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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Statement to the Security Council by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the meeting on Ukraine, 6 March 2015

Human Rights in Ukraine at the Security Council

06 March 2015

Mr. President, Excellencies,

Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

The ninth report of the United Nations Human Rights Mission in Ukraine, whose mandate has just been renewed for a further 3 months, was released on 2 March, covering the period from 1 December 2014 to 15 February 2015. Today, I will highlight some of the report’s key findings and provide an update on developments since its cut-off date. 

Although since the 12 February Minsk agreement, the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine held up in general, with few isolated incidents of small arms and mortar shelling reported, the human rights situation, especially in eastern Ukraine remained alarming.  Particularly in January and the first half of February,  the stark escalation of hostilities, led to increased violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, with a sharp spike in casualties and devastating consequences for the local population.

From mid-April 2014 until 15 February 2015, at least 5,665 people were documented as killed. By 5 March, this figure increased to at least 5,820. Given that full reports on casualties, especially near Donetsk airport and in the Debaltseve area, are still pending, we estimate that the total number of people killed in eastern Ukraine has now passed the 6,000 mark.

Mr. President,

Allow me to highlight a number of disturbing trends in the human rights situation in Ukraine.

First, during the reporting period, there was an increased use of sophisticated and heavy weaponry, including multiple launch rocket systems. These type of weapons were used during the 24 January attack on Mariupol, which killed 31 people, including two children. In the east, up until the ceasefire of 15 February, and in the Debaltseve area beyond the ceasefire, there was continued indiscriminate shelling of highly populated civilian areas (in both areas controlled by the Government and those controlled by the armed groups) with an escalating toll on civilians. The deliberate targeting of civilians may constitute a war crime, and could amount to a crime against humanity if widespread or systematic.   Attacks caused heavy damage to civilian property and vital infrastructure.  By 4 March, the number of residential buildings destroyed during the conflict period on the territory of Donetsk region exceeded 9,500.  Approximately 150,000 local residents of the Donetsk region, alone, still remain without water, gas and electricity.
Hospitals, schools and kindergartens have been shelled, in both Government and armed groups controlled areas, limiting access to healthcare and education. The situation is aggravated by the alleged continued inflow of heavy weaponry and foreign fighters from the Russian Federation.

Second, many civilians have remained trapped in the conflict zone with ongoing and severe restrictions on freedom of movement.  According to the Government, the situation of approximately 4,000 people remaining in 21 facilities of institutional care in the areas under the control of the armed groups, is particularly precarious. The lack of vital medicines and food is also of major concern.

The armed groups have on several occasions stated that they will not allow the evacuation of people from social care institutions, such as older persons, or the bed-ridden. Nothing has been done to evacuate prisoners either.

It is essential that these most vulnerable groups are evacuated as a matter of priority and as part of an obligation under international humanitarian law.

Thirdly, there is a clear indication that the divide in Ukrainian society continues to deepen. With every new attack on the civilian population, with every new case of arbitrary detention and torture, with every new deprivation of basic services to those remaining in the territory under the control of the armed groups, with every new displacement - the divide deepens.

A terrorist attack in Kharkiv, which killed four people by explosive device on 22 February, and 14 attacks in Odesa since December targeting pro-Maidan offices and supporters, are further contributing to this negative trend.

At the same time, there is growing dissatisfaction among the Ukrainian population over the fighting in the east and there have been a series of anti-mobilisation protests around the country.

Fourthly, the humanitarian situation is increasingly affecting the social and economic rights of the population as a whole.

The enormous influx of registered IDPs as already reported by OCHA, is placing an ever-heavier burden on the Government and the Ukrainian people. Just this week, the Parliament passed a bill reducing already low pensions, to satisfy conditions for the much-needed IMF loan and to allow for social payments to IDPs.

It is clear that the price of this conflict rises for every individual Ukrainian, as the cost of living continues to sore, the threat of potential gas and heating shortages becomes more likely, and the value of the hryvnia declines along with the standard of living. 

Ultimately, the much-needed and long-promised reforms are severely jeopardized, as they are moved further and further down the Government’s list of priorities.

Mr. President,

Against this backdrop, it remains absolutely crucial that the Government shows resolve and commitment to fight corruption and to render impartial justice and accountability for all human rights violations, regardless of the perpetrators or the victims.  Impartial accountability can help deter future human rights violations, preserve the confidence of the people in their Government, and contribute towards the healing of psychological wounds.

In this context, the judgment rendered by the Regional Administrative Court on 19 February, which found that the State Emergency Service was responsible for inaction during the 2 May mass disorders in Odesa, is a welcome step in the right direction.  Nonetheless, progress in the investigations into human rights violations related to Maidan remains slow. One year on, only four persons have been arrested -two of whom are being currently tried. However as yet, no one has been convicted for the violence that led to the death of 117 people.

Impartial justice and accountability must also apply to those who have committed violations in the context of the hostilities. While the initiation of some 49 criminal proceedings for human rights violations against servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces and National Guard was a welcome development, it appears that most cases were not pursued due to disputes over the official status of those presumably involved.

In the same vein, it is also very alarming that the key defence witness in the case against the former mayor of Sloviansk, Ms Nelia Shtepa, was abducted and found murdered on 30 January, which effectively intimidates other witnesses from coming forward.

At the same time, the armed groups continue to violate the most basic human rights of the population trapped in the areas under their control. The HRMU continues to document cases of torture, ill-treatment and disappearances. On 22 January, a dozen Ukrainian servicemen captured at Donetsk airport were forced to march through the streets of Donetsk. Several were reportedly physically assaulted by members of the armed groups and onlookers. It is recalled that such degrading and humiliating treatment of prisoners, may constitute a war crime.

Mr. President,

The situation in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is also deteriorating, with systematic human rights violations affecting mostly Crimean Tatars and those who opposed the March “referendum”.

The Deputy Chairman of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Ahtem Ciygoz, was placed in pre-trial detention for his participation in a pro-Ukrainian protest a year ago. This comes in addition to the continued ban against the historical leaders of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Mustafa Jemiliev and current chair Refat Chubarov to return to Crimea. According to Mr. Chubarov, there are serious allegations of attempts to break the autonomy of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and replace its leadership with pro-Russian candidates. The pressure on Crimean Tatar media also continues.

Mr. President,

Distinguished members of the Council,

It is absolutely necessary that all sides fully respect the 12 February Minsk agreement.  It is the only way out of a crisis, which has gone beyond being merely national, but has increasingly also become regional, with the potential of becoming global.

I especially welcome the “all for all” formula for the release of detainees. I have advocated for this formula with representatives of the armed groups, the Government and the facilitators. However, so far it has not been properly applied. Piecemeal prisoner exchanges, which have taken place so far, stimulate arbitrary arrests in order to have more prisoners to exchange. Full implementation of an "all for all" release formula is an important confidence building measure and the test of a real commitment of parties to end the conflict. I therefore call on both parties to implement it fully and immediately.

At the same time, the Ukrainian pilot Nadiia Savchenko remains in solitary confinement in a pre-trial detention centre in the Russian Federation and had been on hunger strike for over 80 days. It is highly important to ensure that Ms. Savchenko is released from custody immediately. She should either be released under the "all for all" formula, or on humanitarian grounds, because of her health conditions. 

Let me conclude.

The human rights situation in Ukraine remains grave. There are fears that hostilities may resume and concerns about a military campaign on Mariupol. This could entail many more casualties, and significantly escalate the conflict and lead to its further internationalization. After over 6,000 killed, 1,000,000 displaced, hundreds of thousands of refugees, continuing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, the conflict has still not reached the point of no return. But, the window of opportunity seems to be rapidly closing. We simply cannot afford to let this happen.

I thank you for your attention.