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UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic Press Conference in Kiev, Ukraine, 14 March 2014

Good afternoon, and thank you for joining us today.

As Assistant-Secretary-General for Human Rights of the United Nations, I came to Ukraine on Thursday last week at the urgent request of the Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They asked me to travel from New York immediately to assess the human rights situation in Ukraine, to highlight the importance of respect for human rights in working towards the de-escalation of tensions in the country, and to make recommendations for the way forward.

During my time here, my team and I have met with individuals from across the cultural, ethnic, linguistic and political spectrum in Kiev, Kharkiv and Lviv. I met with top legislative and executive officials, the Ombudsperson, civil society organizations representing various communities, as well as members of regional organizations and the diplomatic community. My team has collected numerous written materials. We will carefully analyze all this information, including about the situation in Crimea, and report on findings so far.

We were not able to go to Simferopol, as the authorities there informed us that they would not receive the mission nor ensure its security. However, denial of access to Crimea did not prevent our assessment of the situation there. I have had extensive one-on-one discussions with individuals who are in and from Crimea, and I have had access to other reliable sources. Yesterday I had a telephone conversation with the chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Mr. Refat Chubarov, and Mr. Nadir Bekirov, president of the Foundation for Research and Support of Indigenous Peoples of Crimea, who shared with me their profound concerns about the current situation in Crimea and its impact on the human rights of people living there.

UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission

What became clear very quickly during our visit to Ukraine was the urgent need for independent monitors to objectively assess the human rights implications of recent events and to monitor the current human rights situation throughout the country.

I am therefore pleased to announce the immediate deployment of a UN human rights monitoring team throughout Ukraine, upon the invitation of the Government. The team will be composed of international and national staff and intends to cover the whole of Ukraine – and that includes Crimea.

An experienced UN human rights official, Mr. Armen Harutyunyan, will be the Head of the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The team will begin work immediately, and build up its capacity in the coming days.

Without an independent, objective establishment of the facts and circumstances surrounding alleged human rights violations, there is a serious risk of competing narratives being manipulated for political ends and leading to divisiveness and incitement to hatred. The UN team, as an impartial player, can thus serve to de-escalate tensions and prevent such manipulation.

I will share now with you some of the initial findings of my team in the course of our current mission to Ukraine. I must stress from the outset that the objective of the mission was to assess the human rights situation and not to dwell on politics.

Chronic human rights violations

Clearly, chronic human rights violations were among the major reasons for the great upheaval in Ukraine in recent months. Warning signs about systemic human rights issues were neglected for many years and the concerns and recommendations of various international human rights mechanisms did not receive adequate attention.

In my discussions over the past week, I have heard many serious concerns about the weakness of rule of law institutions, the lack of accountability for human rights violations and ensuing impunity. Reports of torture and ill-treatment are numerous, there are many question marks over the right to a fair trial and equal access to justice. Conditions of detention also remain problematic.

The fundamental causes of the recent crisis must be addressed promptly, through swift and effective institutional responses rooted in the rule of law and human rights. The lack of independence, impartiality and effectiveness of the judiciary and the lack of clarity on the functions of the Office of the Prosecutor must be swiftly addressed.

Law enforcement officials must comply with relevant international human rights norms and standards. Torture and ill-treatment must be condemned firmly and publicly by the authorities and perpetrators must be brought to justice. A fully independent body to investigate complaints of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials must be established.

Another key issue that has been raised in many of my discussions is the problem of rampant corruption and the lack of checks and balances. Perhaps consequently, the right of people to an adequate standard of living and their ability to access to basic social services have also been violated throughout the years.

The authorities must, as a matter of priority, put in place measures to eradicate corruption and protect economic and social rights, including equal access to social services.

All reforms and new policy measures must be taken through a rule of law and human rights approach without any spirit of revenge. It is crucial to ensure that one does not respond to human rights violations with other human rights violations. In particular, any lustration measures must be taken whilst fully respecting human rights and the rule of law. This should include: an individualized review process; employees subject to a review should be granted a fair hearing, and a right to appeal and the burden of proofs falls on the reviewing body to establish that a public employee is not suitable to hold office.

 

Recent violations of human rights in the context of protests

More specifically, in the context of the recent protests in Kiev and elsewhere, I am deeply concerned about allegations of gross human rights violations, including excessive use of force and extra-judicial killings, torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions. Victims reportedly include protesters, as well as opponents and supporters of the previous government. The actions of snipers on the Maidan are of particularly grave concern. Who were they, who gave them orders?

I am greatly troubled by the number of people who lost their lives – more than 100 according to the latest reported figures. The number continues to increase as more severely wounded people die. A number of law enforcement personnel have also lost their lives or were injured.

I have personally met with one victim of a brutal beating during protests whose scars, both physical and mental, were clearly visible. The perpetrators of human rights violations against that individual and all other victims must be promptly brought to justice, whatever their background, status or affiliation, following independent, impartial and thorough investigations. They must be conducted promptly and according to international standards.

I am also deeply concerned about the great number of people whose whereabouts remain unknown.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will continue to be in contact with the authorities as well as with international and regional organizations, to help ensure that facts are established and justice is done.

Human rights situation in Crimea

I am also gravely concerned about the situation in Crimea, where there appears to be no rule of law at present, and therefore a drastic deterioration in the protection of human rights. I have been informed about cases of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and other human rights violations committed by members of unidentified armed groups. There is a lack of freedom of movement in Crimea.

The rule of law must be re-established in Crimea by those who have the power to do so. All human rights must be respected, including the right of all without discrimination to participate in public affairs and political life. Any non-governmental forces must be disarmed.

The situation of minorities and indigenous peoples in Crimea, in particular  the Crimean Tatars, is also extremely vulnerable.

As of today we understand that the following activists are still unaccounted for- Andrey Shchekun and Anatoliy Koval'skiy, and his son Sergey Koval'skiy,  Mr. Taneev, and Mikhail Vdovchenko. I have also personally met with activists and journalists who were stopped at paramilitary check points, detained between 9 and 11 March, interrogated, beaten, robbed of their equipment, harassed, humiliated and subject to mock executions, allegedly by a Berkut unit officer.

There are already many people displaced, reportedly more than 600 in the Lviv region alone, including Crimean Tatars, Russians and Ukrainians, who all chose to leave the peninsula in this troubled time.

There is rampant fear and insecurity in Crimea due to misinformation, blocking of information and total uncertainty about what is coming next.

Repercussions in other parts of the country

Representatives of various communities in other parts of Ukraine have also shared with me their worries about the consequences of the separation of Crimea on the human rights situation in the rest of the country.

In eastern Ukraine, I noted a palpable feeling of insecurity among the population. I was told that this was partly due to rumours and perceptions about whether the new authorities in Kiev would ensure an inclusive government and protect and support the use of the Russian language.

Need for inclusivity and equal political participation

Ukraine has a rich linguistic, ethnic and cultural diversity. In this context, I consider the hasty repeal of the Law on Languages to have been a mistake, and I commend the acting President for vetoing it, so that the old law will continue to be in force while a new text is prepared. The drafting of new language legislation must not be hurried during this sensitive period for the country. Any new law must be drafted in full consultation with all minorities at central, regional and local levels. The protection of minority rights is both a human rights imperative and key to conflict prevention.

I note the concern of members of various communities about inclusivity and equal participation in governance following the setting up of an interim government. Representatives of Russian-speaking communities informed me that they wished to take an active part in Ukrainian politics. The specific situation of Crimean Tatars as indigenous peoples also needs particular attention, including those among them that have already left Crimea for other regions in Ukraine. Through inclusive governance, the sharing of power, and compliance with international standards on equal participation in political life and public affairs, the Government and legislature should address the aspirations and concerns of all Ukrainians, including members of all minority groups.

I have also urged the Government to curb hate speech from a small group of politicians, and to ensure that there is equal protection for all.

Looking forward

On a positive note, in Lviv, in the west of the country, I was heartened by my meeting with Mr. Volodimir Beglov, who had launched a campaign for people across Ukraine to speak Russian for a day in protest against the repeal of the Law on Languages, and in solidarity with Ukraine’s Russian-speaking minorities. Such initiatives to transcend ethnic and linguistic differences are very welcome.

I also witnessed the gradual beginnings of positive change in the country. There are indications of a willingness to ensure a break with past injustices and to elaborate a new vision based on good governance and the rule of law. I count on all Ukrainians to build this country’s future, its economic and social development, its peace and security, on the solid foundation of respect for human rights.

The UN stands ready to help ensure human rights are respected and protected in Ukraine - with the support of international and regional organizations, including the OSCE, the Council of Europe and others. In addition to monitoring the human rights situation, the UN can assist by providing technical assistance for legislative and other reforms necessary to ensure that the recommendations received by Ukraine from UN human rights mechanisms are fully implemented.

I will now take any questions you may have on the human rights implications of the situation in Ukraine.

ENDS