The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch accuses Ukraine of using so-called butterfly mines. Their use is controversial and is also prohibited for signatories to an international agreement against anti-personnel mines. What clues are there and what can be proven.

The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch has raised serious suspicions: it accuses Ukraine of using so-called butterfly mines. For example, the human rights organization presented images of a PFM-1S mine that it allegedly found in the Izium region last September. These are anti-personnel mines that are banned for members of the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Convention. Ukraine has been a signatory to the international agreement since 1999, which it ratified in 2005.

According to Human Rights Watch, it collected evidence of the use of such mines in nine different areas in and around Izium and linked eleven deaths to such mines. “The nine areas were all close to the positions of Russian forces at the time, suggesting that they were mine targets,” the organization wrote in a report published on its website in late January.

In fact, the area was taken by Russia in April last year and was under Russian control until September. Meanwhile, Ukraine has recaptured it. Human Rights Watch subsequently visited the area and spoke with witnesses. The organization claims to have found mines on site, as well as mine parts or the typical metal containers that encase the mines in the missiles. The human rights organization shows a picture of such a mine on its website.

These types of mines are controversial because they do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Anti-personnel mines, also known as butterfly mines because of their shape, are small plastic explosive mines that are fired into an area. When they land on the ground, however, they don’t explode until pressure is applied to them, such as when someone steps on them. PFM mines can also explode if someone handles or moves them.

PFM mines such as Type 1S are designed to detonate within 40 hours of being dropped. According to weapons experts, however, the mechanism does not work reliably, so that these mines can also remain active for a long time. Depending on the type, other anti-personnel mines can remain active long after a war has ended, seriously injuring or killing people. Due to their shape, they are particularly dangerous for children because they can be reminiscent of toys.

Ukraine war – Russian historian: “Ukraine has two central problems”

Ukraine has a legacy from Soviet times. According to the international agreement, these stocks should have been destroyed. In fact, in a 2021 report to the United Nations, Ukraine reported that it still had 3.3 million PFM-type butterfly mines. According to Ukraine, these are said to have been contained in 220 mm caliber 9M27K3 rockets.

Human Rights Watch says it found evidence of the use of banned anti-personnel mines during the 2014 armed conflict between Ukraine and Russia. Russia is also said to have used the mines in the war against Ukraine. Although Moscow has never ratified the agreement banning the use of such weapons, their use violates international human rights, the human rights organization argues. When asked by Human Rights Watch, Kyiv reportedly responded in writing, but pointed out that “information about types of weapons before the end of the war would not be commented on.”

“Ukrainian forces appear to have deployed large-scale landmines in the Izium region, causing civilian casualties and posing a continuing risk,” said Steve Goose, arms director at Human Rights Watch. “Russian forces have repeatedly used anti-personnel mines and committed atrocities in the country, but that does not justify Ukraine’s use of these banned weapons.”

Ukraine responded to the human rights organization’s report by promising to look into it. However, the statement also said that Ukraine is exercising its right to self-defense and “fully complying with its international obligations”. It is Russia that is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It is currently not possible to determine with certainty which weapons were used and how many victims there were. It will also be difficult to determine in retrospect how many civilian casualties were injured or killed by Russian or Ukrainian weapons and by what type of weapon. The only thing that is certain is that the mined areas will endanger the population for years to come – with more victims.