KYIV / GENEVA (22 March 2016) The United Nations Working Group on mercenaries called on the Government of Ukraine to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed by foreign armed actors during the conflict which has plagued the country since 2014. Foreign armed actors range from volunteers to paid service men and women, and from independent militia members to professional military.
The Group’s delegation, formed by human rights experts Patricia Arias and Saeed Mokbil, expressed deep concern about allegations of mercenaries joining all sides to the conflict, which –they stressed- is clearly prohibited in international law. At the end of an official five-day visit* to the country, the experts revealed that human rights violations have reportedly been committed at the hands of not only mercenaries, but also other foreign fighters.
The expert group was informed by the authorities of Ukraine of at least 176 identified foreigners serving in armed groups of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. These reportedly include large numbers from the Russian Federation, Serbia, Belarus, France and Italy, among others. Women were also among the combatants, in much smaller numbers.
“What is particularly concerning is that with the diverse array of foreign armed actors who joined the conflict, reports on human rights violations by these individuals have not been properly investigated or brought to justice,” Ms. Arias said. “To date, foreign fighters have been prosecuted for various crimes including terrorist-related offences, but no prosecutions have been in relation to the human rights violations that took place.”
The 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv and the 16 March 2014 ‘referendum’ in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (its status is determined by the UN General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the territorial integrity of Ukraine) were followed by the outbreak of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine. This brought about an influx of fighters from abroad that has had significant influence on human rights in Ukraine. The lack of concrete data on the profile of foreign armed actors was a challenge for the experts’ fact-finding visit.
“Although we received much information pointing to several levels of foreigner engagement in the armed conflict in Ukraine, the lack of coherent information on payments and the motivations of fighters make it difficult for us to ascertain which fighters are mercenaries,” Mr. Mokbil noted.
In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament adopted legal amendments permitting the inclusion of foreigners and stateless persons to serve in its regular armed forces and its National Guard, including those who fought in the volunteer battalions during the conflict.
“However, impunity for human rights violations remains largely unquestioned, paving the way for a murky zone with negligible accountability,” Mr. Mokbil said. “We urge the Government of Ukraine to ensure accountability for violations that have been instigated by all parties to the conflict, to ensure justice for victims.”
The Working Group’s delegation also reiterated the need to draw up a strategy or plan of action on foreign engagement in the armed conflict, within the framework of the Minsk Protocol, the 2014 agreement to halt armed hostilities in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
The experts requested the Government to fully implement the Minsk Protocol, highlighting provision 10 on the obligation for all sides of the conflict to withdraw illegal armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries.
They further urged “all parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law and ensure respect for all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights with respect to the activities of foreigners in armed groups.”
The expert group did not find any particular data on private military companies, which are currently prohibited by Ukrainian law. It called for the regulation of this sector in order to prevent potential human rights violations.
From 14 to 18 March, the delegation met Government authorities, parliamentarians, judicial officials, civil society organizations and members of the diplomatic corps, as well as with representatives of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’.
The UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries will present its visit report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016.
The UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries as a means of violating human rights and impeding the exercise of the rights of peoples to self-determination was established in July 2005 by the then Commission on Human Rights. Its mandate was further extended by the Human Rights Council in 2008.
The Working Groups are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.