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Statement of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on cooperation and assistance to Ukraine in the field of human rights

Geneva, 12 December 2016

Mr. President,
Excellencies,

I welcome this opportunity to present to Member States, observers and all other participants the latest findings by my Office on the situation of human rights in Ukraine.

The 16th quarterly report on the human rights situation in Ukraine issued by my Office covers the three months from mid-August to mid-November 2016. This period was marked by diplomatic efforts to de-escalate hostilities. Despite the continued violations of the ceasefire and the absence of respect for some of the most critical Minsk provisions – including the prohibition of heavy weaponry, and restoration of the full control by Ukraine of its border with the Russian Federation in areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk region – there was a significant overall decrease in civilian casualties during this reporting period. In September, casualties fell four-fold compared to August. Due to renewed shelling in October, civilian casualties scaled up to the levels observed during the summer. In November and early December they again decreased. I hope the downward trend will continue.

Over 2000 civilians have been killed in the armed conflict to date, with between 6000 and 7000 injured. Including members of the Ukrainian armed forces and members of armed groups, the death toll now amounts to at least 9,758, with some 22,800 people wounded. An additional 298 civilians were killed in the MH-17 plane crash.

Interviews conducted by my staff on the ground expose the continuing suffering of the people of Ukraine and the devastation to infrastructure caused by the conflict in Government controlled territory and in territory under the control of armed groups. People living in the conflict-affected area increasingly complain of the presence of military equipment and personnel in their villages and homes, and the use of their agricultural land for military purposes. This frightens civilians and endangers civilian infrastructure, a threat aggravated by increased shelling. In recent weeks, shelling has damaged gas and water systems, limiting access to water and heating for many on both sides of the contact line in Donetsk region. In Luhansk region, my colleagues observed the impact of reduced water supply just last week, in a hospital which is struggling to cope in territory under the control of armed groups. I remind all the parties to the conflict, in the strongest possible terms, that attacking, destroying, removing or rendering useless, objects indispensable to the survival of civilians is prohibited under international humanitarian law.

In territory under the control of armed groups, people are largely deprived of means for seeking redress in a context characterized by an absence of rule of law, with daily threats to the freedoms of speech, association and peaceful assembly. They suffer severe restrictions on civil society action and a continuously shrinking space for humanitarian work, despite high levels of humanitarian need. One internally displaced woman living in Donetsk city told my colleagues, “No one listens to us. To get any help we need to go through every circle of Hell”.

Families and communities torn apart by the conflict are limited to only five points of entry and exit across mined and poorly marked areas, where they are subject to long and arbitrary delays. These and other disproportionate restrictions on freedom of movement across the contact line severely affect an average of 25,000 people per day, seemingly punishing those who struggle to maintain family and community ties across the contact line. Ultimately, it is these human bonds which will form the foundation of peace, and they should be fostered rather than severed.

Hundreds of people remain missing across Ukraine. Some may be dead, their bodies unrecovered or unnamed due to the continuing lack of coordination between the Government and the armed groups to facilitate the identification of mortal remains. Others may be held incommunicado. Currently, we are unable to establish the whereabouts of five individuals who were at one point held in unacknowledged detention in the Kharkiv SBU Security Service. I am encouraged by last month's registration of a draft law on the legal status of missing persons. I trust it will lessen the profound and unnecessary suffering this situation causes to the families of the missing.

Also in regard to the high numbers of missing people, I note that the armed groups controlling territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions continue to abduct and detain people arbitrarily and in conditions tantamount to enforced disappearance – including minors. They have impeded regular and unfettered access by members of the Human Rights Monitoring Mission to places of detention, raising suspicions that people may be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence. The Human Rights Monitoring Mission has repeatedly highlighted the vulnerability of people living in territory controlled by armed groups to arbitrary and selective sanctions.

I note also that the Human Rights Monitoring Mission continues to document unnecessary uncertainty and delays regarding so-called "exchanges of detainees" – a situation in which all parties are, in effect, treating these people, and their families, as human currency. I strongly urge all parties to the conflict to expedite the Minsk Agreement provision on the ‘all for all’ release of persons held in the context of the conflict.

We are also following the case of Roman Sushchenko, a Ukrainian journalist detained in Moscow on 30 September 2016.

Mr. President,

As you are aware, the Human Rights Monitoring Mission has been denied access to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, and is limited to monitoring the situation there remotely, in line with General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. My staff has documented continued sanctions against members of the Mejlis, including arbitrary detention. The continued prosecution of Crimean Hizb-ut-Tahrir members in Russian Federation courts, and the transfer of detainees from Crimea to penitentiary facilities in the Russian Federation where they are denied proper medical treatment, also raise serious concerns. I am disturbed by reports of abusive resort to anti-extremism and anti-terrorism legislation to criminalize the expression of non-violent views, opinions and beliefs; by reports of cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment; and reports of violations of due process, including the right to unimpeded access to legal counsel.

Mr President,

Internally displaced civilian families who have fled the fighting in conflict zones, or who have left their homes in Crimea, face onerous and disproportionate obstacles to obtaining their social entitlements, as well as the threat of eviction, followed by secondary displacement. Some IDPs feel they have no choice but to return even though the reasons for their displacement persist. Much more could be done to assist them, including de-linking social entitlements from their registration as IDPs, and prioritising durable housing options and income-earning opportunities.

Mr President,

The Human Rights Monitoring Mission has noted some progress in investigations and prosecutions in the context of the violence which took place during the 2014 revolution. I am also heartened that investigations have started into violations committed during the armed conflict by members of Government forces and commanders of armed groups. However, legal proceedings into the violence of May 2014 in Odesa have shown little progress and the independence of the judiciary in this respect continues to be interfered with. I urge the Ukrainian authorities to tackle the issue of accountability on the basis of principle and with greater energy. It is critical for Ukraine’s future that victims receive justice and remedy and that perpetrators are brought to account.

I welcome the Constitutional amendments regarding the judiciary introduced on 30 September. They set out a clear path of reform toward the restoration of public trust in judicial institutions. The process may be complex, and may require support to ensure that issues such as shortages of judges can be addressed.

To conclude, allow me to reiterate the continued commitment of my Office to support the Government of Ukraine in its efforts to promote and protect human rights in this very difficult context. We plan a number of activities to support improved implementation of our recommendations and hope that as of March 2017 we will be able to operate on a one-year mandate. Our Office is fully involved in the UNDAF developed for 2018-2022. We will continue to work closely with all actors in the country, including civil society, members of the international community, including the Council of Europe, and the Office of the Parliamentary Human Rights Commissioner.

Thank you.