Geneva, 27 September 2016
Colleagues and friends,
Resolution 32/29 of 1 July 2016 of this Council invites the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue to present orally to Member States and observers the findings of the public reports of his Office on the situation of human rights in Ukraine.
Since we last briefed you, the Office has produced two reports: a thematic report on accountability for killings, which covers the period from January 2014 to May 2016, and the 15th periodic report, covering the period from 16 May to 15 August 2016.
The period from mid-May to mid-August saw a significant increase in hostilities along the contact line in eastern Ukraine. We recorded a two-thirds increase in the numbers of civilians killed or wounded in areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as compared to the previous reporting period. More than half of all civilian casualties recorded in June and July were caused by shelling around the contact line, allegedly including use of weapons expressly prohibited by the Minsk Agreements.
We found evidence of violations of international humanitarian law, including attacks on protected objects, such as schools, hospitals and medical facilities. The conflict continues to impact densely populated civilian areas in the region of Donetsk, and attacks on necessary civilian infrastructure are causing harm and suffering to people living on both sides of the contact line.
We welcome the 1 September recommitment to a ceasefire. However, as with the previous one, this has already been violated, through night-time shelling and use of weapons prohibited by the Minsk Agreements including on schools.
On 21 September, the parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine agreed to a disengagement framework that would see the withdrawal of forces and weapons from the contact line in three hotspots. This positive step toward de-escalating hostilities must mark a conclusive departure from the repeated violations of ceasefires that otherwise means a further deterioration into a cycle typical of protracted conflicts.
Constraints on the freedom of movement remain an unnecessary and wholly unjustified cause of suffering for the more than 25,000 people who seek to cross the contact line each day. When we updated this Council in the March session, we highlighted the challenges involved in crossing the contact line in winter. The summer period brought the population little relief. People wait to cross for up to 36 hours, including all night, and with no or limited access to shade from the sun, to water, latrines, medical aid or shelter in case of shelling. In fact, during the reporting period, three civilians died at checkpoints due to delayed access to emergency medical assistance while several people, mostly elderly, lost consciousness while standing in line.
Over the last three months, OHCHR did note incremental improvements in access to places of deprivation of liberty. In areas of Donetsk region under the control of the armed groups, our staff, in the presence of the local ‘authorities’, were able to meet some of the pre-conflict prisoners held in penal colony No. 124, as well as 31 men being held in colony No. 97 who are deprived of their liberty in the context of hostilities in Makiivka.
However, the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ continued to deny external observers access to all places of deprivation of liberty. In this context, we therefore have serious concerns regarding torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including sexual and gender-based violence.
The High Commissioner again draws your attention to the urgent need for: unhindered and regular access to places of deprivation of liberty, provision of medical care for victims, and accountability for violations and abuses committed during detention.
Further to this point, while we have noted training sessions on torture prevention undertaken by the Security Service of Ukraine, and welcome the recent resumption of the visit of the Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, evidence of torture and ill-treatment at the hands of State agents and armed groups continues to surface.
Allegations of torture, ill-treatment, and incommunicado detention prior to transfer to the criminal justice system accounts for 70% of cases of human rights violations documented by OHCHR during the reporting period. The majority of the allegations against the Government implicate the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) officials and police.
Our findings indicate that Ukraine authorities have allowed individuals to be deprived of their liberty in secret and for prolonged periods of time, for example in sites such as the basement of the SBU building in Mariupol. OHCHR has also confirmed the release of 13 individuals from the Kharkiv SBU who had been subjected to enforced disappearances for up to two years. One man, released after more than a year and a half of incommunicado detention, gave an understated account of the cost to him and his family: “At the time of my abduction my youngest son couldn’t speak. Now he is three and a half and I am teaching him to say “dad” for the first time.”
OHCHR also continues to document cases of grave human rights abuses by the armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. In particular, OHCHR documented an increase in detentions and disappearances at checkpoints controlled by the ‘Donetsk people’s republic.’ OHCHR is concerned that deprivations of liberty are often accompanied by torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and may in itself constitute such treatment, spreading fear among civilians, in particular because of the arbitrary nature of abductions.
OHCHR notes that the efforts of the Ukrainian authorities to bring to account perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses in the east have not yielded many results, but appreciates that they are a start. OHCHR acknowledges the efforts of the Office of the Chief Military Prosecutor of Ukraine to investigate alleged cases of killing, torture and ill-treatment of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians by members of the armed groups, and also to bring perpetrators from the ranks of the Government forces to justice. However, the effectiveness and promptness of these investigations leave much to be desired, and we urge the Government of Ukraine to intensify its efforts in this area. I further note that our trial monitoring, assessments of investigations and analysis of prosecutions, suggests strongly that impunity also stems from interference with and pressure against the independence of the judiciary. A most recent example of this occurred on 10 September, when a large group of “Azov” battalion supporters disturbed the trial of a young member of the battalion who is accused of hooliganism.
Journalists and media workers continue to experience pressure at the hands of the SBU, the armed forces and the armed groups. We have found a notable increase in violence and harassment against journalists, as well as the continuing absence of accountability. The recent killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet will be a test of the ability and willingness of Ukraine’s institutions to investigate assaults on media freedom, which is essential for the development of a free society.
Several hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons continued to face grave impediments to the enjoyment of their economic and social rights, as they are severely or critically affected by suspensions of payments of social entitlements. Equal protection of all people affected by the conflict is crucial for the peaceful reconstruction of Ukrainian society. We documented too an increase in the cases of people subjected to forcible use of and damage to their property by armed groups and by Ukraine armed forces, with no available mechanism for complaint or remedy - this against a backdrop of decreasing standards of living and economic downturn.
OHCHR also continued to document cases of sexual violence, amounting to torture, of conflict-related detainees, both men and women, including cases of rape, and threats of rape or other forms of sexual violence towards victims and/or their relatives.
In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, we note continued deterioration of the human rights situation, in the context of further administrative integration into the Russian Federation’s south federal district, and the conduct of elections for the Russian Parliament. Both are in violation of United Nations General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
The right to peaceful assembly has been further curtailed by the de facto authorities and people continue to be interrogated and harassed by law enforcement agents for expressing views that are abusively deemed "extremist". A deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis was ordered by a Crimean so-called ‘court’ to undergo psychiatric assessment and was released after a month-long forced stay in hospital.
The search for missing persons who disappeared under circumstances suggestive of political or ethnic motivation – 10 cases according to our records – remains inconclusive. This absence of accountability and redress for victims nurtures impunity.
Our first thematic report on Ukraine focuses on the painfully slow progress in accountability for killings committed throughout Ukraine since the Maidan events. It includes at least 2,000 civilian casualties, including through executions, killings of hors de combat fighters, and deaths of individuals deprived of their liberty. Our report also covers the events of Maidan and Odesa in 2014, as well as disappearances which may have led to the death of victims in Crimea, and notes a widespread absence of political will to ensure such cases are investigated promptly, impartially and independently.
Impunity for such crimes, and others, is manifestly unjust, and it fuels mistrust in institutions. It encourages the perpetuation of violence, undermines efforts to establish more solidly the rule of law and erodes prospects for reconciliation.
Observance of human rights keeps societies safe; builds the foundation of public confidence and security in the fair and impartial rule of law. During the period under review, the Government of Ukraine continued institutional reforms and adopted constitutional amendments related to the judiciary, and this creates a welcome opportunity to protect and enforce rights. We encourage these welcome steps and urge their expansion and further advancement.
In Ukraine, we have helped ensure that draft legislation complies with international human rights standards; advised the authorities on their obligations, and on protection gaps that have come to our attention; and we have issued concrete recommendations which we have followed up with relevant authorities – especially in the context of the National Human Rights Strategy and the Action Plan which implements it.
We continue to work with the UN country team and with other international and regional organizations to assist the Government of Ukraine, and to respond to regional and international human rights requirements, including in the context of the SDGs.
A woman resident in Ternopil – whose son is a Ukrainian soldier – expressed the longing of thousands of civilians across the conflict’s regions “I want us to live in peace. We always did. We are all brothers and sisters. For what and for whom is this war? Not for me. Not for them.”
OHCHR is committed to assisting all who bear human rights obligations fulfil their duties. However, the escalation in hostilities and drastic increase in civilian casualties between 16 May and 15 August demonstrates the pressing need for that all parties to the conflict to take decisive steps to protect civilians: Withdraw military personnel, fighters and weapons from the contact line, uphold the material integrity of protected objects such as schools, hospitals and medical centres and comply with a full ceasefire, in line with the Minsk Agreements.
We further urge all parties to implement the recommendations contained in our first thematic report and in the 15 reports that we have issued on the human rights situation in Ukraine since March 2014.