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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsák, following her official visit to Ukraine – 7 to 14 April 2014

16 April 2014

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, I conducted an official visit to Ukraine between 7 and 14 April, 2014, at the invitation of the Government. I visited Kyiv, Uzhgorod, Odesa and Donetsk. I had the opportunity to consult widely with hundreds of stakeholders during my seven-day visit, including senior Government Officials of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, representatives of civil society and minority communities, religious leaders, political actors, academics, journalists and internally displaced persons, members of the diplomatic community, representatives of United Nations bodies and other national and international actors. I would like to thank the Government of Ukraine and all of those who consulted with me and provided me with information.

I met with representatives of communities including those who identify as ethnic Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Bulgarians, Crimean Tatars, Gagauzis, Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Moldovans, Poles, Roma, Romanians, Russians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Vietnamese and members of Jewish communities. I also met with those who identify clearly as Ukrainian to seek their views. The overwhelming majority of those minority and other representatives whom I consulted in all locations visited described harmonious inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations and a legislative and policy environment that is conducive to the protection of their rights, including cultural rights. Most minority representatives described to me conditions of non-discrimination in all spheres of life and acknowledged that violence, intimidation or aggression against them on the basis of national, ethnic or religious belonging are rare, even in these times of heightened tension.

Language issues, especially in the context of education, featured prominently in the consultations that I held. It is very evident that the use of mother tongue is highly important and emotive for many communities and an essential aspect of personal and community identity. National minorities clearly expressed their desire to maintain and protect their language rights and their ability to use their mother tongue languages freely in private and public without discrimination. Communities expressed satisfaction that their children could have the opportunity to learn and, in many cases, be taught in their mother tongue language. Minority schools have been established and function freely according to national law. They frequently noted that the use of minority languages is a significant and valued feature of Ukrainian society and is in no way incompatible with the teaching and use of Ukrainian as the national language.

Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that steps in February 2014 to abolish the 2012 Law on the Principles of the State Language Policy, although vetoed in practice, have created anxiety amongst certain communities that their current language rights will be eroded under the interim and future Ukrainian Governments. The 2012 Law remains in effect, however, some representatives, in particular those identifying as ethnic Russians, spoke passionately about their concerns over the language rights of Russian speakers and their desire to see enhanced protection and anti-discrimination measures put in place. They noted that there are relatively few Russian schools in relation to their numbers while some described a gradual decline of the Russian language and elements of Russian culture.

I consider that a revised language law currently being drafted should fully conform with international standards for the protection of the linguistic rights of national or ethnic minorities. Importantly minorities expressed that they have not been fully consulted or informed about the process of drafting a revised law. Immediate steps must be taken to ensure wide, meaningful and comprehensive consultation and that the law meets, to the fullest extent possible, the needs and expectations of Ukraine’s highly diverse and distinct linguistic communities. At the same time, Government objectives of promoting the widespread knowledge and use of Ukrainian as the national language are legitimate and important to national unity.

Considering the great diversity of population groups in Ukraine, the institutional attention to minority issues is currently insufficient and has declined or been downgraded in recent years. I expressed concern that there are only six staff members within the Ministry of Culture with direct responsibility for minority issues. Mechanisms to register complaints and seek solutions are also currently insufficient. I was pleased to learn that processes are underway to strengthen and expand such institutional attention to minority issues, including through proposals to establish an office of a High Commissioner and a Council with responsibility for minorities and inter-ethnic affairs. While welcoming these steps, I urge that the processes to establish such bodies are fully inclusive and participatory and that the resulting institutions are representative of minorities and have appropriate budgets and powers.

The recent developments in Ukraine have created an environment of uncertainty and distrust that may create fractures along national, ethnic and linguistic lines and threaten peaceful coexistence if not resolved. In some localities the level of tension has reached dangerous levels and must be diffused as a matter of urgency. I consider that the current situation, although framed by some as an inter-ethnic dispute, has wider political and economic causes that must be recognized and addressed to avoid further ethnic, regional and political polarization. Several interviewees complained about worsening economic conditions in the country and levels of corruption which have led to grievances and a general distrust of politicians and political structures. It is essential to consider the economic dimension of the current situation and for the Government to implement measures to guarantee equality, social and economic rights and combat corruption and mismanagement of resources, as a means to increase trust in political leadership.

I have received reports that some Russian language media sources in Donetsk Oblast and Ukrainian language media in Crimea have faced closure or restrictions due to their coverage of events. Freedom of expression should be guaranteed within the framework of the Constitution and international law and upheld in practice, including for the media. However, evidence suggests that some parties may be using and manipulating media to provide a distorted picture of the current situation and events. Reports of censorship of media have been received and may fuel tensions. Censorship of media should be used only as a last resort and restrictions on the media and freedom of expression must be legitimate, necessary and in conformity with international standards. However, media outlets and those who control media content have a responsibility to accurately and objectively convey information and to avoid any propaganda or misinformation which may incite unrest or violence.

Hate speech and incitement to hatred, hostility or violence targeted at any person or group by any person must not be tolerated. Regrettably I have been informed of incidents which may constitute such incitement including by members of political parties and others. Political and community leaders should be the first to condemn and stand against any such statements and to send clear message that they will not be tolerated or ignored, but treated as criminal acts, punishable by law. Those elements on any side who engage in or incite violence or hatred against any community or group must be countered and prosecuted. They should have no role in shaping the future of Ukraine or be allowed to impose their will through the use of violence or force.

It is essential to begin a process of national dialogue with the objective of understanding the concerns and issues of all communities and ensuring that they are addressed appropriately and rapidly. Moderate voices must come to the fore. First and foremost, solutions to the current situation must come from the Ukrainian people themselves. The vast majority of Ukraine’s population, irrespective of their national origin, wish for a peaceful and united Ukraine, rich in its ethnic and linguistic diversity and confident in its future security and stability.

While recognizing the legitimate concerns of minorities and their right to peaceful protest and to freely express their opinions, it is my view that the current human rights and minority rights situation and the civil and political, economic, social and cultural conditions experienced by minorities cannot justify any violent actions or incitement and support of those actions by any party, national or international.

I would like to note that I attempted to gain access to Crimea during my visit to assess the situation of minorities and to consult with the Crimean authorities and different minority and other community actors. Regrettably, I did not receive the required assurances to travel to Crimea and I therefore continue to seek a visit to Crimea at the earliest opportunity. Nevertheless, I interviewed numerous stakeholders from Crimea and leaders of the Crimean Tatar ‘Mejlis’ (the highest representative body of the Crimean Tatars) while in Kyiv and other locations and continue to establish contacts with such actors, including internally displaced persons. Some, with whom I consulted, noted a climate of uncertainty, social and political pressure and fear for their security and rights, as causing them to make the decision to leave Crimea. In view of recent political and social change and its inevitable impact on different populations, I recommend that the United Nations human rights monitoring mission should be allowed into Crimea at the earliest opportunity. It should assess the current situation and engage with both the authorities in Crimea and diverse civil society and community actors to ensure that human rights standards, including minority rights, are being upheld in practice.

Ukraine has a wide range of religion and belief groups and it is evident that religious freedoms and the rights of religious minorities are protected in practice. Nevertheless, given the current climate of political and social unease, it is particularly necessary for the authorities to guard against any human rights violations, including acts of violence, intimidation, threat or abuse targeted at individuals or groups based on their religion or belief. Where any such actions occur the authorities have an obligation to act swiftly to protect such religious groups and to prosecute the perpetrators of violations. Some incidents of concern were reported to me that have appeared in the context of the current heated social and political environment.

Some acts of vandalism and reports of anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish monuments, including the Holocaust monument in Odesa, were reported. However, representatives of the Jewish community reflected that they are well integrated into Ukrainian society throughout the country, enjoy their rights as a religious minority and that incidents are rare. Senior representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) also expressed concerns over some incidents, including reports from their church members of rising animosity against them, searching of properties, and detention of a Church leader during the current period of unrest. The Government is urged to consider all necessary protection measures that might be required and to ensure that authorities act fully in accordance with the law and human rights standards.

I was made aware of ongoing concerns with regard to the situation of Roma communities in Ukraine and visited a Roma settlement. Economic and social marginalization of Roma as well as problems with registration and identity documents were widely reported. The Government’s ‘Strategy on the Protection and Integration of Roma in Ukraine until 2020’ as well as the ‘National Action Plan on Roma Inclusion’ are welcomed, however Roma representatives expressed their concern over the lack of their participation in the formulation and monitoring of this strategy and stated that policies are often poorly implemented in practice. I consider that more robust responses from the Government are required, including an institutional, policy and programme framework, created with the full participation of Roma, that is adequately financed and politically supported to tackle the long-term marginalization that many Roma experience.

I also consider that additional measures and policies should be taken by the Government to strengthen minority rights protection. Key amongst these are steps to recognize the wider scope of minority rights and a knowledge and understanding of the diversity of the Ukrainian people. In education the curriculum should reflect the diversity of Ukraine and enable students to learn about both their own origins, cultures and religions, but also those of others, in a positive way that recognizes the contributions of all groups. Minority and mother tongue schools, while legitimately maintaining aspects of minority language and culture, should also be required to educate on the wider ethnic, national, social and religious make-up of the Ukrainian society.

A key pillar of minority rights is full and equal participation in public life, including political participation at national, regional and local levels. I consider that measures are necessary to ensure and strengthen the political participation of minorities in Ukraine and their full involvement in decision-making bodies. Policies and programmes to guarantee the representation of minorities in the Parliament can include such measures as reserved seats or the re-drawing of electoral districts to allow compact minority communities to elect their own representatives, and these should be considered. While there is now an increasing number of civil society organizations in Ukraine, I believe that further strengthening of non-governmental bodies is needed so that citizens, including all minorities, can jointly formulate and convey important messages and dialogue with various authorities. National curriculum should include education on active citizenship.

I always emphasize the need for disaggregated data that reveals the ethnic, linguistic or religious composition of the actual population in a country. In the absence of such data, there is often dangerous speculation and manipulation relating to the size of certain groups. I understand that a population census in Ukraine is overdue and is planned to be held in 2016. An early and well-conducted census will provide Ukraine with reliable data on its ethnic and linguistic diversity and help it to identify problems facing particular population groups. This will enable the Government to understand and respond to the needs of different minorities. The census should be conducted in conformity with international standards of confidentiality of data and it should allow individuals the opportunity to self-identify and to express multiple identities if they so choose.

In the medium to long-term enhanced measures to address and resolve minority issues will help to encourage national unity and a strengthened sense of national identity in the highly diverse and relatively newly independent Ukraine. I have been struck by the many actors who have demonstrated national unity, solidarity and dialogue across different population groups to ensure a peaceful resolution to the current crisis. Different faith and community groups have reached across religious and national divides to offer support and assistance to those affected by the current situation including those displaced from Crimea, and some of those with different political views have sought reconciliation.

In my capacity as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minority issues, I will produce a full report and recommendations based on my visit to Ukraine for submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council. I once again thank the Government of Ukraine for its invitation extended to me to visit Ukraine and its cooperation with my mandate.