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Statement by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović at the Human Rights Council Inter-active dialogue on Ukraine, 29 September 2015

Mr. President,

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to participate in this first inter-active dialogue on Ukraine, mandated by Human Rights Council resolution 29/23. 

 OHCHR has published 11 periodic reports based on the findings of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) since its deployment in March 2014, as well as a report to the HRC in September 2014. The latest report was issued on 8 September 2015, covering the period of 15 May to 15 August 2015. In my present statement I will focus on the findings from my mission to Ukraine last week, which included the territories under the control of armed groups.   

As at today, at least 8,050 people have been killed since the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine in mid-April 2014. This includes Ukrainian armed forces, civilians and members of the armed groups, and is a conservative OHCHR estimate. We believe that actual figure could be considerably higher and we constantly work to fill in the gaps in casualty records.

Over 1.5 million people have been registered by the Government as internally displaced. Even taking into account that part of these people continues to live on the territories controlled by the armed groups and had registered on the Government-controlled territories for the sake of receiving benefits, the figure truly indicates the scale of human hardship caused by the conflict.        

In the seven and a half months that followed the ceasefire of 15 February, we recorded that at least 196 civilians were killed due to the conflict. Until very recently, the ceasefire was barely holding and was being put to the test on a daily basis. Both the Ukrainian armed forces and the armed groups are responsible for indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, resulting in civilian casualties.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to report that my visit to Ukraine, from 20-25 September, took place during the so-called “beginning of the school year ceasefire”, which has largely held since 1 September. Only few casualties have been reported over the last weeks, mostly caused by landmines, booby traps, and other explosive remnants of war, rather than shelling or active fighting. Most interlocutors agreed that the conflict in eastern Ukraine might be heading towards a “frozen conflict” scenario. At the same time, a possible return to normalcy is facing a multitude of obstacles, including the constant threat of a resumption of the hostilities, which could potentially have devastating effects on the population in the east. This is particularly true  in the absence of a resolution to ensuring a humanitarian presence in the territories under the control of armed groups, which will have a direct effect on the capacity to deliver assistance, which is especially important as the winter approaches. The first cases of polio that have been identified in western Ukraine are symptomatic of a failing health system. This is mainly attributable to the deteriorating overall economic situation in the country. It highlights even more the urgency of ensuring humanitarian access to the territories under the control of armed groups, including  to provide necessary vaccines to contain the potential spread of this disease.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The Government of Ukraine’s  decision to suspend financing of social services from November 2014 is the major contributor to hardship and humanitarian needs in the areas under the control of armed groups. It is affecting basic economic and social rights – rights that all Ukrainian citizens on the entirety of its territory are entitled to. However, the armed groups appear increasingly organised and have now, for the most part, taken over government like functions, including payments to civil servants and the rebuilding of infrastructure, albeit allegedly with external assistance.

The order issued on  3 September by the  self-proclaimed “Donetsk people’s republic” (“DPR”) and the “Luhansk people’s republic” (“LPR”) formally introducing the Russian rouble as the official currency of the territory, however, has led to a one-third decrease in the real value of pensions and other benefits, exacerbating the already difficult situation of residents. With the increased level of organisation on the part of the armed groups, also comes a stronger desire for legitimacy and recognition, which has manifested itself in a number of ways, including through the recent requirement for registration of international NGOs and the UN presence.     

Freedom of movement in the east continues to be problematic, with long queues in and out of the only three Government checkpoints into the armed groups controlled areas, with people sometimes having to wait overnight. The situation is exasperating the population. It will be important that the divide artificially imposed by the contact line does not become further entrenched. The easing of bureaucratic hurdles and initiatives, such as the creation of so-called “logistics centers”, where basic goods and medicines can be bought at “Ukrainian prices”, and cash collected from the ATM machines are positive measures in this regard. These centers are, however, far from sufficient in alleviating the needs of the population in the areas controlled by the armed groups, nor do they provide for adequate levels of security, being located right at the frontline, where fighting could resume at any moment.

The relative lull in the fighting provided the ideal setting to introduce to the Government and relevant non-Government counterparts the Human Rights Monitoring Mission’s new methodology on civilian casualty reporting, which envisages the identification of the cause of death and the direction from which the attack came, and calling for investigation by one or the other party, implying the likely perpetrator.

Government counterparts, for most part, welcomed the new approach and were also willing to acknowledge that some cases of human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law were being committed by their forces and volunteer battalions. This is most welcome. A number of criminal proceedings are already underway for human rights violations, including unlawful killings, torture and ill-treatment by servicemen and volunteer battalions, of which at least 14 have already led to convictions, partly also under the impetus of the creation last year of the function of a  military prosecutor. The Government’s recent acceptance of the ad hoc jurisdiction of the ICC for crimes committed since February 2014 is also a welcome development furthering accountability.

Regarding the armed groups, the Human Rights Monitoring Mission has also documented less cases of human rights abuses in recent months. Despite the absence of the rule of law, a more organised leadership in the self-proclaimed “LPR” and “DPR” has seen life beginning to return to normalcy. During my visit to both “DPR” and “LPR” territories, I witnessed infrastructure being rebuilt, markets reopened and replenished and residents returning to their homes they abandoned last year, during the height of the fighting. Regrettably, the leadership of the self-proclaimed “LPR” was unable to meet to discuss the issue of our new civilian casualty reporting. However, I met with a number of representatives of the “DPR” who expressed their interest and willingness to cooperate. I again requested the representatives of the armed groups to allow access to places of detention.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It appears that active fighting has been replaced with the politicisation and instrumentalisation of humanitarian assistance by both sides as a new tool of warfare. Of the utmost concern in this regard remains the recent decision of the self-proclaimed “LPR” to request the departure of all international staff of the UN humanitarian entities, as well as international NGOs. It is to be seen whether the self-proclaimed “DPR” will follow suit. These decisions must be reversed. The situation in these territories risks severely worsening with the looming winter, and the longer the suspension of the humanitarian presence continues, the longer it will take to resume its activities.

Regrettably, there was little progress observed on the issue of the release of detainees. The “All for All”, is being applied more like a “One-for-One”, which lends itself to corruption, abuse and a man-hunt. I am confident that an “All for All” could still work- especially if the current ceasefire holds. I raised the issue with Government and the so-called “DPR” interlocutors and proposed a number of potential measures to advance its implementation.

During my visit to the areas under the control of the armed groups, I  visited a number of institutions for the elderly and children with disabilities with a view to assessing their right to access to health care, under the new “system”. I was impressed with the resilience and commitment of the many staff  members of these institutions who had  decided to stay behind in “LPR” and “DPR” to care for these most vulnerable groups, even though  salaries and funding to these institutions had practically halted last year. Nonetheless, there are still shortages in life-saving medicines, especially insulin, and anti-retroviral and psycho-tropic drugs, that are either not available on the market in these territories, or are simply too costly. The distrust and suspicion against humanitarian actors is especially severe towards those providing psycho-social support, yet the need for psycho-social support was highlighted repeatedly by humanitarian actors and care-takers during my visit.

Another issue of contention and potential trigger of instability, including pre-electoral violence, are the upcoming local elections. The issue of the rights of IDPs to vote in Government-controlled territory is yet to be resolved, with legislation pending in Parliament. At the same time, in “DPR” and “LPR” the holding of partial local elections on 18 October and 1 November, would jeopardise the implementation of the Minsk agreement. Dialogue should be pursued to overcome disagreements and find common ground. The success of the constitutional amendments on decentralization, including special provisions for the east, are essential for the long-term stability of the country. 

The current climate provides fertile ground for the implementation of a number of human rights-centered confidence-building measures. This is particularly relevant if the ceasefire continues to hold. First, resolving the issue of validation of official documents, including birth certificates, property titles, marriage and divorce licences, by the Government in Kyiv, would go a long way to building confidence by providing residents in the territories held by the armed groups access to these most basic civil rights. For example, interlocutors expressed concerns about the potential statelessness of children born in the “DPR” and “LPR”, because their documents are not considered valid by the Ukrainian authorities. Resolving this issue would additionally carry symbolic significance, underlying the continued recognition of the residents of these territories as citizens of Ukraine. In this context, I note that a draft law applying to the recognition of acts of birth and death has recently been developed and encourage its prompt adoption. Secondly, it could be envisaged to introduce a  dialogue on the provision of life-saving medicines in the context of the Minsk framework, and in particular, the working group on humanitarian issues. Thirdly, many interlocutors in both Government and armed groups-controlled areas indicated the need for assistance in demining. While the issue is already being discussed in the Minsk working group on humanitarian issues, it would be important to identify ways in which the international community could  lend and strengthen its support in this respect. Lastly, and as mentioned above, measures should be pursued to implement the “All for All” release of detainees. 

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Let me now turn to the situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, in line with the General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The situation continued to be characterized by human rights violations committed by the de facto authorities.

Crimean Tatars have been the main victims. However,  journalists, bloggers, pro-Ukrainian activists and human rights defenders also continue to be persecuted, threatened and intimidated for openly expressing critical views of the events unfolding in the region or reporting about them. There have been multiple cases of arbitrary arrests or detentions interfering with the right to liberty and security. Members of the ‘self-defense’, a paramilitary force which was instrumental in taking control of strategic facilities and institutions on the peninsula in February-March 2014, have not been prosecuted by the de facto authorities, in spite of their implication in violence and attacks against dissenters.

My visit also coincided with the Crimean Tatars’ initiative to economically block Crimea. In this context, I met with Mr Dzjemiliev, the representative of the Crimean Tatar people in the Ukrainian Parliament who has been leading this initiative. While the frustrations of the Crimean Tatar people regarding the situation in Crimea is understandable, I am concerned that it is the residents of Crimea who will ultimately be the ones paying the price for this initiative. It may also lead to increased divisions between mainland Ukraine and Crimea, and economically damage both sides, at a time when neither side can afford it economically.

Mr. President,

And now to the way forward – what can we expect in the next months ahead?

It is of the utmost importance that the Package of Measures to Implement the Minsk Agreements is fully implemented, to make the ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons a reality; to bring an end to hostilities;  to ease the hardship that continues to be suffered by many civilians in the conflict area, and in particular to prevent civilian casualties.

The final adoption of the decentralization amendments will be a test case of Ukraine’s ability to reform the state and contribute to the development of local democracy.

Local elections will be held on 25 October, but conditions must be created for a free, fair and pluralistic political competition, including equal access to the media, and the election of local councils accountable to the citizens.

We welcome the President’s adoption on 25 August of a national human rights strategy, offering a roadmap to address systemic and more recent, conflict related, human rights challenges. The Government was tasked to develop an action plan, within three months, to implement it. I have encouraged the Government to continue to engage civil society in a fully consultative and transparent process and I promised continued support by OHCHR. 

 With regard to the Human Rights Monitoring Mission’s presence on the ground, our mandate has been extended for 6 months. We currently have 38 staff on the ground with the intention of increasing our presence by an additional 16 staff, especially in the east.

OHCHR will continue to accompany and support all Ukrainians in the exercise of their human rights, especially during these challenging times ahead.

Thank you.