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Ukraine: Lives lost in an accountability vacuum – UN Rapporteur on summary executions

KYIV / GENEVA (18 September 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, today called on the Ukrainian Government and the armed groups operating in the country to put into place a proper system of accountability in order to bringing the current cycle of violence to an end.

“Thousands of people have died in Ukraine over the last two years, both in the context of a brutal armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and in the rest of the country, Mr. Heyns said at the end of his first official visit* to the country, where he examined the level of protection of the right to life, including the efforts undertaken to prevent unlawful killings and ensure justice and redress in such cases.

The armed confrontation between Ukrainian forces and armed groups, which has a strong international dimension, has taken an especially heavy toll on civilians. During his ten-day visit to the country, the Rapporteur was able to visit both sides of the ‘contact line’. He met with officials and others, and observed the effects of the shelling, raising concerns that many civilian causalities could have been avoided if parties to the conflict had taken stronger measures to mitigate such losses.

“I am particularly concerned by the allegations of indiscriminate shelling, armed forces of both sides taking positions and placing artillery in civilian-populated areas (including at schools and hospitals) and the use of weapons with indiscriminate effects,” the expert said. “There is however very little evidence that either the Government or the armed groups investigate any of these allegations – instead they point fingers at each other. Those allegations ring hollow if not contrasted with investigations on their own side.”

The ceasefire negotiated at Minsk in February 2015 has largely been observed during the last few weeks. “The opportunity should be used by both sides to put measures into place to reduce the toll that the war is exacting from everyone concerned,” he stressed.

The Special Rapporteur noted that there are also credible allegations of serious violations taking place in Crimea, the status of which is prescribed by General Assembly resolution 68/262, since February 2014.

Global attention was drawn to Ukraine nearly two years ago when a mass demonstration in the centre of Kyiv resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people. Only a few months later groups of demonstrators participating in another mass demonstration clashed in Odessa, resulting in the deaths of at least 48 people, many trapped in a burning building.

“Ukrainian authorities – former and present - had responsibilities to protect life both at Maidan and during the events of 2 May in Odesa, and their failure to do so had tragic results,” Mr Heyns said. “Those shortcomings are only exacerbated by the subsequent failure properly to investigate the cause of these deaths in the aftermath, and to take steps aimed at redress.”

According to the expert, the legal framework for the protection of the right to life is largely in place, but its implementation seems highly problematic as there are accountability failures for violations of these norms on many levels. “The Security Service of Ukraine has been the subject of widespread allegations—and seems to be above the law,” he noted.

The human rights expert made a range of recommendations to improve the level of accountability in the country. “Merely pointing to legal provisions is not good enough”, he said. “But I take heart from a high ranking official who told me: ‘Things do not always happen as we want them to.’”

“Ukraine faces serious challenges, and violations will almost inevitably occur,” the Special Rapporteur said. “The only way forward is for all parties actively to confront that fact and to ensure that a functioning system of accountability for a common set of standards is put into place.”

(*) Check the Special Rapporteur’s full end-of-mission statement, including his preliminary recommendations: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16460&LangID=E

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. He has advised a number of international, regional and national entities on human rights issues.  Learn more, log on to:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Executions/Pages/SRExecutionsIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Ukraine: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/UAIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact: In Geneva, Brenda Vukovic (+41 22 917 9635 / bvukovic@ohchr.org). In Kyiv: Sergii Kurnosenko (+380 95 275 27 13 / skurnosenko@ohchr.org) or Jon Izagirre García (+41(0) 797520485 / jizagirre@ohchr.org)

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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