Accepting truth, acknowledging loss: casualty records from Katyn to Afghanistan

First published 28th Oct 2013

By Kate Hofstra

In a 21 October ruling that may do little for national reconciliation between Russia and Poland, the European Court of Human Rights held that Russia had failed to comply with its human rights obligations to adequately investigate and provide evidence for the massacre of more than 20,000 Polish prisoners by the Soviet secret police in 1940. The court, however, also stated that because the events took place a decade before the rights convention became international law (and nearly 50 years before Russia acceded to it in 1998) the ECHR has no jurisdiction over the killings, nor does it have authority to rule on Russia’s treatment of the victims' family members. The Members of the Association of Families for Katyn Victims called the verdict ‘inadmissible and incomprehensible’.

The Polish prisoners, which included members of the Polish intelligentsia and more than 5,000 Polish officers captured in Poland during the 1939 German invasion, were executed in and around the Katyn forest near Smolensk in April and May 1940.

Russia began an investigation into the killings in 1990 after nearly 50 years of propaganda portraying the massacre as the work of Nazi Germany. The investigation closed in 2004 and despite Russia’s acceptance of responsibility no one was held accountable and the investigation’s findings remain largely classified. While Mikhail Gorbachev provided archival documents listing the names of 14,589 prisoners to the Polish state in 1990, the requests of Polish family members seeking details of Russia’s investigation, and more detailed accounts of the killings, have been repeatedly denied.

In November 2010, however, in an effort to begin a 'new stage of relations with Poland’ the Russian Duma approved a statement placing direct command responsibility for the killings with Stalin and other Soviet officials. The Duma called for more work on ‘verifying the lists of victims…and uncovering the circumstances of the tragedy.’

Despite Russia's efforts to appease Polish demands for accountability, relatives of 12 victims of the massacre complained to the ECHR in 2007 that Russian authorities had failed to carry out an adequate criminal investigation into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their family members and had ‘displayed a dismissive attitude to requests for information about the event.’

The continued demand for information by the victim’s relatives for over seven decades is a testament to the lasting trauma inflicted on the families of those who are missing and presumed dead in conflict. In addition, on-going political battles between the two nations demonstrate how a lack of state transparency regarding casualties can greatly hamper post-conflict efforts for reconciliation.

The Every Casualty Campaign calls on states to identify and publicly acknowledge the victims of armed violence, as well as to share incident information – including the names of perpetrators if possible – with both families and the general public. Only when there is a genuine risk of harm to the living is temporarily withholding information justifiable. Every Casualty maintains, however, that there can be no justification for concealing the names of the dead – or the circumstances of their killing – indefinitely.

The overwhelming public response to the recent release of so-called ‘death lists’ in Afghanistan, which document names and information about 5,000 victims of the Afghan Communist government between 1978-79, demonstrates the power casualty records have to galvanize a population and push forward long dormant efforts for reconciliation, even after decades of secrecy. Originally compiled by the Afghan government, the lists were found by Dutch investigators and published online in late September. They quickly went viral as word spread on social media and among family members, prompting Afghan president Hamid Karzai to declare two days of official mourning.

While the release of records has finally allowed many families to mourn their dead, it has also led to calls for trials and prosecutions – a process feared by the Afghan political elite, many of whom were former officials in the Communist government.

It is this fear of accountability that often drives states to obscure casualty records and to deny claims of wrongdoing and culpability even decades after a conflict has ended. Indeed, Russia’s decades-long denial of responsibility for the killings in Katyn effectively prevented any form of legal accountability, including the claimants’ calls for reparations.

The Every Casualty Campaign seeks to challenge – and ultimately prevent –states’ ability to conceal the victims of conflict by calling for prompt, accurate and publicly available casualty records. In this way the campaign hopes to uphold and advance the rights of victims while supporting post-conflict recovery and reconciliation, which must always be grounded in truth.

While members of our International Practitioner Network are working daily to record and report casualties of ongoing conflicts, the responsibility should lie with states to collect and disseminate casualty data. With this week’s continued refusal by the United States to accept responsibility for civilian casualties of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen – despite reports to the contrary issued by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – it is clear that much work remains to be done.

Kate Hofstra is a Programme Assistant with the Every Casualty Programme at Oxford Research Group.