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Ukraine: UN expert says war against multi-ethnic population must stop, calls for protection of all minorities

16 March 2022

A family waiting at a train station.

GENEVA (16 March 2022) – The UN Special Rapporteur on minority issuesFernand de Varennes, today expressed grave concerns about the situation of minorities in the context of the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the treatment of minorities fleeing the conflict. He issues the following statement:

“The world is witnessing tremendous human suffering in Ukraine. The lives of all people of Ukraine are in danger, including ethnic, national, linguistic and religious minorities.

Up until the end of 12 March 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had recorded and confirmed 1,663 civilian deaths or injuries in the context of Russia's armed attack against Ukraine: 596 killed, including 43 children; 1,067 injured, including 57 children. The actual casualties are much higher. These human losses were recorded in the regions where different ethnic groups have been coexisting with each other for many years. A vivid example is the town of Volnovakha in Donetsk region which has been almost completely destroyed by shelling. Volnovakha is home to ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Armenians, Greeks and Jews.

Following the reports indicating that the Russian army took control over the city of Kherson, I express particular concern over the situation of Crimean Tatars in Kherson region.

Military operations are also happening in the regions with compact populations of small-numbered minorities, like Turkic-speaking Urums in the region of Mariupol. The operations are putting in danger both the lives of these people and their distinct culture, and their language.

The war in Ukraine is life-threatening not only to its multiethnic nation, but also to unique minority cultural heritage sites all over the country, such as the old Jewish cemetery in the city of Bila Tserkva which has reportedly been damaged because of the military operations. Strikes in the area of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, where tens of thousands of Jews were killed by the Nazis in a two-day massacre during World War Two, should sober up the Russian authorities. They need to stop the offensive now.

While I am imploring Russia to stop the war, I am also urging the United Nations and its Member States, international and regional organisations to mainstream minority issues in their responses to this human catastrophe, and to Ukraine and neighbouring countries to respond without discrimination to the refugee crisis in the treatment of minorities such as Roma, international students, at borders and elsewhere.

It is of paramount importance to acknowledge that minorities, such as Roma, many of whom may be undocumented in Ukraine, face specific vulnerabilities in the times of this conflict. I urge all parties to ensure that all minorities, including Roma, have access to humanitarian assistance without any discrimination. All people of Ukraine, including people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern descent and Roma should be granted equal protection and safety when seeking refuge inside and outside of the country, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, language or status. Minorities such as Roma or people of African descent and all others regardless of the colour of their skin, or their ethnicity or religion, must all be dealt with without discrimination along their evacuation route out of Ukraine.

I welcome the decision of the Human Rights Council to establish an Independent International Commission of Inquiry toinvestigate all alleged violations of human rights in the context of the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine. It is essential that the commission uses minority rights lenses in its work and actively engages with minority rights defenders from Ukraine.

Finally, I express my concern over increased hate speech against ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in different parts of the world, as they’re often associated with the aggression committed by the Russian authorities. Hate speech and calls to restrict the rights of Russian or Russian speaking minorities doesn’t contribute to peace and must be addressed in line with international human rights standards.”


Mr. Fernand de Varennes was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues by the Human Rights Council in June 2017. He is tasked by the UN Human Rights Council, to promote the implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities, among other things.

The Special Rapporteurs and 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.

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