In August, Vrinda Grover along with the other commissioners of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine visited a residential building in the Uman city that had been attacked by a missile in April.

“An entire wing of the residential apartment was destroyed,” the noted Indian human rights lawyer recalled. “The attack had taken place at 4.30 am, when people were sleeping in their homes.” She had met some of the survivors of the attack, whose family members had been killed or whose houses were wrecked, no longer inhabitable.

International law prohibits the targeting of residential buildings even during a war.

Grover was in Ukraine as a member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, which had been established by the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 4, 2022, to “investigate all alleged violations and abuses of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law and related crimes in the context of the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation”.

Almost two years since Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the human cost has been immense. This latest salvo in the Russia-Ukraine international conflict, dating back to 2014, has led to Russia occupying close to 20% of internationally recognised Ukrainian territory, an estimated 24,500 Ukrainians being killed and tens of thousands more being injured and displaced. US intelligence estimate the number of Russian deaths and injuries to be more than 300,000.

Grover has been a member of this three-member commission since June 28.

The biggest challenge, she said, is investigating a conflict that is ongoing. In such conflicts, access to information is a challenge. Since some Ukrainian areas continue to be under temporary Russian occupation, it is unsafe for the commission’s team to go there. Despite these challenges, Grover said, “The commission is trying to see what are the kinds of patterns of violations that are emerging”.

Another significant difficulty is posed by the Russian Federation’s refusal to engage with the commission. Grover said that the commission had written to the Russian authorities repeatedly seeking information, but they remained unresponsive.

War crimes in Ukraine

As part of its mandate, the commission published a report in October documenting evidence that the Russian authorities have committed indiscriminate attacks and war crimes of torture, detention, rape and other sexual violence in Ukraine. It also found evidence that children were deported from Ukraine to the Russian Federation.

The commission, in its previous iteration without Grover, had concluded in a detailed report published in October 2022 that an array of war crimes and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law had been committed in Ukraine, mainly by the Russian armed forces but also some by the Ukrainian authorities.

Another report by the commission in March detailed a wide range of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in Ukraine by Russian authorities, concluding that many of these amounted to war crimes. These included attacks on civilians and energy-related infrastructure, wilful killings, unlawful confinement, torture, rape and other sexual violence as well as unlawful transfers and deportations of children.

The commission concluded its latest mission to Ukraine last month. Between November 13 and November 16, the chair of the commission, Norwegian jurist Erik Møse, and distinguished Colombian academic and internationally recognised expert on transitional justice Pablo de Greiff, along with Grover, met with government officials, members of civil society, representatives of United Nations agencies and international organisations to discuss the situation in Ukraine and continue investigations into international law violations there.

The commission is scheduled to publish a comprehensive report, to be tabled before the United Nations Human Rights Council, in March next year.

Ukrainian soldiers walk next to destroyed Russian tanks and armoured vehicles, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, in Kyiv region, Ukraine, April 6, 2022. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

Who is Vrinda Grover?

Grover told Scroll that when a vacancy arose in the commission earlier this year, she had received a communication from the office of the United Nations Human Rights Council asking if she would be interested in applying for the post.

The council looks at factors such as the candidate’s work experience, their domain expertise, professional credibility and neutrality towards the parties involved in the inquiry, she said. They also consider whether the candidate can make time for the task, since it involved travel to Ukraine and to sessions of various agencies of the United Nations. This is a pro bono, honorary position.

“Gender and regional diversity are also important considerations in special commissions of this nature, so that different members are bringing different experience and expertise to the work,” she said.

Grover has a wealth of experience garnered over 30 years of practice in constitutional law, criminal law and human rights law in India.

She has also been engaged with the international human rights law framework within the United Nations for more than a decade. She was a member of the United Nations Women Asia Pacific Regional Civil Society Advisory Group from 2012 till 2016. In 2012, she participated in a fact-finding mission of the World Organisation Against Torture and of the International Federation for Human Rights in the Philippines to investigate the situation of human rights defenders in the country.

Grover was also a member of the Independent Expert Panel on Prevention and Response to Sexual Harassment and Bullying at UN AIDS.

She is a founding member and independent expert of the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the United Nations, and currently serves as the chair of the board of International Service for Human Rights.

Commission’s challenges

Grover has been on two missions to Ukraine – once in August and then again last month. The commissioners work with a secretariat, including a team of investigators who travel much more frequently. The investigators are experts in a variety of domains – gender, torture, ballistics or forensic evidence. They meet the affected persons or examine sites and other material as part of the on ground investigation.

The on-ground investigation work is done by these investigators, Grover said.

She emphasised that for any rights violation, be it a case of sexual violence or an attack on civilian infrastructure, the commission’s methodology seeks direct evidence from a range of sources, including victims, depending on the nature of the attack.. This is further corroborated by evidence from other victims or from documents or from forensic evidence or satellite imagery, as the case may require.

She underscored the rigour of the commission’s methodology. “We make sure that our findings are substantiated by evidence that we have collected through the Commission’s secretariat,” she said.

She added: “We strictly follow a no-harm-to-the-victim policy. We are scrupulous about avoiding re-traumatisation by asking the same question to victims over and over again.”

Grover said that the three commissioners examine the evidence and findings of the investigation to determine the conclusions to be presented in the report . The work of the commission continues through regular online meetings between the commissioners and the secretariat.

Each of the commissioners brings their own areas of expertise to the commission’s mandate.

“The commission’s chair has held distinguished positions as a judge of the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court of Norway. Judge Møse was also the President of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,” Grover said. “There will be few people who have heard more horrific accounts of the kind of rights violations that human beings are capable of committing on each other, and legally analysing the offences of genocide and crimes against humanity, than Judge Møse.”

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established by the United Nations in 1994 to adjudicate the violations of international law committed during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. It functioned till 2015 and indicted 96 persons, convicting 61 for crimes under international humanitarian law.

As for herself, Grover said that she contributed more to the areas of the reports that examine the crimes of gender-based and sexual violence, as well as torture and illegal detention, given her experience of having worked on individual cases of sexual violence, mass crimes, atrocities and police and custodial violence in the course of her legal practice.

Pablo de Greiff, Erik Møse, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Andryi Kostin and Vrinda Grover in August 2023 (from UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine)

What lies ahead

Grover explained that the commission’s mandate is clear: to promote accountability through the collection of evidence about violations of international human rights law, international humanitarian law and international criminal law, that are taking place in the ongoing conflict.

The Ukrainian government is invoking its domestic laws to establish the accountability for some of these crimes. There are also pathways for accountability open in the international law framework. Grover pointed out that the International Criminal Court had also initiated processes and issued warrants against Russian leaders for alleged crimes committed under the Rome Statute.

“Through the commission’s investigation and evidence collection, when perpetrators, or anyone in the command structure, involved in commission of violations are identified, their names are documented,” said Grover. “If these accountability processes move forward, through established procedures, this evidence may form basis of future accountability.”

The commission’s comprehensive report, scheduled for publication in March next year, will continue to map the patterns of human rights violations, Grover said.

At the same time, she stated, the commission’s report also highlights and emphasises the international norm that attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure are prohibited and constitute war crimes.

A charred Russian tank and captured tanks are seen, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in the Sumy region, Ukraine, March 7, 2022. Picture taken March 7, 2022. Irina Rybakova/Press service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS

Relevance of international law

Grover strongly argues for the need to uphold international law and norms. Partisan and opportunistic adherence to international norms “will definitely hurt all States in the long run”, she said. She looks at other forms of engagement taking place over the commission’s reports as vital to the commission’s objective of accountability.

She emphasised that since the commission is an independent international commission of inquiry, it has been investigating and documenting violations by both Russia and Ukraine.

She also underlined the commission’s focus on non-judicial accountability. “We as a commission believe that victims need to be at the centre of any accountability process,” she said. “This will include not only what is owed to the victims in terms of reparation, but also provision for mental health and psychosocial support, which we believe is a right of the victims. This is something that nationally, regionally and internationally, states need to place at the heart of any kind of reparative justice.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify some information.