By John Helmer, Moscow
Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General, is refusing this week to answer questions on the role he played in the recent attempt by US, British, Canadian and other foreign combatants to escape the bunkers under the Azovstal plant, using the human shield of civilians trying to evacuate.
In Guterres’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on April 26 (lead image), Putin warned Guterres he had been “misled” in his efforts. “The simplest thing”, Putin told Guterres in the recorded part of their meeting, “for military personnel or members of the nationalist battalions is to release the civilians. It is a crime to keep civilians, if there are any there, as human shields.”
This war crime has been recognized since 1977 by the UN in Protocol 1 of the Geneva Convention. In US law for US soldiers and state officials, planning to employ or actually using human shields is a war crime to be prosecuted under 10 US Code Section 950t.
Instead, Guterres ignored the Kremlin warning and the war crime law, and authorized UN officials, together with Red Cross officials, to conceal what Guterres himself knew of the foreign military group trying to escape. Overnight from New York, Guterres has refused to say what he knew of the military escape operation, and what he had done to distinguish, or conceal the differences between the civilians and combatants in the evacuation plan over the weekend of April 30-May 1.May.
Russian officials have remained publicly polite towards Guterres, despite what Moscow regards as his taking sides with the US, the NATO alliance, and the Kiev government from the beginning of the military operation on February 24. “We are dealing”, the Secretary-General declared on April 5, “with the full-fledged invasion, on several fronts, of one Member State of the United Nations, Ukraine, by another, the Russian Federation — a permanent member of the Security Council — in violation of the United Nations Charter, and with several aims, including redrawing the internationally recognized borders between the two countries.”*
Putin told Guterres his interpretation of the military operation and of the UN Charter was wrong and biased.
“I know,” Putin said as the cameras recorded, “about your concern over Russia’s military operation in Donbass, in Ukraine. I think this will be the focus of our conversation today. I would just like to note in this context that the entire problem emerged after a coup d’état staged in Ukraine in 2014. This is an obvious fact. You can call it whatever name you like and have whatever bias in favour of those who did it, but this was really an anti-constitutional coup.”
Putin was explicit that he rejected Guterres’s claim that the Russian military operation violated the Charter: “Unfortunately, our colleagues in the West preferred to ignore all this. After we recognised the independence of these states [Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics], they asked us to render them military aid because they were subjected to military actions, an armed aggression. In accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, Chapter VII, we were forced to do this by launching a special military operation.”
“It is a fact that many Western countries recognised Kosovo as an independent state.* We did the same with the Donbass republics. After that, they asked us to provide them with military assistance to deal with the state that launched military operations against them. We had the right to do so in full compliance with Chapter VII, Article 51 of the UN Charter. Just a second, we will talk about this in a minute. But first I would like to address the second part of your question, Mariupol. The situation is difficult and possibly even tragic there. But in fact, it is very simple.”
To Guterres, Putin also made a clear distinction between civilians and combatants using the civilians as hostages or human shields. Putin identified this as a war crime. “The Azovstal plant has been fully isolated. I have issued instructions, an order to stop the assault. There is no direct fighting there now. Yes, the Ukrainian authorities say that there are civilians at the plant. In this case, the Ukrainian military must release them, or otherwise they will be doing what terrorists in many countries have done, what ISIS did in Syria when they used civilians as human shields. The simplest thing they can do is release these people; it is as simple as that. You say that Russia’s humanitarian corridors are ineffective. Mr Secretary-General, you have been misled: these corridors are effective. Over 100,000 people, 130,000–140,000, if I remember correctly, have left Mariupol with our assistance, and they are free to go where they want, to Russia or Ukraine. They can go anywhere they want; we are not detaining them, but we are providing assistance and support to them.”
“The civilians in Azovstal, if there are any, can do this as well. They can come out, just like that. This is an example of a civilised attitude to people, an obvious example. And anyone can see this; you only need to talk with the people who have left the city. The simplest thing for military personnel or members of the nationalist battalions is to release the civilians. It is a crime to keep civilians, if there are any there, as human shields.”
In his many public statements before the Kremlin meeting, and in his remarks at the Russian Foreign Ministry the same day, , Guterres has not mentioned war crimes except to repeat the US and Ukrainian allegations about the Russian side. “The war has led to senseless loss of life, massive devastation in urban centres and the destruction of civilian infrastructure,” he said on April 5. “I will never forget the horrifying images of civilians killed in Bucha. I immediately called for an independent investigation to guarantee effective accountability. I am also deeply shocked by the personal testimony of rapes and sexual violence that are now emerging. The High Commissioner for Human Rights has spoken of possible war crimes, grave breaches of international humanitarian law and serious violations of international human rights law. The war has displaced more than 10 million people in just one month — the fastest forced population movement since the Second World War.”
Two weeks later, on April 19, Guterres announced his plan for the evacuation of the Azovstal bunkers, mentioning only “civilians”. “The intense concentration of forces and firepower makes this battle inevitably more violent, bloody and destructive. The onslaught and terrible toll on civilians we have seen so far could pale in comparison to the horror that lies ahead. This cannot be allowed to happen….The humanitarian pause would provide the necessary conditions to meet two crucial imperatives. First, safe passage of all civilians willing to leave the areas of current and expected confrontation, in coordination with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Second, beyond humanitarian operations already taking place, a pause will allow for the safe delivery of life-saving humanitarian aid to people in the hardest-hit areas such as Mariupol, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk. The United Nations is ready to send humanitarian aid convoys during this period to these locations. We are submitting detailed plans to the parties. Humanitarian needs are dire. People do not have food, water, supplies to treat the sick or wounded, or simply to live day to day.”
When Guterres and Putin met the following week, on April 26, the Russians already suspected Guterres of planning his civilian evacuation scene to conceal the escape of the foreign officers from their Azovstal bunker. He was warned privately. Putin’s remarks were the public warning. Guterres stuck to his position in the only remark the Russian media caught him as saying at the meeting: “We are deeply concerned about what is happening now. We believe that there has been an invasion of the territory of Ukraine.”
The Defense Ministry spokesman, Major-General Igor Konashenkov (right), had announced on April 17 that “up to four hundred foreign mercenaries were trapped [at Azovstal]… Most of them are citizens of European countries, as well as Canada. We have already reported earlier that radio
conversations between militants in Mariupol are conducted in six foreign languages”. Konashenkov also announced that in addition to these foreigners there were up to 2,100 Ukrainian troops in Azovstal.
The Russian intelligence at the time was that far fewer civilians had been taken hostage or had voluntarily sought shelter in the Azovstal bunkers. It would turn out, two weeks later, that the number of civilians was 101. They were outnumbered by the foreign and Ukrainian combatants twenty-five to one.
Guterres knew this before he arrived in Moscow. There on April 26, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov revealed that Guterres had been briefed for several weeks by his own officials on the human shield and hostage-taking tactics of the Ukrainian forces during the battle for Mariupol, and inside the Azovstal bunker. “After the UN Secretary-General contacted our Defence Ministry on March 4, 2022,” Lavrov said in Guterres’s presence, “we established the Joint Coordination Headquarters for Humanitarian Response at the National Defence Control Centre of the Russian Federation. UN representatives are coordinating practical matters to organise safe humanitarian deliveries.”
Yesterday, May 5 New York time, Guterres was asked three questions to clarify what he had known about the combatants at Azovstal; when he had known it; and how he proposed to the Russians he met — as well as to the Ukrainians – to distinguish between the civilians and the combatants in the evacuation.
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Guterres has refused to answer. Instead, his spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said: “all I can tell you is that the United Nations and the international committee of the Red Cross are focused on evacuating civilians from Mariupol , including the steel plant. This is done in coordination with Ukrainian authorities and the Russian authorities on the ground. I have no further comment.”
Dujarric (right) is a veteran reporter for the US television network ABC; before that he was a US foreign service trainee in Washington and a member of the Paris branch of the Rothschild banking family. In follow-up email he was asked to “correct the error of fact in your comment. The UN
and Red Cross evacuation of ‘civilians’ did not ‘focus’ on the civilians who opted not to go to the Kiev side at Zaporozhye; the ICRC statement makes explicit that ‘other people…went elsewhere’. Dujarric refused to answer.
On May 3 a press release by the Red Cross headquarters in Geneva announced that “the five-day safe passage operation” at Azovstal, which it had run with the UN, had evacuated “several dozen civilians”. Why the precise number, which was known, was left so vague in the announcement is unclear. Also left unclear by the Red Cross was why it had conducted the evacuation exclusively for those civilians from the bunker who chose to go to the Kiev government side’s reception centre at Zaporozhye. Referring to those who opted to remain in the Donetsk Republic or seek refuge in Russia, the Red Cross statement said only “other people from the plant went elsewhere.”
On the difference between these two groups of civilians, the UN official at the scene explained what happened to a Russian reporter. “The UN Humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine, Osnat Lubrani, said that she had not seen any attempts to take people forcibly evacuated from Azovstal to Russia. ‘I didn’t have the feeling that there were any attempts to send people to Russia. This has not happened, as far as I know,’ Lubrani said. Lubrani also pointed out that people who did not want to go to the territory controlled by Ukraine made this choice of their own free will, there were about 30 of them.”
Source: Osnat Lubrani in front of the Azovstal bus convoy assembled by the UN on April 30-May 1. See Osnati’s Twitter postings.
Lubrani’s official statement, cleared by UN headquarters in New York and by the Ukrainians in Kiev, confirmed there had been 101 evacuees, and that 32 of them had opted for the Donetsk or Russian side. “The operation started on Friday 29 April,” Lubrani declared, “and was agreed with the parties to the conflict, following engagements by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres during his recent visits to Moscow and Kyiv.” Note how the UN official ignored the large number of evacuees who opted against the Kiev side. She omitted altogether the discrepancy between the number of buses ordered and the number of civilian evacuees.
Also unclear is why the UN statement was precise on the number of evacuees while the Red Cross statement was vague.
On the same day, May 3, Guterres told Dujarric to issue a press release in which he claimed credit with the Red Cross for “successfully” evacuating “more than 100 civilians”. Again, Guterres evaded the issue of the civilians taken hostage by the Ukrainian forces and their foreign officers, and used by them as hostages and shields.
In Moscow the Russian Ministry of Defense announced officially that 101 people had been evacuated in the April 30-May 1 operation. The Russian reporters at the site also interviewed some of these civilians. In its report, Tsargrad counted that “that more than 70 passenger buses had been sent by the UN and the Red Cross for civilians, who were hiding behind the militants who had settled on Azovstal. Quite a large number to rescue 100 hostages.”
The bus capacity at Azovstal which had been delivered by the UN and Red Cross was more than 2,100. This was several magnitudes larger than the estimated total of civilians in the bunkers; it was roughly equal to the count of both civilians and combatants in the bunkers.
Russians sources believe that, despite the explicit warnings Guterres received from Putin and Lavrov in Moscow the week before, the Secretary-General authorized the plan to assist in a break-out by the combatants using the civilian evacuees as their shield.
[*] Putin’s civility contrasts with the Belgian, French, German, British, South African and US governments. When they objected to what they regarded as the bias of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold, they killed him by arranging to bomb his aircraft in 1961. Thirty-five years later, when US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright objected to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, she said publicly “I will break his legs.”
Left: the last photograph of Dag Hammarskjold before he boarded his fatal flight on September 17, 1961. Read this account of the evidence of the plotting by several governments to detonate a bomb inside the aircraft in midair. Right: Madeline Albright briefing President Clinton on US military support for Kosovo in March 31, 1999.