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Human Rights Council hears oral updates on Ukraine and Georgia under its technical assistance and capacity building agenda item

MORNING

GENEVA (21 June 2017) - The Human Rights Council this morning heard an oral update by Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on the situation of human rights in Ukraine, which was followed by an interactive dialogue.   The Council also heard an oral update on cooperation and assistance to Georgia.
 
The High Commissioner, presenting the eighteenth quarterly report of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, said there had been daily violations of the ceasefire; routine use of heavy weapons in breach of the withdrawal lines; and indiscriminate shelling, which continued to take a heavy toll on civilian lives and property.  Key commitments made under the Minsk agreements continued to be largely ignored.   The conflict was intensifying, with the freedom of movement continuing to be restricted across the contact line, affecting an average of 29,000 people a day.  Speaking of the human rights situation in Crimea, the High Commissioner said that during the reporting period, there had been worrisome cases of disregard of fair trial guarantees.
 
Ukraine, speaking as the concerned country, supported the High Commissioner’s message on the crucial importance of access for monitoring and cooperation with human rights mechanisms in addressing grave human rights.  The positive impact on the human rights situation in Crimea was only possible through the full consolidation of the international community and its constant political pressure on the Russian Federation.
 
During the interactive dialogue, many delegations expressed deep concern at the human rights situation in the region, with some paying particular attention to the situation of vulnerable groups.  The parties to the conflict were urged to move above politics to ensure children’s rights to physical protection, psychological well-being, and the right to safe drinking water.  Many speakers issued calls for all parties to fully implement the Minsk agreements.  The human rights situation in Crimea was singled out for special concern, with speakers urging the immediate granting of access to the human rights monitoring mission to that region. 
 
Speaking were European Union, Russian Federation, Austria, Czechia, Estonia, United Nations Children's Fund, United States, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Finland, Australia, Poland, Spain, Japan, Croatia, France, Luxembourg, United Kingdom, Latvia, Albania, Hungary, Turkey, Georgia, Ireland, Lithuania, Sweden, Romania, Council of Europe, Republic of Moldova, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.
 
The following non-governmental organizations also spoke: Amuta for NGO responsibility, Minority Rights Group, Human Rights Watch, United Nations Watch, Human Rights House Foundation, World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and International Fellowship for Reconciliation.
 
After the conclusion of its interactive dialogue on Ukraine, the Council heard an oral update on cooperation and assistance to Georgia from Georgette Gagnon, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  She said that the Office of the High Commissioner remained concerned that despite repeated requests since 2011, it had not been granted access by authorities in control in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, raising legitimate concerns and questions about the state of human rights of the populations living there.  Measures such as the closing of crossing points and the lack of access to documents were among the most damaging instruments.  Restrictions to freedom of movement remained among major concerns.  Particular attention should be placed on fostering gender equality and the participation of women in the peace process.
 
Georgia, speaking as the concerned country, said the human rights situation in the affected regions continued to remain alarming.  Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees were being robbed of their right to voluntary, safe and dignified return to their places of origin.  The international community’s firm stance was needed to ensure the basic rights of those living under occupation and under imminent threat of annexation. 
 
The Council will next hold its general debate on technical cooperation and capacity building. 
 
Interactive Dialogue on Oral Update on Ukraine
 
Presentation of the Oral Update
 
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, presented the eighteenth quarterly report of the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, which covered the three months between 16 February and 15 May 2017.  Daily violations of the ceasefire, routine use of heavy weapons in breach of the withdrawal lines, and indiscriminate shelling had continued to take a heavy toll on civilian lives and property.  Key commitments made under the Minsk agreements continued to be largely ignored.  An exception was the agreement on a 24-hour renewed commitment to the ceasefire agreed by the armed forces of all parties in honour of the International Day for Protection of Children.  That demonstrated that a real ceasefire could be ensured, with immediate beneficial impact.  High Commissioner Zeid called on all parties to take inspiration from that achievement and to honour the rights of all children and adults every day.  Respect for international humanitarian law was essential by all parties.  That included an end to indiscriminate shelling of populated areas, an end to attacks on vital civilian objects and infrastructure, and an end to the placement of military objects in or near residential areas.
 
During the reporting period, there was a 48 per cent increase in conflict-related casualties.  The number of civilian casualties by shelling had doubled.  The statistics spoke to the changing nature of the conflict: it was intensifying, with both sides very close to each other and heavy weapons, soldiers and members of armed groups frequently embedded in civilian areas or alongside civilian infrastructure.  The staff of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had repeatedly observed hospitals and schools damaged by shelling.  Safe water supply had been suspended due to shelling, as well.  The staff continued to document cases of unlawful and arbitrary detention on both sides of the contact line, coupled with abuse amounting to torture or ill-treatment.  Allegations indicated almost systematic use of torture and ill treatment by the Ukrainian security forces against the conflict-related detainees.  That was compounded by ineffective investigations of complaints by victims.  There had been fewer allegations of torture in the Zaporizhzhia branch of the security forces in south-eastern Ukraine.  The High Commissioner called on all parties to allow regular and unhindered monitoring to all places of deprivation of liberty.  He also urged the Government of Ukraine to ensure that investigations were effective and that trials were in line with international human rights standards. 
 
Freedom of movement continued to be restricted across the contact line, affecting an average of 29,000 people a day.  Socio-economic deprivation was deepening in the east, exacerbated by the Government’s ban on transportation of cargo over the contact line and the seizure of approximately 54 businesses by armed groups.  The resulting hardship and uncertainty had been further compounded when armed groups in Donetsk had forcibly halted operations of a major private humanitarian organization, which had been providing aid, mostly food, to some 500,000 people.   Speaking of the human rights situation in Crimea, the High Commissioner said that during the reporting period, there had been worrisome cases of disregard of fair trials guarantees, notably in court decisions against Crimean Tatars, and retroactive application of criminal law.  Several cases of ill-treatment of persons in detention had also been documented, as well as the transfer of persons from Crimea to detention facilities in the Russian Federation, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.  The High Commissioner emphasized that an occupying power could not compel persons from the occupied territory to serve in its armed forces.
 
Statement by the Concerned Country
 
Ukraine, speaking as the concerned country, supported the High Commissioner’s message on the crucial importance of access for monitoring and cooperation with human rights mechanisms in addressing grave human rights.  When the Russian aggression against Ukraine commenced with the tsunami of human rights violations three years ago, the Government of Ukraine had demonstrated its firm belief in cooperation and transparency as means that could assist Ukraine in meeting immense challenges.  Unfortunately, Russia tended to ignore any call with regard to the Minsk agreements, made by the International Court of Justice in its order on Ukraine’s claim against Russia.  The eighteenth report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted the continuous inflow of foreign fighters and supply of ammunition and heavy weaponry from the Russian Federation into parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine.  No doubt that as long as this Russian ill-practice continued, there would be no end to the conflict in sight.  The Security Service of Ukraine, having investigated the cases from one of the OHCHR thematic reports, had found witnesses of summary executions committed by combined Russian-militant forces in Donbas: 134 killed Ukrainian soldiers and civilians.  More than 400 people were on Ukraine’s list of persons missing in Donbas, a clear awareness of the importance of the International Committee of the Red Cross’ proposal to establish a coordination mechanism on the issue of missing persons.  The Russian Federation did its utmost to prevent international monitoring mechanisms to report the situation on the ground.  Ukraine strongly believed that the positive impact on the human rights situation in Crimea was only possible through full consolidation of the international community and its constant political pressure on the Russian Federation.
 
Interactive Dialogue
 
European Union expressed concerns about the ongoing human rights violations and abuses committed at the expense of people living in areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by so-called separatists and in the illegally annexed Crimea.  The European Union called on all sides of the conflict to respect international human rights and humanitarian law.  Russian Federation voiced concerns about new cases of arbitrary and illegal detention, and the use of torture by Ukrainian security forces to obtain confessions in the Donbass region.  The Russian Federation deplored the lack of investigation on the crimes committed by Ukrainian authorities and stressed that Kiev was responsible for inhuman acts of discrimination by imposing a blockade on the Donbass region.  
 
Austria acknowledged the important role of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and regarding the report said it was distressing to note there was no improvement whatsoever.  Reports of sexual violence were very disturbing, and the Government of Ukraine should investigate those cases and bring the culprits to justice.  Czechia called on the parties to fully implement the ceasefire agreements, to respect human rights and humanitarian law, and to grant full access to the territories of eastern Ukraine and illegally annexed Crimea to international human rights observers.  Estonia expressed deep concern at continued fighting on the ground, and called on all parties to implement fully the Minsk agreements.  Systematic human rights violations were of deep concern, and the Russian Federation should immediately release all political prisoners.
 
United Nations Children's Fund said children’s rights to physical protection, psychological well-being, and the right to safe drinking water continued to be violated, and called on all parties to move above politics in responding to children’s growing human rights needs and keeping places where children were free of military action.  United States condemned the widespread abuses of human rights by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and forces in eastern Ukraine.  The situation in Crimea was deeply troubling, and Russia should end its abuses and occupation, and grant immediate access to the human rights monitoring mission to that region of Ukraine.  Germany noted with concern that three years after the violence in Kiev and Odessa in which 169 people lost their lives, not a single person had been held accountable; all human rights violations should be thoroughly investigated to effectively combat impunity.  The High Commissioner was asked what tangible actions the international community could take to reduce the suffering of civilians.
 
Norway remained concerned about the lack of accountability for human rights abuses on the whole territory of Ukraine.  The obstruction of humanitarian aid was testimony of a disregard for the civilian population.  Denmark deeply regretted the spikes in hostility during recent months in Ukraine.  It supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine and denounced the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, which had led to the deterioration of the human rights of more than 2.2. million people.  Switzerland announced the continuation of its financial support for the Monitoring Mission in Ukraine until the end of 2018.  It was concerned by the persistent conflict and violations of human rights in Ukraine, stressing that those responsible had to be brought to justice. 
 
Finland welcomed Ukraine’s progress in several internal reforms, noting that fighting corruption was crucial in that context.  International monitors had to have full and safe access in all Ukraine, including Crimea.  Australia urged all parties in Ukraine to stop hostilities and to uphold their Minsk 2 obligations.  It was particularly disturbed by reports of groups preventing humanitarian relief in conflict zones.  The deplorable killing of an international observer in April 2017 illustrated the risks to all living and working in conflict zones.  Poland remained deeply distressed by the growing number of conflict casualties in Ukraine.  It was disturbing that no one had been held responsible for the deaths of people that occurred three years ago in Maidan, Kiev and Odessa.
 
Spain was extremely concerned about the increasing cases of human rights violations, including summary executions and arbitrary detentions in the eastern regions of Ukraine.  Particularly worrying was the situation of detention centres in regions controlled by armed groups where the United Nations did not have access.  Spain stressed that the deterioration of human rights in Crimea must be stopped urgently.  Japan called on all parties concerned to implement the Minsk agreements and to provide the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with free and unlimited access to non-government controlled regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.  Freedom of movement was still far from guaranteed due to the prohibition of crossing the contact line.  Croatia stated that the reports of the Monitoring Mission were valuable instruments in assessing the situation on the ground.  The inflow of foreign fighters, supply of ammunition and heavy weaponry in eastern Ukraine and the continued displacement of populations was especially worrying.  Croatia called upon all parties to fully implement the Minsk agreement provisions. 
 
France stressed that over 10,000 persons had lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, and 20,000 had been injured.  The fundamental rights of the Tatars of Crimea continued to be violated on a daily basis there, years after it had been illegally annexed.  Independent investigations into human rights violations were vital to prevent impunity.   Luxemburg was concerned by the human rights situation in eastern Ukraine which was getting worse every day.  Luxemburg called on the de facto authorities of Crimea to cease intimidations and the restriction of civil freedoms and to give access to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.  It was also urgent to reform the justice system and bolster the anti-corruption mechanisms in Ukraine.  United Kingdom noted that the worrying trend of high civilian casualties in eastern Ukraine continued.  Another bloody milestone had passed, with 10,000 people killed since 2014.  In Crimea, the de facto authorities continued to deny international monitoring organizations access, preventing an independent assessment of the human rights situation.
 
Latvia expressed deep concern about the worsening human rights violations and abuses in eastern Ukraine controlled by illegal armed groups, and in the illegally annexed Crimea.  The High Commissioner was asked if the Monitoring Mission had registered any appropriate steps taken by the Russian Federation in ensuring the availability of education in the Ukrainian language.  Albania regretted that the implementation of the Minsk agreements remained unfulfilled, and encouraged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue monitoring the situation of accountability for human rights violations and abuses, including the cases of violence related to mass gathering.  Hungary noted with disappointment that there were ceasefire violations and use of light and heavy weapons in the conflict zone, and emphasized the importance of non-discrimination against Ukrainian citizens with dual or multiple citizenship.  The High Commissioner was asked through which measures he envisaged the better promotion of linguistic and educational rights of national minorities, in particular in the Subcarpathian region. 
 
Turkey said it would continue to support all efforts aimed at finding a peaceful solution to the situation in Ukraine based on its territorial integrity and international law.  Having millions of citizens of Crimean Tatar descent, Turkey followed the human rights situation in Crimea closely; the human rights violations in Crimea strongly required international monitoring.  Georgia called for full, unhindered and immediate access of the United Nations human rights monitoring mission and other relevant organizations to the whole territory of Ukraine, including Crimea.  The High Commissioner was asked whether his Office had already started consultations with the Council of Europe in order to consolidate efforts.  Ireland was deeply concerned about the current volatile security situation in eastern Ukraine, where the civilian population continued to be placed in unacceptable danger.  The High Commissioner was asked for his assessment of the most urgent steps required to promote basic human rights and bring a renewed sense of hope to those most affected.
 
Lithuania urged the Russian Federation to ensure unhindered and unconditional access to Crimea to the United Nations Monitoring Mission.  It remained concerned about the spike in hostilities and the increasing number of conflict-related casualties in eastern Ukraine.  Sweden stressed the importance of and the responsibility to uphold and respect international law in Ukraine.  Even though there was no clear aggressor and a clear victim in that conflict, it was clear that the Russian Federation continued to fuel the conflict.  Romania voiced concern about more than 750,000 children in eastern Ukraine who faced the risk of being cut off from safe drinking water.  It urged all parties to abide by their obligation to do everything possible to protect civilians. 
 
Council of Europe noted that it was cooperating on a daily basis with Ukraine in order to achieve tangible results in its reform process.  Those included constitutional and justice reform, fight against corruption, decentralisation, respect for all human rights, and the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons.  Republic of Moldova strongly supported the work of the United Nations Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, adding that it was alarmed by the findings of the eighteenth report.  A true and lasting ceasefire and full implementation of the Minsk agreements were key to securing the human rights in the country.  Bulgaria was concerned about the continuation of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, which posed a threat to the wider region.  It remained fully committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  
 
Azerbaijan deplored the increasing rate of human violations in the eastern parts of Ukraine which resulted in harsh suffering of civilians.  Azerbaijan recalled that it had experienced the occupation of 20 per cent of its territory in the past and reiterated its commitment to the political independence and territorial integrity of Ukraine.  Netherland was deeply concerned about the deterioration of the human rights situation in Crimea, including the denial of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and freedom of religion and belief.  The persecution of minorities, in particular Crimean Tatars, was unacceptable.  
 
Amuta for NGO Responsibility said that there were several gaps in the report.  There was no mention of the arrival of 100,000 Russian settlers in Ukraine.  The development of foreign business activities in occupied territories with the support of settlers had also been forgotten.  Minority Rights Group underscored that, following the occupation of Crimea, the systematic repression of the Crimean Tatar shad continued to escalate.  Violations including arbitrary detention and torture.  Enforced disappearances against human rights defenders was another regular feature of the occupation.  Human Rights Watch called on all parties to investigate the attacks that caused civilian casualties and damaged civilian infrastructure and facilities.  Human Rights Watch was also deeply concerned about the Ukrainian Government’s recent restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information that were harmful and counterproductive.
 
United Nations Watch said that while the High Commissioner’s report cited violations of humanitarian law, United Nations Watch was concerned that the Council continued to treat such abuses as a mere matter of technical assistance.  Human Rights House Foundation urged Ukraine to repeal the recent civil society focused amendments to the legislation governing the electronic declaration of wealth.  Ukraine was asked what measures it was taking to ensure there was no discrimination against residents of Crimea.  World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations said daily life in the regions affected by the conflict was very difficult.  Organizations involving women were actively involved in trying to create peace.  It was important to consolidate efforts by the international community. 
 
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom said the Human Rights Council had overlooked the impact of macroeconomic reforms, noting that austerity measures were disproportionately affecting women in Ukraine.  Women would not be able to participate meaningfully in post-conflict situations if they struggled to meet the basic needs for themselves and their families.  International Fellowship for Reconciliation noted the large number of young men who had left the country rather than be forced to take part as members of Government forces or militias.  All States were called on to follow Italy’s example in offering refugee protection to conscientious objectors from Ukraine.
 
Concluding Remarks
 
ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, explained that the negative impact of the socio-economic deprivation in eastern Ukraine had deepened and had been exacerbated by actions by both sides.  The accumulated effects of the socio-economic deprivation were yet to be seen.  Local residents had raised concern about the lack of employment due to the closure of businesses.  They now relied on social payments to meet their needs.  As for the mechanisms for coordinating the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Office had been exchanging information on individual cases and relied on the information provided by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.  A wider presence of the Special Monitoring Mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and deeper engagement of the Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine where needed, could address impunity.
 
Regarding the steps that the international community could take to ease civilians’ suffering, the international community could join the Office’s call for the full implementation of the Minsk agreements and for demining action around the contact line.  The international community could also urge the Russian Federation to allow unhindered access to the United Nations Monitoring Mission to Crimea.  Another concern was the lack of access to detention centres operated by the armed forces.  As for the most urgent needs of internally displaced persons, a sustainable housing strategy should be developed, and it was necessary to address the ongoing verification process that continued to deprive people of pensions and social payments.  The High Commissioner called on the Government of Ukraine to delink the registration of internally displaced persons from the payment of social entitlements.  The restriction on movement across the contact line affected an average of 29,000 people.  Long queues existed at entries and there was a risk of shelling.  The contact line arbitrarily divided families and friends.  High Commissioner Zeid urged the authorities to ease the crossing of the contact line. 
 
To gain access to places of detention, the Office maintained contact with relevant authorities in order to interview victims.  In Crimea, a remote monitoring strategy had been used.  Regarding the most urgent steps to promote the most basic human rights, the High Commissioner emphasized that it was crucial for all sides to respect international humanitarian law, to discontinue the shelling of civilian infrastructure, and to terminate all military activities around civilian areas.  As for the measures to end discrimination in Crimea, the High Commissioner clarified that a thematic report on the situation of human rights in Crimea would be published in the summer.   
 
Presentation of Oral Update on Georgia
 
GEORGETTE GAGNON, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, reiterated that the protection of human rights was a priority.  Since 2007, technical assistance had been provided to the Government of Georgia to protect the situation of human rights.  The Office had developed cooperation with executives and national human rights institutions in order to build sufficient capacities for civil servants in the field of human rights. The Office of the High Commissioner had collaborated with the Parliament of Georgia in order to ensure compliance with international standards.  On 11 April 2017, the Office had sent letters to the authorities in control in Abkhazia and in South Ossetia respectively to seek unfettered access to the concerned population to assess the human rights situation.  It received a response from the authorities in control in South Ossetia on 18 April, which invoked status related issues, thus preventing the Office from negotiating access.  On 22 April, the Office had received a response from the authorities in Abkhazia stating that a visit would not be possible unless Abkhazia would be allowed to present its position concerning the situation of human rights before the Council.  The Office of the High Commissioner remained concerned that despite repeated requests since 2011, it had not been granted access by authorities in control in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, raising legitimate concerns and questions about the state of human rights of the populations living there. 
 
The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights had solicited inputs from many stakeholders, including non-governmental organizations, to better assess the situation in these regions.  Decisions and practices driven by political divergences had been harmful to civilians.   Measures such as the closing of crossing points and the lack of access to documents were among the most damaging instruments.  Restrictions to freedom of movement remained among major concerns.  The closure of two crossing points in 2017 had extended travel distances and limited persons’ access to markets which hindered economic activities.  Ms. Gagnon said that the rights to access adequate education should be promoted regardless of ethnic or cultural background.  In Abkhazia, children did not have access to education in a language they understood.  Persistent allegations of deprivation of liberties by Russian border guards were concerning.  The question of missing persons deserved continued attention.  Families had the right to know the fate of their families.  There had been a lack of public information about the human rights situation in Abkhazia and Ossetia.  The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights extended its call for access to those regions to assess the situation on the ground.  Women, children and men living in both regions affected by the conflict could not be left hostages of political divergences.  Particular attention should be placed on fostering gender equality and the participation of women in the peace process.
 
Statement by the Concerned Country
 
Georgia, speaking as the concerned country, said it was deplorable that despite recent efforts by the High Commissioner’s Office, the occupying power and its regimes on the ground were denying access to Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions.  The human rights situation there continued to remain alarming, with severe restrictions imposed on education in the native language.  Discrimination against ethnic Georgians was increasing day by day.  Hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons and refugees were being robbed of their right to voluntary, safe and dignified return to their places of origin.  The international community’s firm stance was needed to ensure the basic rights of those living under occupation and under imminent threat of annexation.  Georgia relied on the High Commissioner’s and his Office’s continued engagement, as well as the international community’s support.

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