Human Rights in Ukraine
Lunchtime event at IPI, 18 June 2014
Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
Ladies and gentlemen,
Let me begin by thanking the International Peace Institute for hosting this event to discuss the human rights situation in Ukraine.
During my last mission to Ukraine in May, an elderly lady I spoke to in Donetsk, described the current situation in the East as “a fight in which everyone loses”. This is exactly what the current monthly report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission describes. The number of casualties on both sides is increasing and has reached over 400 since mid-April. We have received first reports of children being killed on 9 June in Slovyansk where a 12 year old boy and a 6 year old girl died from shrapnel wounds. The number of unlawful detentions is also increasing. Prices of basic commodities are rising, while salaries decrease. Social services, in particular in areas where there is fighting, are increasingly being disrupted.
Before outlining some of the highlights of the third monthly report, allow me to provide you with some background on the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. The UN HRMMU was established in mid-March 2014. It was fully operational within only two weeks after its establishment. It currently comprises 34 staff, including international and national staff. In addition to headquarters based in Kyiv, it has sub-offices in Lviv, Kharkhiv, Odesa and Donetsk. The HRMMU also monitors the situation in Crimea, in a manner consistent with the General Assembly resolution 68/262 of 27 March 2014, on the Territorial Integrity of Ukraine. Initially deployed for three months in mid-March, the UN HRMMU has been invited by the Government to extend its operations for another 3 months until mid-September.
We have enjoyed very good cooperation with the Government and civil society as well as with other international actors, especially the OSCE.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like to draw your attention to some of the opportunities and challenges identified in the report and then highlight some suggestions for the way forward:
The election of the new President and the announcement of Parliamentary elections before the end of the year, represent an opportunity for a fresh start- a fresh start without corruption; without impunity; in a Ukraine that is embracing its rich diversity and inclusive of all its minorities.
During the Presidential elections we witnessed relatively few human rights violations in most of the country. There were however, serious human rights violations in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, where attacks on election commissions and commissioners occurred throughout the pre-electoral period and during the election. In spite of this, the overall turnout in the country was high and President Poroshenko’s challenge now is not one of legitimacy, but more of winning the trust and confidence of the population in the east and of reconciliation.
In this context, the ongoing national roundtables on constitutional amendments proposing protection of minority rights and the decentralization of power to regions are crucial. Following the Geneva Statement of 17 April, roundtables on national unity, co-organized by the Government of Ukraine and the OSCE, were held on 14, 17 and 21 May. Parliament’s adoption on 20 May of a resolution entitled the “Memorandum of Concord and Peace”, reflected many issues discussed at these roundtables. It also foresees the adoption of a constitutional reform package, that includes the decentralization of power and a special status for the Russian language; judicial and police reform, and the adoption of an amnesty law for anti-government protesters in the east who would accept giving up weapons, except for those who have committed serious crimes against life and physical integrity. This is a welcome development.
A number of key legislative projects underway or already completed also present a major opportunity for Ukraine to turn the page on its recent turbulent past by putting in place important legal safeguards. These are aimed at ensuring minorities are represented in governance; at fighting corruption and combatting torture and impunity. On 13 May, for example, Parliament adopted a law that provides for more stringent penalties for corruption offences committed by individuals or legal entities. This will be key to addressing one the root causes of the Ukraine crisis.
Another draft law now before Parliament entitled “the official status of the Russian language in Ukraine”, is also an opportunity to rectify an earlier attempt by Parliament back in March to make Ukrainian the sole official language of Ukraine. The new draft law proposes to give “official status” to the Russian language without compromising the position of Ukrainian as the state language.
These are some of the major opportunities that the report highlights.
Now let me turn to some of the challenges:
The situation in eastern Ukraine represents the most pressing challenge to the country at this moment. Our latest report outlines in great detail the deteriorating human rights situation in this part of the country, and highlights the impact of the fighting on people’s enjoyment of their economic and social rights as well as civil and political rights. While casualty figures remain difficult to verify, as at 11 June, the Government cites 210 casualties in the east since the 14 April. However, the UN HRMMU has been able to record 404 killings since mid-April.
A climate of lawlessness prevails in the east, with an increase in criminality. Killings, abductions and detentions by the armed groups continue and this report indicates clearly that these human rights abuses are no longer just affecting journalists, politicians or civil society figures, but these acts are being perpetrated against the population at large.
According to the Government, from April to 7 June 2014, armed groups in the eastern regions abducted 387 people, among them 39 journalists. The HRMMU is keeping track of reports of abductions and trying to verify such reports through direct contacts with the victims and/or relatives or through other reliable sources. From its own records, the HRMMU is aware of 222 cases of abductions and detentions by armed groups since 13 April. Of these, 4 were killed; 137 released; and 81 remained detained as of 7 June. Freedom of expression is under threat in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern regions. Since the beginning of the crisis, Ukraine has become one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. On a daily basis, journalists face the threat of abduction and illegal detention.
Yesterday, two Russian journalists were killed by mortar fire. This follows the killing of an Italian photojournalist and his Russian interpreter on 24 May. Abductions of journalists have been increasing at a worrying rate in recent weeks.
The number of people carrying arms in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has also increased. Representatives of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” have recognised the presence within their ranks of armed groups of citizens of the Russian Federation, including from Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus. This shows a clear danger of a possible spill-over of the current crisis in eastern Ukraine.
At the same time in the context of the Government’s security operations, there has been an increase in reports of enforced disappearances and of excessive use of force that have led to casualties among the general population, which we continue to investigate.
The fighting has had a notable impact on the enjoyment of economic and social rights of those residing in the east. The report indicates that 21,700 students have not been able to attend school in the Slovyansk region since May. Hospitals remain overcrowded and understaffed, medical supplies are low, and it is now reported by the Ministry of Health that up to 10 are now closed in the eastern regions. Food prices have skyrocketed. Seasonal vegetables are now on average 4 to 5 times more expensive than before. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly difficult for businesses to operate and people to go to work. There have been for instance armed attacks against mining companies, which constitute the main share of the region’s economy.
The deteriorating situation in the east has led to a rise in the IDP population leaving especially from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. As at 16 June, the number of IDPs has reached 34,336 in Ukraine. The number has almost doubled in one week. Estimates put 15,200 IDPs to be from the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. In the absence of a formal registration system, and given the limited access to some areas by humanitarian partners, the number of IDPs is likely to be higher.
About half of the population of the Donetsk region experience some problems with access to water. The situation is worst in Slovyansk, where there is no running water and residents are resorting to using wells. Around 90% of the town is cut off from electricity. Phones do not work most of the time and public transport does not function.
The Government’s announcement that it will create transit corridors to allow the civilian population to escape the fighting, must be regarded with caution and the UN has not been requested by the Government to play a role. It may help bring some civil population out of the fighting areas but, measures should also be taken to provide an alternative to displacement whenever possible, including access to and provision of assistance for those who decide not to leave.
Now moving from the situation in the east to yet another major challenge identified in the report: the issue of accountability.
Progress towards accountability for the human rights violations committed during the Maidan protests, remains slow. According to the NGO SOS Maidan, a total of 113 persons were killed during the Maidan violence from November 2013 to February 2014, of which 109 in Kyiv and 4 in the regions. However, to this date, there have yet to be any completed prosecutions for identified perpetrators of these events. Some arrests have been made of “Berkut” forces, but it will be important that there is no victors’ justice. Those who have been involved in the killing of the 20 police and security forces, must also be held accountable.
The 2 May incident in Odesa, during which some 42 people lost their lives in the trade union building and another 6 in events preceding this incident, also remains of utmost concern. The UN HRMMU reported extensively on the ongoing investigations into this tragic incident, which points towards grave inaction on the part of the police and fire brigade in taking necessary measures to prevent the incidents.
One aspect that both the accountability processes for Maidan and Odesa have in common, are that they are both subject to a proliferation of investigations. No less than six investigations have been launched for Odesa and five for Maidan. This presents a high risk of miscommunication between the law enforcement agencies commissions and consequent contamination of evidence. It is highly important that progress is made in these investigations, as there is high interest by the international community to clarifying these events with a view to ensuring justice for the victims. There is also a need for greater transparency in the investigations as this could help ease existing tensions among the population.
Now let me briefly turn to the situation in Crimea as yet another challenge. What we are witnessing in Crimea is a “legal limbo”. Although Ukrainian legislation is supposed to remain in force until 1 January 2015, legal institutions and framework are already required to comply with the provisions of legislation of the Russian Federation. This has very practical effects, as some 15,000 judicial cases remain in legal limbo between Ukrainian and Russian laws and legal systems.
The Crimean Tatar population, have already been facing some limitations on their enjoyment of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association and religion.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, before concluding my presentation, I will say a few words regarding the way forward.
It is crucial that we seek opportunities to build confidence with the divided population in eastern Ukraine. President Poroshenko’s Peace Plan, as announced during his inauguration, may provide a basis for building confidence. However, in parallel, there needs to be constitutional, inclusive and meaningful consultations with all political parties, regardless of their ideology, as well as with representatives of civil society and minority groups.
All this has to be accomplished speedily, as the armed groups were able to take over power in the East, but are not able to govern. Sooner or later, social services will be interrupted and the population will pay the price.
There is also a growing need to address the situation of abductions and detentions. During my last visit I discussed the possibility of instituting human rights and humanitarian confidence building measures to identify opportunities for the release of detainees. The HRMMU was involved in efforts to negotiate the release of individuals detained by the armed groups under the control of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic and the “Luhansk People’s Republic”. Following repeated interventions, several civic activists and members of district election commissions were released from the SBU building in Donetsk on 27 May. During the night of 29-30 May, 20 civilians detained in the SBU building were released following discussions between the HRMMU and representatives of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
At the same time, during my last visit I also visited persons held in Kyiv who had been charged with separation offences in the east.
The UN HRMMU can potentially play a constructive role in this regard as it has contacts on both sides. At some point, we may even envisage an “all for all’ prisoner release within the framework of international law.
With regard to the future of the UN HRMMU, as we move into our fourth month of operations, it will be important that in parallel to monitoring and reporting, the Mission also focusses on technical assistance to the Government of Ukraine. It is important that we look into ways the UN HRMMU can assist the Government of Ukraine in the implementation of the many recommendations made in its reports and also highlighted in the recommendations by other international human rights mechanisms. As a start, we need to assess the level of implementation of these recommendations and look at gaps and opportunities where we can work together to address the human rights concerns identified in the reports.
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Among the root causes of Maidan, were corruption, human rights violations, impunity and lack of accountability. Measures to address the current crisis therefore have to also address these systemic concerns. With the election of President Poroshenko, there is an opportunity for the Government of Ukraine to prioritise institutional reform focusing on human rights challenges in the short-term, while paving the way for the establishment of a system that promotes and protects human rights for all, ensures justice, good governance and the rule of law through inclusive, non-discriminatory and participatory means. We stand ready to support the Government on its path to overcome these challenges.