Families of World War Two Massacre Victims Invoke the Right to Truth

In 1940, the Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered the killing of tens of thousands of Polish prisoners of war, captured after the Soviet invasion of their country. Stalin described the POWs, most of them military officers, as “enemies of the Soviet authorities… full of hatred towards the Soviet system”; his NKVD security forces executed prisoners one after another, shooting them in the back of the head, in the infamous wartime atrocity known as the Katyn Massacre.

But to this day the full truth of what happened in 1940 has not come out.

As the first bodies were discovered in 1942 and 1943, the Soviet Union first sought to blame Nazi Germany for the killings, then tried to add the massacre to the charges before the Nuremberg war crimes trials. In 1959, six years after the death of Stalin, Alexander Schelepin, then head of the KGB, acknowledged in a memo to Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin as head of the Soviet Communist Party, that “21,857 persons were shot” in the “operation.” Schelepin then recommended the destruction of most, but not all, official records of the killings.

Schelepin’s 1959 memo became public as the old Soviet empire crumbled, and after a criminal investigation was launched in 1990 by the the Russian Chief Military Prosecutor’s office. But in 2004, the Russian authorities closed the investigation down, classifying the reasoning, and one-fifth of the investigation record, as “top secret.”

Family members have continued to fight to find out the full truth about what happened at Katyn. One of those executed in April 1940 was Andrzej Janowiec, a 49-year-old lieutenant in the Polish Army. His son is now among a group of 15 family members of victims who are seeking a proper account in a case before the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, Janowiec v. Russia. The case highlights “the right to truth”—which means, in the words of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, that “victims of gross violations of human rights and their families have the inalienable right to know the truth about past events concerning the perpetration of heinous crimes against them.”

The court heard arguments in the case on February 13. Lawyers for the families of the victims have challenged Russia’s failure to conduct an effective investigation as a violation of the right to life (Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights). They also argue that their treatment by Russian authorities constitutes a violation of the prohibition against inhumane treatment (Article 3).

In a third-party intervention filed with the European Court of Human Rights, the Open Society Justice Initiative argued that the Court can legitimately consider the violation of the duty to investigate the killings, despite the fact that the massacre occurred decades ago, and that the Russian Government is obliged to disclose documents establishing why it closed the investigation as well as archival documents concerning the circumstances of the massacre.

States have an obligation to investigate international crimes and gross human rights violations as long as it is practically feasible to do so. Prosecution of crimes from World War II remains possible, and indeed, hundreds of such cases are ongoing in Germany and Poland. In Latin America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has considered numerous cases of human rights violations committed during the dictatorships and civil wars in the region during the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes 40 years after the acts.

Further, in exceptional cases, in the context of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, the right to truth requires effective access to the results of investigations, and to archives and investigative files. Restrictions on access to such information must be narrowly construed, and more so with the passage of time.

More than 70 years after the atrocity, Lieutenant Janowiec’s son, and the public, must learn the truth of what happened.

3 Comments

The truth is long overdue. A similar event occurred in Latvia at Litene but on a smaller scale but that never even gets a mention.

My grandmother was executed at Katyn. Her name is listed on the Ukrainian Katyn list. I am interested to find out more information about what happened.

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