full-scale invasion, most of the cases handled by ULAG lawyers were related to prisoners of war, but afterwards the list expanded. In addition to prisoners of war, the NGO works with victims of sexual violence, the problem of deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, murders and other crimes committed by Russians against civilians during the war.

Arie Mora says that there are basic rules that, if followed, significantly increase the reliability and subsequent usefulness of documented information in establishing justice.

Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group training on documenting Russian war crimes for photojournalists. Photo by Danylo Dubchak   

What to record?

Before diving into the basics of international criminal law, it is necessary to understand what is considered a war crime and what violations occur in times of war. Although war itself is a terrible phenomenon, there are certain rules that are designed to reduce the number and scope of tragic consequences of armed conflicts.

"For example, it is a violation to shell a residential building if civilians live there or could have lived there, and there is reliable information about it. But shelling a residential building where there is no one in it but the military may not be a violation. It may be a legitimate target, because it is permissible to attack the opposing side under international humanitarian law. There are many such rules, but these are the most common events that we face in the context of Russia's war against Ukraine. Based on this, we need to determine what exactly constitutes a crime, what needs to be documented and how it should be documented in order to prove this crime in court," says Arie Mora.

When documenting the consequences of the shelling, you should record the crater and try to determine its volume or size. If there are remnants of weapons, you should also pay attention to them. Also, if the building was considered a protected object, i.e. it could be a cultural heritage site or, for example, a hospital, then take a picture of the plaque or some other aspects that could confirm this. "Such actions will help determine that the target of this attack was a protected object. Accordingly, it should not have been attacked," he says. 


Ukrainian Legal Advisory Group training on documenting Russian war crimes for photojournalists. Photo by Danylo Dubchak    

How to document correctly? 

Aryeh Mora says that even a smartphone is enough for documentation - it can be used to take photos and videos that can be useful in court for data analysis: "Although it may not be the key evidence in court, such information can help establish the circumstances and provide more information for investigators or lawyers who will analyse the case."

It is recommended that you take a panoramic photo, as well as general, medium and close-up photos to capture both the overall picture and the object you need. It is also important to show the relationship of the object to other objects and objects around it, so that it is clear what was happening at the scene. When documenting the aftermath in video format, you should shoot smoothly, moving the camera slowly to ensure that the image is of high quality.

Aryeh Mora notes that these simple basics of recording help to make the video or photo informative, and can then be used to bring the perpetrators to justice.

It is also important not to lose the collected material, so it is better to save at least two copies of the original: in the cloud and on physical media.

"If you follow these guidelines, it is more likely that the information you collect will be reliable, verifiable and can be linked to other information. Your material will be informative and will contain exactly the information that will be important for analysing the events," Arie Mora emphasises.

The significance of the documentary «20 Days in Mariupol»

"Films such as "20 Days in Mariupol" are definitely important because it is information obtained in a unique way. Many people did not have access to these events and, therefore, it may be impossible to obtain this information in any other way," says Arie Mora. "From the point of view of justice, I believe that any such information, any such filming can help establish the picture of events and provide additional context.

In addition, from the point of view of advocating for justice, the Oscar awarding of this film is a great achievement, as it draws the world's attention to the actions of the Russians in Mariupol. Arie hopes that, among other things, the public outcry will contribute to the further creation of a holistic architecture of justice for the illegal actions of the occupiers during the Russian-Ukrainian war.


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