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Remarks by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on cooperation and assistance to Ukraine in the field of human rights

Geneva, 29 June 2016

Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Our last quarterly public report covers the period 16 February to15 May 2016, and is the 14th report of this kind. The report marks two years since the start of the conflict and takes stock of the current human rights situation in Ukraine. My remarks are also based on my recent mission to Ukraine from 28 May to 4 June, which focused on the conflict affected areas in the east on both sides of the contact line.

Mr. President,
This conflict has led to 31,292 casualties as of 25 June. This includes 9,449 people killed and 21,843 injured. This is a conservative OHCHR estimate based on available data; we believe that the real casualty figures are higher. Out of 9,449 killed, up to 2,000 were civilians. Most of them were killed as a result of indiscriminate and/or disproportionate shelling of residential areas, mostly in 2014 and beginning of 2015.

Since the 1 September 2015 ceasefire, civilian casualties have substantially decreased with less than 10 people killed and less than 30 injured on average a month. This shows us that a ceasefire can work, but must be fully implemented. There are, however, reasons for concern. During the three months covered by the 14th report, OHCHR has recorded 113 conflict-related civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine: 14 killed and 99 injured. Since 15 May, OHCHR recorded additional 67 civilian casualties: 11 killed and 56 injured. The conflict is slowly re-escalating once again.

Since 15 May, half of all civilian casualties were caused by shelling from mortars and howitzers – weapons which use in the conflict zone are prohibited by the Minsk Agreements. The majority of these casualties are recorded in the vicinity of Donetsk and Horlivka cities controlled by the armed groups, and in the towns of Avdiivka and Mariinka controlled by the Government. Clashes and exchanges of fire are reported in these hotspots on a daily basis.

Since mid-April, OSCE monitors have observed an increase in heavy weaponry near the contact line, where the sides are getting closer. There is a high risk of the re-escalation of wide-scale hostilities, if urgent action is not taken to separate sides and remove heavy weaponry.

Explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices continued to account for about half of civilian casualties in recent months. Mines, booby traps, and unexploded remnants of war represent a major threat to civilians. During my mission, I strongly advocated for the systemic coordination of mine action activities by all sides, better sharing of information, identification, mapping and demarcation of contaminated areas, their clearance, and comprehensive support for victims of mine and explosive remnant of war-related incidents.

Excellencies,

Freedom of movement of civilians continues to be severely curtailed, with 20,000 to 30,000 people trying to cross the contact line each day, with only five corridors available. Civilians queue for long hours, including overnight, even at times of heightened hostilities.  On 27 April 2016, for example, four civilians were killed and eight others injured by shelling while waiting at a checkpoint on the road between Mariupol and Donetsk city. These restrictions have a direct impact on the daily life of civilians, who have difficulties obtaining official birth and death certificates, getting their pensions paid or having access to proper social and medical services.

Many people are missing as a result of the conflict. Since mid-April 2014, 865 people are still considered missing in the Government-controlled parts of Donetsk region. And in those districts of Donetsk region which are controlled by the armed groups, 496 individuals are reported missing. There have been hundreds of people missing in Luhansk region, on both sides of the contact line. The Government is in the process of developing a law on missing persons, which we welcome. We have also recommended the Government to establish an independent and impartial, centralized State authority for tracing missing persons and identifying human remains. I have also strongly argued for cooperation between Government and armed groups in establishing the fate of missing persons.

This report also marks two years since the Russian Federation extended its control over the Autonomous Republic of Crimea. The human rights situation in Crimea has considerably deteriorated since.  Anti-extremism and anti-terrorism laws have been used to criminalize non-violent behaviour and stifle dissenting opinion, while the judicial and law enforcement systems have been instrumentalized to clamp down on opposition voices. Worst affected are Crimean Tatars, whose main representatives body, Mejlis, has been banned, and whose representatives I met during my visit.  I urge the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to overturn the prohibition decision to outlaw the Mejlis. 

Mr. President,

The situation in Ukraine remains volatile and could develop along three scenarios. The conflict could escalate, with dire consequences for civilians and broader ramifications for the region; it could become a ‘frozen conflict’, creating a protracted environment of insecurity and instability; or move towards sustainable peace. The last scenario is the only favourable one, so how to get there?

When talking to people in Government controlled areas, I have noticed that Minsk is not very popular, but it is still the best chance for a sustainable peace. There must be a more productive way to implement the Minsk Package of Measures. Many of the measures agreed at Minsk are human rights related, and they must be implemented in line with human rights standards.

This crisis started with demands for human rights and freedoms, and these demands remain today on either side of the contact line.

Firstly, fundamental freedoms are severely limited for 2.7 million people living in armed group-controlled areas. Limits to their freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association as well as lack of any space for dissenting views casts doubt on the prospects of holding free and fair elections in these areas until the situation improves. Only respect for civil and political rights brings them closer to the elections whose results can be recognised.

But in Government controlled areas, I also heard complaints about the curbing of civil and political rights, especially in the conflict zone.  Of course the situation there is challenging but I am calling on the Government to uphold human rights and think about the future that Ukrainians want for their country.

Secondly, rule of law. Ukraine needs a justice reform, which will strengthen the system both in sense of independence of judges, fight against corruption and addressing conflict related violations. 

This report marks two years since the violence of Maidan in Kyiv and 2 May violence in Odesa. There has been no meaningful progress in bringing those responsible to justice, in particular those in authority. In Odesa, the proceedings and investigations have been marred with irregularities. Government must take effective measures to protect judges from interference and pressure in high-profile cases. The recent adoption by the Parliament of constitutional amendments related to the judiciary has created a rare opportunity to break with the past.


In a worrying pattern of behaviour, armed groups continue to deny all international organizations access to places of deprivation of liberty. The Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) is also not always providing access to all places where detainees may be kept.  Independent international visits to all detention facilities and verification of all those held is a pre-condition for a successful ‘all for all’ release, envisaged by Minsk.

OHCHR has credible information of illegal and incommunicado deprivation of liberty by armed groups, as well as torture and ill-treatment. OHCHR also continues to receive accounts about torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary and incommunicado detention by the SBU, especially in the conflict zone. Torture and threats to members of the families, including sexual threats, are never justifiable, and perpetrators will be held to account sooner or later.

The pre-condition for any amnesty is a more reliable justice system capable of distinguishing and effectively prosecuting crimes. War crimes, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of human rights cannot be the subject of an amnesty.  

Thirdly, on social and economic rights, I am very concerned with the overall decrease of standard of living and quality of social services in Ukraine. But some categories of the population are especially vulnerable.

It is critical that everyone in Ukraine enjoy legal and social protection equally. The verification of social payments, introduced by the Government of Ukraine this year, has had an adverse impact on IDPs, especially the most vulnerable ones. As far as the Government is concerned, IDPs, and people in the conflict-affected areas (including those areas controlled by armed groups) must continue to receive their social entitlements without discrimination.

Excellencies,

In Donetsk, I strongly urged those in command to register humanitarian organisations and stop depriving the population from humanitarian assistance that is sometimes available and ready to be distributed right away.  I wanted to do the same in Luhansk but I was not let in.

Much civilian property is damaged and people have nowhere to go. The Government should investigate and provide remedies in relation to all incidents of damage, confiscation and looting of property, including by the Ukrainian armed forces, and establish a mechanism for restitution.

I was encouraged to hear from the newly appointed Minister for temporarily occupied areas and displaced persons that equal rights to social entitlements and rights of private persons to compensation are part of his programme.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me conclude. On both sides of the contact line leaders should listen to their people. I have heard them loud and clear: they want peace, human rights and the rule of law. OHCHR remains committed to assist Ukraine in this regard.  In addition to monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Ukraine, OHCHR will also step up its support to the Government of Ukraine through the provision of legal expertise and technical assistance, especially in the implementation of the National Human Rights Strategy and the Action Plan.

Thank you.