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Statement to the Security Council by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Ukraine

New York, 8 August 2014

Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

Thank you for the opportunity to brief you again on the human rights situation in Ukraine. On 28 July, OHCHR issued the fourth monthly report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which covered the period from 8 June to 15 July 2014. Today, I will highlight the report’s key findings and I will focus on the rapidly deteriorating situation in the east of the country and provide updates since 15 July 2014.

At the outset, let me say that the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, killing 298 people, which occurred on 17 July, calls for our unanimous sorrow and sympathy for the victims’ families, as well as our outrage. While the downing of the plane may constitute a war crime, a thorough, effective, independent and impartial investigation is needed to determine the facts and circumstances of this act. This investigation is now underway, led by the Netherlands. To that end, it is disturbing to learn that the volatile security situation at the crash site continues to hamper the investigators, despite the ceasefire zone declared by the Government of Ukraine around the area. It is urgent to stop the fighting and to secure the crash site. At the same time of course, more broadly, there needs to be accountability for those responsible for war crimes, serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross violations of human rights law, as documented by the findings of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission.

The intense fighting in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine is extremely alarming and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission reports mounting casualties and serious damage to infrastructure. All Ukrainians are paying an increasingly high price. As you are aware, the ceasefire declared by the Government was in effect for 10 days, from 20 to 30 June. The report describes the rapid escalation of hostilities that has occurred since the end of that ceasefire – which, it notes, was violated over 100 times. It also notes the rapid professionalization of the armed groups, which are increasingly well organized and equipped with heavy weaponry. Their political and military leadership includes not only Ukrainians but also citizens of the Russian Federation.

On 2 July, constitutional proposals were made, including on decentralization, local governance structures and preservation of the use of the Russian language. These have been among the main concerns of the Russian speaking population in the east of the country. Meanwhile, the human rights situation has deteriorated significantly in pockets of territory in Luhansk and Donetsk which are still controlled by armed groups, and where the Government has been undertaking its security operations.

The report details what amounts to a reign of fear and terror in areas under control of the armed groups, twinned with the breakdown of law and order. There have been reports of egregious human rights abuses including abductions, detentions, torture and executions in these areas, all of which have increased the terror of civilians who are trapped there or held as hostages. More must be done to protect the lives of innocent people and to bring perpetrators to account. This must start with an immediate cessation of hostilities.

Since April, some 924 people have been abducted by armed groups, including 811 politicians, journalists, professionals, students and other civilians, and OSCE monitors, and 113 servicemen, military border guards and security personnel have been detained. These figures are provided by the Government. Abducted individuals have been used as an exchange currency to free members of armed groups detained by the Government; to extort money or property; and as a source of forced labour – to dig trenches or barricades close to the epicentre of the violence. Some vulnerable groups such as persons living with HIV or drug users have been made to “work off their guilt” as forced labour or to fight on the front lines for two weeks or more. Recently, as the Government of Ukraine has regained control over more of the territory in the east formerly held by the armed groups, many hostages have been freed or released through negotiations, but as of 5 August, the whereabouts of 465 people remain unknown.

The situation of children affected by the conflict is particularly worrying and required more concerted commitments by all parties to ensure the effective protection of these children. Whilst it seems that considerable efforts have been undertaken to evacuate children from the area of hostilities, according to the Ukrainian Ombudsperson, about 300 children remained in several orphanages in the areas under the control of the armed groups.. Children experience specific vulnerabilities in this context, and allegations of abductions or attempted abductions continue to persist. For example, a group of 16 children and two chaperones, who were allegedly abducted and transferred to the Russian Federation territory on 12 June by armed groups, were returned back to Ukraine on 13 June. I am pleased to report that the active cooperation between the Ombudspersons of Ukraine and the Russian Federation had successfully facilitated the safe return of the children.

On 8 July, the authorities in the Russian Federation announced that a former Ukrainian military pilot held in a pre-trial detention centre in the Russian Federation would be charged with complicity in the killing of two Russian TV journalists on 17 June near Luhansk. The circumstances of her capture have been controversial: the Russian authorities state that she freely crossed the border into the Russian Federation and was subsequently arrested because she had no documents and was masquerading as a refugee. The Ukrainian Government says she was abducted in Luhansk by armed groups and was taken to the Russian Federation in an operation coordinated with the Russian secret services. The Ukrainian Consul was permitted to visit her on 16 July. She remains in detention.

Fighting in and around population centres has resulted in heavy loss of life and very significant damage to property and civilian infrastructure. Both sides must be reminded of the imperative that they act proportionately and take precautions to avoid deaths and injury of civilians: otherwise they will be held accountable for the casualties that could have been avoided

The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission and the World Health Organization estimate that between the onset of fighting in mid-April and 7 August, more than 1,543 people have been killed in the east, including civilians, the military and members of the armed groups. 4,396 have been confirmed wounded – the real number is likely to be much higher.

Some internally displaced people are beginning to return to territories in the east where the Ukrainian Government has regained control. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission visited Slovyansk earlier this week and I am pleased to report that life in that city is returning to normal. Water, electricity and gas supplies have been restored to 95% of previous capacity and children have returned to kindergarten. The city does not need humanitarian aid any more, according to the acting Mayor. However, a disturbing discovery has been made of a mass grave in Slovyansk containing 14 bodies, at least 2 of whom have been identified as abducted members of a local evangelist church in Slovyansk. The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission spoke to the father of these two identified individuals who said that the church had been threatened by members of the armed groups on a number of occasions before the armed men had abducted four church members on 8 June as they left their church service. Until the bodies were exhumed on 24 July, their whereabouts had been unknown.

As the Government regains more territory formerly controlled by the armed groups, it must ensure all atrocities are fully investigated under the full application of international human rights norms and guarantees. These include the avoidance of reprisals. Allegations about arbitrary detention and abuses by Government forces have to be investigated and acted upon promptly and decisively.

I wish to inform you that the UN Human Rights Office has received a “White Book” on alleged human rights violations in Ukraine that has been prepared by the Russian Federation covering the period from early April to mid-June 2014, which we are currently reviewing. Some of the cases have already been reflected in previous reports of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission. I would reiterate that the Government of Ukraine should investigate all alleged human rights violations, as recommended by the Mission.

In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, harassment and discrimination has intensified against Ukrainian nationals, Crimean Tatars, representative of religious minorities, minority groups in general and activists who opposed the 16 March “referendum” in the area. UNHCR estimates that more than 15,200 people have left Crimea, while tens of thousands of people continue to flee the fighting in the east, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons in Ukraine to more than 117,910, according to UNHCR as of 5 August. The report details a number of recommendations to the Government to address outstanding issues.

The ability of Ukrainians to exercise their freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, movement and religion or belief, as well as their political rights, has been strongly affected by the current crisis. In the east, these rights have been strictly curtailed by the armed groups. In a significant moment, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission reported that on 1 August, residents of Severodonetsk – a city regained by Ukrainian forces on 22 July - were able to openly gather in the central square in a flash mob to express support for Ukraine. This was the first such rally allowed since March. However, worrying trends include the rise of hate speech, particularly in social media, and a number of incidents targeting Russian-owned banks and businesses on the grounds that they are allegedly ”financing terrorism”. Freedom of expression has also come under attack, especially in the east, where attempts at media manipulation have been especially egregious in territory under the control of armed groups.

Journalists in Luhansk were required to meet the political leadership of the armed groups every Monday to discuss what to cover and how, and those who did not comply were threatened and obstructed, and their equipment destroyed. The so-called “Defence Minister” of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” has prohibited journalists, cameramen and photographers from taking photos, videos and audio recordings, and banned them from working in the combat zones and from proximity with military objects. As a result, a number of journalists, including foreign media professionals, have been harassed. Ukrainian journalists are treated even more harshly. Here I note with concern the abduction of a local field producer for CNN, who was taken from a hotel in Donetsk on 22 July, held for 4 days, severely beaten and accused of being a Ukrainian spy.

It is imperative that the parties to the conflict be assisted to find a way out of this murderous and potentially even more explosive crisis. I welcome the Ukrainian President’s proposal for a new round of talks to find a way to restore the ceasefire. A first meeting was held in Minsk on 31 July where important agreements were made to secure the crash site of the Malaysian Airlines plane and to release “a sizeable number” of the hostages being held by armed groups.

Moreover, even when the current crisis has been resolved, deep psychological scars will remain. The fabric of society is being torn apart by the continuous and ongoing violence and fighting; the misinformation being spread is building divisive narratives, hardening people’s resolve and deepening social divides. Residents of areas in the east affected by the prolonged fighting may need psychological assistance to heal and rebuild their lives, particularly children. Many others will require help to recover, such as victims of torture and former hostages, especially those held for long periods.

There is a clear need for a multi-year human rights national plan of action for Ukraine based on the recommendations of the United Nation human rights mechanisms and the work of the Human Rights Monitoring Mission. It is critically important that the recommendations in the annex of the report be part of the wider EU reform agenda as the international community and Ukraine prepare also for a major donor conference later in the fall. As the report notes, the Government needs to seriously address the wider systemic problems, such as corruption, facing the country with respect to good governance, the rule of law and human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights reiterates its readiness to work with the Government on these issues.

Civil society has played a vital role in Ukraine. The report describes how citizens have stepped in where their Government has been unable to respond quickly enough, such as accommodating people fleeing the fighting. Perhaps this new civic spirit will help drive the next phase of the much needed change in Ukraine.

Allow me to conclude by stressing the need to find a peaceful solution to the current situation. We cannot afford to wait a day longer, when at least 50 people are being killed or wounded every day. The price being paid by all Ukrainians as a result of the conflict is too high. Ukrainians and Russian Ukrainians in the east are losing their lives, but the whole country is paying the price of conflict as a result of the deterioration of social services. The political and economic consequences of the conflict spill over Ukrainian borders, negatively impacting on human rights worldwide - the civilian airplane tragedy being just the most drastic example.

I thank you for your attention.