Statement by Nada Al-Nashif
UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
15 December 2021
Geneva, Palais des Nation, Room XX
It is my honour to present, on behalf of the High Commissioner, OHCHR’s report on civic space and fundamental freedoms in Ukraine. The report covers developments from 1 November 2019 to 31 October 2021 across the whole of Ukraine, and is based on the work of our Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.
In territory controlled by the Government, restrictions on the free expression of critical or unpopular opinions, and on participation in peaceful assemblies on sensitive topics, as well as the safety of human rights defenders in Ukraine were of concern.
Political and legislative developments resulted in restrictions on civic space, and attacks against opposition political parties, their members and staff impacted freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the right to participate. Government sanctions in February and August of 2021, which led to the closure of television channels and online media outlets, were not in line with international human rights law as they limited public access to information and undermined critical journalism.
Of particular concern is the lack of accountability for threats and violence targeting human rights defenders, media workers, and individuals who express opinions online or attempt to participate in policy-making. OHCHR documented 29 incidents targeting journalists, media professionals, bloggers, and individuals expressing opinions critical of the Government or mainstream narratives. In 2020-2021, investigative journalists and media workers covering political topics such as corruption and the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions were targeted.
While the Government made some efforts to improve the situation, in most cases, authorities failed to protect members of civil society from attack or to hold perpetrators accountable. Impunity fuels further attacks, contributing to an environment of self-censorship, narrowing civic space and curtailing pluralism.
OHCHR also documented 14 incidents during the reporting period - including attacks, threats and intimidation - against human rights defenders who work on women’s rights, gender equality, LGBTQI rights, anti-corruption and environmental issues. In only one of these cases were the perpetrators identified and prosecuted. Such attacks and the lack of accountability discourage participation in public affairs and civic activism.
In relation to peaceful assemblies, while we have seen improved security for LGBTI assemblies in larger cities, concerns remain regarding security of smaller assemblies and assemblies on other sensitive topics. Most of the 21 attacks against peaceful assemblies documented by OHCHR were were targeted at protests by the LGBTI community, women human rights defenders and opposition political parties. Fifteen of these attacks were perpetrated by groups that promote violence or their alleged affiliates, usually with impunity.organized by the LGBTQI community, women human rights defenders and opposition political parties. Fifteen of these attacks were perpetrated by groups that promote violence, or their alleged affiliates, usually with impunity.
Civic space and fundamental freedoms in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine have been severely restricted since the armed groups took control in 2014, leading to an erosion of space for free expression and independent activism. Further narrowing of civic space and increased self-censorship continued during the reporting period.
Both self-proclaimed ‘republics’ amended their so-called administrative and criminal ‘codes’ in order to curb critical opinions, including those expressed online, and to restrict participation in public affairs. They also arbitrarily detained, or threatened to detain, social media users for expressing their views online, and individuals who participated in peaceful assemblies critical of decision-making in the territory.
The expression of pro-Ukrainian views or opinions was particularly targeted. For example, in November 2019, an entrepreneur was detained in the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ for publicly expressing his pro-Ukrainian views. He was held incommunicado for three days, and later sentenced to thirteen and a half years in prison.
Many human rights defenders left territory controlled by the armed groups after 2014, having faced reprisals for their work. Those who have remained and continue their work experience a high degree of insecurity - in particular, women human rights defenders who support domestic violence survivors.
Freedom of peaceful assembly remained highly restricted in both self-proclaimed ‘republics’. While some assemblies raising issues of economic and social rights, such as labour strikes, took place, their organizers and participants faced serious consequences, including arbitrary detention.
In the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation, we continued to document violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law.
The situation continued to be marked by restrictions on freedom of expression, particularly targeting opinions critical of Russian Federation policies and practices on the peninsula. Journalists who expressed dissenting or critical views were subjected to surveillance, criminal prosecution, arrests, prohibition of entry into Crimea and deportation from Crimea.
Expression of dissenting political or alternative views through participation in public assemblies also continued to be curtailed in Crimea. The blanket requirement, under threat of prosecution, for prior authorization from the Russian occupation authorities to hold a peaceful assembly undermined this fundamental freedom.
Human rights defenders operated in a highly constrained environment, running the risk of prosecution and other retaliation from the occupation authorities. OHCHR is particularly concerned about harassment of, and administrative sanctions against, lawyers defending clients in high-profile cases. Such intimidation and arbitrary interference negatively impacts the proper discharge of their professional duties.
Freedom of association was also subject to unjustified and disproportionate restrictions. Groups and associations perceived as opposing the occupation of Crimea or Russian Federation policies – such as the Mejlis and Crimean Solidarity – came under the scrutiny of Russian law enforcement authorities and faced interference with their activities. Leaders of the Crimean Tatar community with strong affiliations to the Mejlis faced prosecution, and the Mejlis itself continues to be banned, in contradiction to the 2017 order of the International Court of Justice.
In closing, I would like to highlight the concrete recommendations contained in the report, towards improving the human rights situation through fostering civic space, promoting fundamental freedoms and enhancing inclusive working conditions and meaningful participation for all civil society actors throughout Ukraine. We call on all duty-bearers to implement these recommendations, and as always, stand ready to assist in these efforts.
Thank you for your attention.