18 June 2014

UN cites total breakdown of law and order as climate of fear grips eastern Ukraine

With United Nations monitors reporting today that armed separatists have used killings, abductions and torture to instil a “climate of intimidation and fear” in eastern Ukraine, the world body’s human rights chief urged all armed groups to put down their weapons, end the violence and begin the process of long-term reconciliation.

As her Office (OHCHR) released its third report on the human rights situation in Ukraine, High Commissioner Navi Pillay called on armed groups operating in Donetsk and Luhansk to “stop taking themselves, and the people living in their regions, down this dead end, which is leading simply to misery, destruction, displacement and economic deprivation.”

The new report describes the breakdown of law and order in the areas held by armed groups in the country’s east – with increasing evidence of abductions, detentions, torture, and killings – as well as a number of “worrying trends” emerging in Crimea.

“All [the armed groups] have achieved is a climate of insecurity and fear which is having a hugely detrimental impact on many thousands of people,” said Ms. Pillay. “The time has come to put down the guns and talk. Peace and reconciliation, and long-term solutions are certainly attainable.”

The 58-page report, covering the period from 7 May to 7 June, is the third to be produced by the 34-strong UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, since it was deployed by the High Commissioner three months ago in the wake of protests that lead to, among other things, the removal from office of Ukraine’s former President, and a referendum in the Crimea region in which the majority of the people voted in favour of secession from Ukraine.

While devoting half the report to recent events in the east and Crimea, the Monitoring Mission also outlines the various ongoing investigations and initiatives (five in all) related to human rights violations surrounding the November 2013-February 2014 Maidan protests.

The report also describes the six investigations and commissions established to investigate the tragic events in Odessa on 2 May, when reportedly clashes at a trade union building in the Black Sea city sparked a fire that killed and wounded dozens of people.

During the reporting period, the human rights situation in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk has continued to deteriorate, the report states, noting the presence of armed people and weapons has increased in both regions, and that “Representatives of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ have recognized the presence within their armed groups of citizens of the Russian Federation, including from Chechnya and other republics of the North Caucasus.”

“The escalation in criminal activity resulting in human rights abuses is no longer limited to targeting journalists, elected representatives, local politicians, civil servants and civil society activists,” the report states. “Abductions, detentions, acts of ill-treatment and torture, and killings by armed groups are now affecting the broader population of the two eastern regions, which are now marked by an atmosphere of intimidation and consequent fear.”

As a result, several thousand people have now been displaced from Donetsk and Luhansk. As well as fleeing random violence and deteriorating economic and social conditions, some displaced people interviewed cited “targeted attacks and intimidation of activists, and increasingly of ‘ordinary’ residents, known for their ‘Pro-Ukrainian’ stance.”

There has also been more regular and intense fighting as the Government has deployed its armed forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. “Local residents of areas affected by the fighting are increasingly being caught in the cross-fire between the Ukrainian military and armed groups, with a growing number of residents killed and wounded,” the report says, adding that the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission is “concerned at the increasing number of reports of enforced disappearances as a result of the security operations.”

Ms. Pillay urged the Government to “exercise restraint, ensure that security operations are in line with international standards at all times, and take great care to protect civilians when engaging with armed groups.”

“So we have major reason to be concerned,” Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, told the UN News Centre. “What is clear is who’s paying the price – the situation of citizens in the east of the country has been deteriorating whether they are pro-Ukrainian or pro-Russian.”

Painting a grim picture of the situation, he cited deterioration of social services such as electricity and water, and echoed the report’s concern that a deeper humanitarian crisis may ensue if law and order is not restored to the region.

“I firmly believe that all sorts of human rights-based confidence-building measures, including the release of detained persons or the release of mortal remains in case of deaths, helps to decrease tensions and establish some sort of communication that will hopefully lead to political negotiations and end the crisis,” said Mr. Šimonović.

He said that OHCHR noted that the Kyiv Government is speeding up reforms, including constitutional reforms, as well as making headway on decentralization of the country and guaranteeing the human rights of minorities. He said that while it is also encouraged that the newly-elected President Petro Poroshenko had just announced a unilateral ceasefire, “we are concerned about implementation.”

As for Russia, Mr. Šimonović said that country must curb the influx of combatants and volunteers, “which have now for the first time been recognized as being present among the armed groups.” It is also necessary for Russia to establish normal relations along the broader between the two countries, which the President has deemed one of the prerequisites for the ceasefire.

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Ukraine: UN official cites ‘worsening’ human rights situation in southern, eastern regions