Apr 4, 2022 - Podcasts

Apparent war crimes reported in Ukraine

Russian forces have retreated from the area around the capital Kyiv, leaving Ukrainian forces and civilians to take stock of the devastation. In Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops and international journalists have reported finding brutalized bodies and evidence of mass graves, prompting fresh international outrage about possible war crimes.

  • Plus, removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records.

Guests: Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch and Axios’ Emily Peck and Margaret Harding McGill.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:


NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today! It’s Monday, April 4th. I’m Niala Boodhoo. Today: removing barriers to employment for people with criminal records. But first, reports of possible war crimes in Ukraine. That's today’s One Big Thing.

Russian forces retreated in recent days from the area around the capital Kyiv, leaving Ukrainian forces and civilians to take stock of the devastation. In Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops and international journalists have reported finding brutalized bodies and evidence of mass graves, prompting fresh international outrage about war crimes. Rachel Denber is the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, a international non-profit that documents human rights abuses worldwide – Hi Rachel.

RACHEL DENBER: Thank you so much for inviting me.

NIALA: You all published a report yesterday on the apparent war crimes in this war. What have you documented out of Bucha in particular?

RACHEL: Well, in Bucha, we documented one war crime. And that was the summary execution of a man on March 4th. We have an eyewitness who saw it happen. She saw Russian soldiers bring four young men out to a square. Forced them to their knees, shoot one in the back of the head. He fell over. And the other four, it's not clear what happened to them afterwards. But that is an undeniable, undisputable war crime. Now the thing is, there are many bodies that have been lying around in Bucha now. There was some very serious fighting in Bucha. There were a lot of different circumstances under which people were killed. What happens in Bucha and, uh, and other areas that have been under Russian forces, it needs to be the subject of proper investigations into apparent war crimes. And if, if there are mass graves, then Ukrainian authorities need to cordon them off until there can be professional examination, because attempts at reburial, really risks, just destroying, uh, important evidence.

NIALA: Rachel, from a Human Rights Watch perspective, how would you describe what you all are seeing and hearing on the ground, not just in Bucha, but throughout other parts of Ukraine that have been under attack?

RACHEL: Well, we've done extensive reporting on violations of the laws of war through the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian areas. We've done extensive documentation of that and destruction of civilian objects, whether they were hospitals, apartment buildings, schools. In Kharkiv, in Chernihiv. In, obviously in Mariupol, where there's just a horrific situation. And a couple of other cities and locations. So I think generally that this has been a war that has taken, uh, you know, where the rules around conflict have not been observed, and that is taking a devastating toll on civilians.

NIALA: I feel like there are many people who might be listening, thinking, all of these things you're describing are horrific, but also part of what happens when war occurs.

RACHEL: Well, there are laws of war. The four Geneva conventions that are supposed to govern warring parties conduct in, in, in armed conflict. And there's customary humanitarian law, and these are the laws that say, when warring parties go at each other, they have to observe certain principles of distinction to always distinguish between a military target, a legitimate military target, and a civilian object. To always distinguish and to treat civilians with, uh, you know, with humanity and dignity. And not just civilians, but also people who've laid down their arms. So, those five young men who were rounded up in Bucha. We don't know who they are. Maybe they were civilians. Maybe they were local self-defense units, but it doesn't matter. It still violates the laws of war to line people up on their knees and shoot one of them the back of the head.

NIALA: Rachel Denber is the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch, an international nonprofit that documents human rights abuses worldwide. Rachel, thank you for your time.

RACHEL: Thank you so much.

NIALA: In a moment, we’re back with new ways employers and states are tackling the labor shortage.


NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. The tight labor market is causing some companies to rethink the way they're conducting background checks. For example, instead of looking at the last seven years, some are switching to a one-year check for potential employees. Axios’ Emily Peck is here now with the details. Emily, this is something civil rights advocates have been wanting to change for years. So why are employers making this switch now?

EMILY PECK: They're desperate! [singingly] Employers are desperate to hire. I mean, there is a labor shortage out there and it is real. And the more people they can get at the top of the funnel, the better off employers are. The less they'll have to raise wages to attract them.

NIALA: What are the pitfalls here?

EMILY: So, as you said, some employers are now, instead of looking at seven years of your background, they'll look at just one year. So that is a good thing. The pitfall is to make up for that, and it's debatable whether they actually need to make up for that. They will now be doing something called continuous monitoring. That's the major thing. There's been a 12% increase in the number of workers who are being continuously monitored. In other words, their employer has these services that they use that will flag any kind of like arrests or convictions or anything like that. The pitfall there is that in the U.S., people of color are more likely to get caught up with the law. More likely to be pulled over, arrested, more likely to face harsher charges. Right? So this continuous monitoring could trip up employees of color disproportionately.

NIALA: Emily Peck is one of the authors of Axios Markets. Thank you, Emily.

EMILY: Thank you.

NIALA: While employers try to clear some employment hurdles for people with criminal records, states are doing the same on a bigger scale. A growing number of states around the country are moving to automate the process that’s used to clear eligible criminal records. About 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record that would show up on a background check for employment or housing, that’s according to the Clean Slate Initiative. But many of the records eligible to be cleared never are, because it’s such a costly, burdensome process. These new efforts aim to change that…especially in light of the nation’s labor shortage. Axios’ Margaret Harding McGill has the story. Hi Margaret.

MARGARET HARDING MCGILL: Hey, how’s it going.

NIALA: Margaret, why has it historically been hard to get records cleared?

MARGARET: Most states have a process that's based on petitions. So in order to get a record cleared, and just to be clear, a record could be an arrest that never even led to a conviction. But that could still be a barrier on background checks. But just to get a record cleared, you'd have to: One, know that you're eligible. Two, file this petition. You might need to pay fees with the court. You might need to hire a lawyer. And then kind of go through this, this process. And that's a big burden to put on somebody when, according to the state, they shouldn't have this record.

NIALA: And is this a shift on behalf of these different advocacy groups to initiate this change to automation?

MARGARET: Yeah, there's a Clean Slate Initiative, which is a coalition of different groups that work on criminal justice. And then you have Code for America, which is a group of technologists that kind of trying to do tech for good with government. And they're teaming up to help states with this.

NIALA: So, how are these new automation efforts going to work?

MARGARET: It's a slow process to start. So one bill, for example, in Oklahoma, would require the state law enforcement to identify records eligible for expungement on a monthly basis. And then, if there are no objections from law enforcement, automatically do that process. The big idea, as Code for America told me, is it’s shifting the burden away from the person having to navigate that system and putting that work on the government so that the government is working for the people in this case.

NIALA: Do we have any idea how much of a difference this could make for worker shortages?

MARGARET: Utah recently worked with Code for America to implement its Clean Slate law. And that started with clearing the records of 500,000 eligible residents in the state. And that's going to continue as more records become eligible for clearing. But that's 500,000 people that no longer have some kind of record that will show up on a background check that may have prevented them from getting a job, or may have prevented them from getting the housing that they wanted, or affected their ability to obtain education. So I think it is going to make a difference in people's lives for sure.

NIALA: Margaret Harding McGill covers tech policy for Axios from Washington. Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET: Thank you.

NIALA: That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893. I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper