Statement of the “Ukraine. 5AM” Coalition regarding the missile attack on the music and drama theater in Chernihiv on August 19, 2023

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On Saturday, August 19, at around 11:30 a.m., the Russian Federation fired a missile at the center of Chernihiv. The alleged target of the attack was the premises of the Chernihiv Regional Academic Ukrainian Music and Drama Theater named after Taras Shevchenko, which was hosting an exhibition of drone manufacturers and educational institutions specializing in aerial reconnaissance as part of the “Angry Birds” demo day. 

According to preliminary information from the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), the center of Chernihiv was attacked by a cruise missile from the Iskander surface-to-air missile system (on April 27, 2023, the same type of missile was used to shell a multi-story building in Mykolaiv). The use of such weapons in the very center of the city on a weekend and a holiday (the Christian holiday of the Transfiguration of the Lord) against a civilian object, a Drama Theater, resulted in significant civilian casualties. 

As of August 22, 181 people were injured in the shelling: seven were killed and 174 were wounded (115 received outpatient care). Currently, 41 people are hospitalized in the city, five in critical condition and the rest in a condition of moderate severity. All of the victims are civilians who were not in the theater and happened to be near the target of the attack. They include Sofiia Holynska (a 6-year-old girl), Svitlana Kormiltsyna, Nataliia Toriia, Nazar Yushchenko, Volodymyr Vasylenko, Dmytro Mahlich and Oleksandr Onishchenko. More than 500 houses were damaged. The blast wave damaged three kindergartens, a school, the city council building, the tourist information center, the department of citizens’ inquiries, etc. Private cars, public transport and a part of the trolleybus network were damaged by the debris. 

However, the number of casualties could have been even higher: thousands of city residents were spending time with their families near the site of the missile hit, and within 50-70 meters from the Drama Theater, there is the Pyatnytska Church. According to the church’s priest, there were around a thousand worshipers inside just a few minutes before the strike.

The laws and customs of warfare require belligerents to distinguish between military objectives and civilian objects. They are also obliged to assess the proportionality between the weakening of the enemy’s military  capabilities and the harm inflicted on civilians and protected civilian objects that such an attack may cause.  

The available information on the shelling and the context in which it was carried out is insufficient to provide a definitive legal qualification under international humanitarian law. However, this information serves as an indication for analyzing whether the Russian side adhered to the principles of IHL. The location of the drama theatre in the central part of the city; its significance as a cultural heritage site; the day and place of the attack, that stipulated a significant concentration of civilian population around it; the nature of the event and the composition of its participants; the type of weapon used and the characteristics of the attack itself; casualties and destruction as a result of the attack, etc.

A preliminary assessment of these factors may indicate the presence of elements of a serious violation of international humanitarian law, and may constitute a war crime and/or a crime against humanity. However, only a full and comprehensive investigation can provide a definitive answer.

The “Ukraine. 5AM” Coalition calls on the Ukrainian authorities to:

  1. Conduct an effective and comprehensive investigation into the shelling of the Chernihiv Regional Academic Ukrainian Music and Drama Theater named after Taras Shevchenko on August 19, 2023, to establish the circumstances of the incident and the responsible persons in accordance with international standards and international humanitarian law. 
  2. Ensure security protocols for conducting mass events during an armed conflict, in accordance with the passive precautions obligation – to take all feasible precautions to protect the civilian population and civilian objects under their control against the effects of attacks.
  3. Establish a proper legislative framework that will allow for the correct qualification of events, including the shelling of the Chernihiv Drama Theater, make the investigation more effective and enable the accountability of all perpetrators. In particular, amend the Criminal Code to define the “crimes against humanity” and “command responsibility,” as well as the Criminal Procedure Code to lay down the timeframes for investigating alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.