THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Well, hello, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center’s virtual briefing on accountability for war crimes and other atrocities in Ukraine. My name is Doris Robinson and I am the briefing moderator. And now for the ground rules. This briefing is on the record. We will post the transcript and video of the briefing later today on our website at fpc.state.gov. Please make sure that your Zoom profile has your full name and the media outlet that you represent.
And now I will introduce our briefers. Dr. Kaveh Khoshnood is an associate professor at Yale School of Public Health. He is the co-founder of Yale Violence and Health Study Group and a faculty member of the program on conflict, resiliency and health at the Yale MacMillan Center, and the faculty director for Humanitarian Research Lab. Nathaniel Raymond is executive director of Yale’s Humanitarian Research Lab, and lecturer in the department of Epidemiology of Microbial Diseases at Yale School of Public Health. Caitlin Howarth serves as the director of operations for the Conflict Observatory team based at the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab. A link to their full bios are in the briefing announcement.
First, we will hear from Dr. Khoshnood, and I will now turn it over to him.
MR KHOSHNOOD: Thank you very much for the introduction. I’d like to begin with a brief overview of our Humanitarian Research Lab at the Yale School of Public Health. We refer to it as HRL. My colleagues and I created HRL with the mission to use our expertise to address the devastating consequences of armed conflict on affected populations. We recognize that as academicians we do not have the power and the tools to end armed conflict, but we want to do whatever we can to reduce the burden of armed conflict on affected populations.
We can put the work of HRL into two large buckets. One is to support UN agencies, ministries of health, humanitarian organizations that care about the health of populations affected by armed conflict. Just to give you a couple of examples, one is establishing civilian mortality surveillance in northwest Syria, a conflict zone which is not under government control, to make sure the number and causes of death – civilian deaths – are accurately captured. Second, to address non communicable diseases, in particularly cancer care and treatment, for displaced populations due to armed conflict. Cancer care prevention is something that is ignored by a lot of organizations. And third, to address the mental health challenges experienced by refugees – refugee population – in the Middle East region as well as in United States.
The second bucket is to produce evidence that could make governments accountable for their war crimes. This includes analyzing open-source data, including satellite imagery, to document and validate attacks on hospitals and other civilian facilities. The Conflict Observatory project in Ukraine is an example of our work. Our team has done similar work in other conflict affected countries, including Sudan and South Sudan.
I want to emphasize that we are scientists, and we are independent and impartial, and we adhere to other humanitarian principles, including humanity and neutrality as well. The Ukraine project is led by my colleague Nathaniel Raymond and a fantastic team that he put together, and I’d like to turn it over to Nathaniel to tell you about the Ukraine project.
MR RAYMOND: Thanks, Kaveh. That was a wonderful introduction. And good morning to everybody, wherever you may be. The heart of the matter today is the findings of our report on the Russia and Russia-aligned forces filtration system in Donetsk Oblast. And my job today is to give you the headlines on what that report found. Afterwards, we’re going to go into the methodology by which we arrived at those results, and then we are going to turn over to your questions, which is really the main event here. And we are joined by two of my colleagues, one of our imagery analysts and our open-source analyst, who will be available to answer your questions but will not be identified.
Before we get to Caitlin Howarth with methodology, let me give you the top lines on the report. There’s four main takeaways. The first is that we have determined with high confidence that Russia and its proxy actors operate at least as many as 21 facilities in and around Donetsk Oblast that are part of the filtration system. So what do we mean by filtration system? Before this report, a lot of the discussion was about filtration camps. What this 21 number represents is basically four types of facilities, not just camps – that’s registration, holding, secondary interrogation, and long-term detention. And so it’s not simply just a matter of camps in that 21 number; it’s also detention facilities, registration facilities. It is a system.
And the second big takeaway about that system is these facilities can serve multiple purposes and their purposes can change over time. The journey that this report documents at about 90 pages – and it is as comprehensive as you can get – the journey that it documents is not the same for every civilian that goes through the system. For some civilians, the process can take hours. For some in the system, they are in a state of what appears to be indefinite, incommunicado detention, and over the course of weeks or months.
The third finding is really about the Volunovakha Correctional Colony No. 120, often referred to as Olenivka Prison. And for our Ukrainian colleagues on the call, please forgive me for any pronunciation mistakes I make at any point. I’ve been practicing in my spare time to get these names right, but I’m not perfect.
So in the case of Volunovakha Correctional Colony No. 120, we see two areas of disturbed earth that appear consistent with potential graves. Now, does that mean we know they are graves? No. It means we are seeing phenomena that’s consistent with graves observed in other contexts outside of Ukraine, and that their measurements and their positioning in the absence of any other reasonable explanation available in the data causes concern that in context to allegations from a released prisoner that at the time of the April imagery, graves were being dug at that facility. We believe that there is enough evidence to say that these objects are consistent with graves. Now, until there is forensic confirmation on the ground, we can’t say that they are graves, and I want to emphasize that.
The last point from our findings is about timing of these disturbed earth patterns. They appear in satellite imagery that predates the July 29th incident at the facility in which allegedly as many as 53 prisoners of war reportedly died. Now, we have no data that gives us additional insight into the July 29th incident. We have no further findings one way or the other about what may have caused that alleged explosion or fire of some sort, and we have no ability to assess what type of alleged munition may or may not have been used, or whether a munition was used at all. But what we do know is that the phenomena consistent with potential graves at this facility occurs prior to the explosion, and that’s the critical – or alleged combustion incident.
And why that is concerning is that we have credible reports from open source, from people who have been released from that facility of alleged torture at that site combined with what I previously mentioned, the allegation that there was grave digging being done during the April time frame. And so I’m going to pause here and turn it over to Caitlin Howarth, who’s going to walk through in a little deeper detail how we do our work, which as Kaveh mentioned is the combination of commercial satellite imagery and open source information that is fused together. And she’s going to talk about the very high standard that we used on this report.
Every one of these locations, as you will hear from Caitlin, had to meet five points – and I’m going to stress this – five points of independent corroboration from different sources. And that is an extremely high standard. And that meant that we left seven sites out of the report because they didn’t meet that five-standard basis for inclusion.
So Caitlin, walk us through our method and how we got to high confidence on these 21 locations.
MS HOWARTH: Thank you. So in order to reach such a high level of confidence, we base our work off of sort of the overarching elements of the Berkeley Protocol for developing open source data for evidentiary purposes. What that means is that for this report, our open-source analysts combined primary sources. They were looking for things in user-generated data, like Telegram. They were also looking at official bulletins, posts from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, from Ukrainian and Russian government outlets, in order to establish a list of potential locations.
Then our analysts worked on secondary sources. Now, these include international, Ukrainian, and Russian media in order to collate sort of existing reports, anything that would have to do with these sites and any of the activities that were alleged to take place there.
Then our team looks for all kinds of different visuals. We search for publicly available photographs, video footage, audio, and commercial unclassified satellite imagery. We collect all of that. We analyze it in order to cross-reference and geolocate potential locations. And that’s where we’re looking to make sure that our primary and our secondary sources are not only matching up, but that they also match up on different features and different sort of outlines of what kinds of activities and the precise types of facilities that are being utilized.
And we’re looking for visual identifiers – buses, checkpoints, tents. These are things that will show up in satellite imagery. They’re also things that show up in ground-level reports, video footage and so on. And that’s really helpful for us when we go through the discovery and figure out exactly where in a given location these events are said to have happened, and to make sure, again, that everything we have syncs up consistently.
So for those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Berkeley Protocol, this – the Berkeley Protocol means that we have to answer five questions. First we have to figure out where is it. We identify and confirm a site location using all of these different pieces of material: video, imagery, and other reports. We (inaudible) when was it. We confirm that the events could have occurred both when and how they were alleged at that location. Then we ask who said it. We work to identify sources’ biases, potential biases, and we work to corroborate specific information to an operational context, so that if something is alleged to have taken place but it may not quite match exactly the operational context, then we examine that further.
We look to see if sources agree. Do they concur or is there information that contradicts that that’s being put out by these sources? We always look to see if there’s contradictory information because that is just as important as finding information that’s in concurrence.
Then we ask is there enough data, and this is how we got to the five strong independently corroborated sources that are needed for each site to be included. And it’s important to know that those five sources have to concur on two criteria: one, that the location is where we have stated that it is; and two, that it was being utilized for these types of activities at the time that it’s being identified.
Now, as Nathaniel has already mentioned, that’s not a threshold that every site could confirm. There were seven other locations where we have identified possible sites, and those remain under investigation. So we’re always looking for additional information on the potential for filtration activities taking place to better understand how the system functions.
We also recognize that doing all of this still comes with serious challenges and limitations. We relied a lot in this report on the use of open-source data. Our satellite imagery analysis was secondary to that. Sometimes satellite imagery will lead the assessment; sometimes it will follow. In this case it followed. People in the filtration system also have their phone’s content downloaded and sometimes their devices are reported to be confiscated. These persons are likely to be under surveillance once they enter the system. That may create some kinds of changes in information that they are subsequently willing to post publicly or have posted about them.
And open-source data is certainly biased towards the accounts of those who are both released and willing to report their experiences or those accounts of family members and others who may be connected to them and, again, willing to actually report what those experiences are and pass that information on.
And for those that are interested in what kinds of visual indicators we look for in satellite imagery, we look for things like tents. We look for groups of people. We look for vehicles that might be really specific to the kind of activity, like buses, for example. We look for changes in the number of vehicles that are in a lot or near a potential site versus previous imagery, and we have a really rich backlog of archival imagery to compare these things to over time. We look for changes in the arrangement of vehicles or changes in the arrangement of other visual identifiers at the possible site. We look to see if there are military or civilian vehicles that could be near that site. And we look for areas – this is important for disturbed earth – we look for areas of disturbed earth that are not present in previous imagery and that may be consistent in the appearance with graves. And this is for disturbed earth that is highly unlikely to be attributable to agriculture activity, construction, or any other natural environmental variation.
So with that, I think we’re going to go to questions.
MR RAYMOND: That’s fantastic, and I just – before we go to questions, what a great breakdown on a process that can often be very complex to describe. Thank you, Caitlin.
And I just want a direct response here to the statement in the past hour or so from the Russian embassy in Washington claiming that this report is fake news, and I want to just call that out directly as context here for us today. As you just heard from Caitlin, this process is scientific, it is exhaustive, and the standard for inclusion in this report is the highest standard of any of the human rights reports I think on Ukraine on this subject so far.
So over for questions.
MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much for your remarks. To our journalists, if you have a question, please go to the “raise hand” icon at the bottom of the screen and raise your hand. I will call on you, and when I call on you, please, unmute yourself and turn on your video to ask your question. And just for your information, in addition to the briefers, there will be two analysts who will be available that worked on the project that will also assist in answering some of the technical questions.
And with that, I see we have our first question from Pearl Matibe. And Pearl, if you want to go ahead and unmute yourself, introduce yourself to our briefers, and ask your question.
QUESTION: Good morning, Doris. It’s great to talk to you again, and thank you for doing this, and I really appreciate everybody’s availability to kind of brief us on the technicalities of these. I’ve only skimmed the report very quickly, so I don’t have, like, all the detailed information, so I appreciate everything that you shared.
Before kind of delving into Ukraine, you did bring up – I believe it might have been Kaveh; I’m not sure (inaudible) – regarding Sudan and South Sudan. I understand the purpose of what you are doing. I’m interested to find out, is there any scope of doing similar work in other conflict areas on the African continent? Russia does have – it is linked to some mercenary groups, and there are these activities.
And if you don’t have that information, could you possibly share other sources where we could find that information? Are there any other groups doing similar work that you are doing regarding Africa specifically? I really am interested to find out if there may be any similarities in the sort of techniques that you found in Ukraine that might be similar in South Sudan or differences if there are indeed – and if there are gaps of people not doing work in Africa, what do you recommend to people that could do more work, considering there is so much conflict where Russia is involved on the African continent? I really appreciate your insights on that. Thanks.
MR KHOSHNOOD: Thank you. Thank you for that question, Pearl. Unfortunately, attacks on hospitals and other civilian facilities is not unique to Ukraine, and there have been multiple attacks in other settings. I mentioned Sudan and South Sudan. We are definitely committed to doing that work in other areas, and my colleague Nathaniel actually has done the work in Sudan and South Sudan. So I’ll defer to him to tell you some of the details of that work.
MR RAYMOND: So in December 2010 at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, where Caitlin and I used to work in what became the Signal Program on Human Security and Technology, in collaboration with George Clooney and Not On Our Watch and the Enough Project and other colleagues, we ran the Satellite Sentinel Project at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative from 2010 to 2012. And that focused specifically on Sudan and South Sudan during the period in which South Sudan seceded from Sudan.
Many of the methods that we are using in Ukraine now were developed and tested during the Satellite Sentinel Project in the context of Sudan and South Sudan. And so for me, as someone who’s spent a lot of my career primarily working on East Africa, including serving as an advisor with UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations on mass atrocity early warning in South Sudan in 2015, a lot of what we are applying now comes from our experience in African contexts. There are similarities and there are obviously differences.
Going forward, the humanitarian research lab, as Kaveh was saying – we stand ready to do this work wherever it’s needed, and sadly, it’s needed in a lot of places. I think it’d be good if you could send an email through our State Department colleagues and we could have a side conversation about some resources to answer your question specifically as it relates to current efforts in Africa to do imagery and remote documentation. Over.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for that invitation. I absolutely will do that. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
MODERATOR: I will remind journalists, if you would like to ask a question, to hit on the raised hand icon. And I will take our next question from Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency. Alex, go ahead and unmute yourself and ask your question.
QUESTION: Thank you so much, Doris, for doing this, and I thank all the speakers. These are absolutely horrific facts that you guys are uncovering, so I – as you mentioned, these conditions described (inaudible) in these facilities can constitute cruel, inhuman, and disregard treatment under international humanitarian and human rights law. My question is, I’ve been trying to process this since last night – I saw the report – this is what genocide looks like. Am I right? Are you in a position to name it the way it is? And —
MR RAYMOND: We are not – I just – sorry to interrupt. We’re not in a position to make that determination. Genocide is a legal finding. What we see here is consistent with potential violations of the Geneva Convention and the Hague Convention. As it relates to the Genocide Convention, we cannot make that determination based on the evidence in this report at this time. So back to you, Alex. Sorry for interrupting, but just wanted to make that clear.
QUESTION: No, thank you so much for that. Are you in a position to put some historic perspective so we understand the scope of this violation? Thank you again.
MR RAYMOND: That is a good question and I think a helpful thing to do. And I’m – I’ll do you one better than just historical context on the phenomenon in this report. I’ll put this report in the context of really the history of what’s called photogrammetry, which is this type of analysis that involves imagery, it involves other information to figure out what’s happening in a place that you can’t get access to.
Going back to the beginning of the U.S. Army Air Corps photo reconnaissance capabilities during World War II, some of the earliest analysis that was done by U.S. Army Air Corps of photographs over Eastern Europe found what was referred to as the factories to nowhere, which were trains that were going to factories that did not appear to produce anything. And what they were seeing was the concentration camps run by the Third Reich, and those images were some of the earliest evidence of atrocities by Germany that was put on the desk of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
As we go forward in time to atrocities in Bosnia, U.S. Air Force SR-71 Blackbird imagery played a critical role in the evidence collection around the Srebrenica massacre. Now here, decades later, we have open source, entirely unclassified commercial imagery and data entirely gleaned from the internet that is a next chapter in this type of observation of facilities where alleged abuses, some of which, rising to war – potential war crimes or potential crimes against humanity, have been reported to occur.
And so I want to think about the history here in terms – and we have a section on the history of filtration in other conflicts in which Russia has been involved that you can read in the report, which I think will be a great primer. But I want to also have us think about the history of these methods to try to ascertain what is happening, to validate reporting in places that we can’t access. This is not a new phenomena. It goes back to the dawn of the Second World War. Over.
MS HOWARTH: I’ll just – to follow that real quick, I do think it’s worth noting that in this report you will see firsthand or first-person accounts from those who had families separated at various filtration points, and where specifically military age men may have been further detained and separated from their families – the rest of whom, women, children, and more elderly members were allowed to proceed onward. That is something that is certainly worth noting, although this report does not go into that detail as extensively as some of our other colleagues have in the human rights and humanitarian space.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We will go back to Pearl Matibe.
QUESTION: Thank you, Doris. This question is for all three of you. I’d like hear from you – your perspective on this. Am I correct in saying that in your report you are not actually making recommendations as to what might be next steps in the situation in the Donetsk region, but in your conclusion seems to me that you’re also suggesting that only in-person, unfettered access by the United Nations is what might be the next step? What are your views here considering the fact that there is still a majority of countries in the United Nations who might now want to take any actions against Russia? Can you balance your – what you’ve summarized in your conclusion based on this context? What are the next steps here that are reasonable, likely to happen? And what might be the challenges of them not happening? Thanks.
MR RAYMOND: Pearl, have you ever seen the original Star Trek where Doctor McCoy says, “I’m a doctor, [Jim], not a brick layer” – (laughter) – we are diagnosticians; we are not policy makers. And in the report, you’ve identified correctly, Pearl, that one – and it can be called a recommendation we make and the only one we make is to say that these remotely aggregated data points – and the – our analysis needs to be verified through on the ground access by the proper authorities. And we identify them, which is independent monitors from the United Nations and those with treaty verification authority, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the case of the Geneva Convention. And so all we’re saying is that we have observed things remotely. They need to be confirmed on the ground through access and that access has not currently been provided by Russia and its proxies, and that access is required by international law.
And so beyond that, we make no recommendation or determination in terms of what should happen or what may happen in the Donbas or any other region of Ukraine. What we do say is here based on the data, based on our method, based on analysis to the highest scientific standard, this is what we can say and what we can’t say. And what we can say is there is at least 21 facilities that have been involved or are currently involved in these filtration activities. And these activities are the big four: registration, holding, interrogation, and long-term detention. That’s what we can say.
QUESTION: May I ask a follow-up question? So since you’re alleging that there are certain provisions within international and humanitarian law that have been broken here, does your report actually identify what those statutes or provisions are to make it clear what is it that you think is being – what this accusation’s – this – what you’re alleging?
MR RAYMOND: We say very clearly in the legal section that is – Russia and its proxies do have a right to detain civilians in occupied areas. That is actually not being debated. What is being contested here is the fact that they are holding an unknown number of individuals in facilitates without international access to determine what conditions they’re being held in and to determine who is there and ensure that they are able to have contact with their family. Yes, occupying powers can detain civilians, but they cannot do so extrajudicially, and they cannot do so incommunicado.
And so to our colleagues at the Russian embassy in their statement this morning, if our report is a fabrication, okay, then open the camps up. Open up these facilities and let in the international monitors to verify the claim that this report is fabricated. But in – which it is not. So until ground access is secured for international monitors, what are they hiding? Over.
QUESTION: Understood. Thank you so much.
MODERATOR: Thank you. I don’t see any other hands raised, so I will give one final call for questions. Please hit on the raise hand icon at the bottom of the screen if you have a question, or you can type it into the chat feature.
It doesn’t look like we have any other questions so I will throw it back to our briefers for any final comments.
MR RAYMOND: Well, we either did a very, very good job or – (laughter) – or the opposite, but just to close I want to stress the headline here. The headline is that we have to the highest standard possible evidence that calls out for ground access by international, independent monitors to make sure we know three things: who is being held there, how they are being held, and to figure out when and under what terms will they be released. That’s it. And so we have shown our receipt, so to speak, and now the onus is on Russia and its proxy allies to ensure access to validate their claims or undermine ours. But the fact of the matter is: our evidence as it stands now is based on the most rigorous standard of independent corroboration possible.
Anything else from my colleagues, Kaveh, Caitlin, or our analysts who are standing by on the call?
MODERATOR: Dr. Khoshnood, I’ll turn to you.
MR KHOSHNOOD: I don’t have any – anything else to say. I hope this report is useful. And again, our goal is to make sure the evidence we are providing makes governments accountable for war crimes.
MODERATOR: And Caitlin.
MS HOWARTH: Thank you. I would only stress that for those who have taken the time to join us here today, we hope that you will also join for future events as we release new findings in the upcoming weeks and months. There’s a great deal of work that remains to be done both in following up on this report but also on many other aspects of this conflict. And our team is diligently working to make sure we can come back to you all with findings as robust as these. Thank you so much for your time.
MODERATOR: Fantastic. I want to give a special thanks to our briefers for sharing their time today and to the journalists who participated. We will post a transcript later today at fpc.state.gov. And with that, this concludes today’s briefing. Thank you, everyone.