Ukraine: Unbearable burden on 4.4 million people as active conflict enters fourth winter
KYIV (12 December 2017) – Armed hostilities are on the rise again, a UN report published today warns. The return to increased fighting has resulted in more deaths and new damages to critical water infrastructure storing dangerous chemicals which pose a grave threat to human life and the environment. Daily ceasefire violations coupled with falling temperatures further aggravated a dire human rights and humanitarian situation on both sides of the contact line.
The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine recorded 15 conflict-related civilian deaths and 72 injuries from 16 August to 15 November 2017.*
“The hostilities have never really stopped, affecting, in one way or another, the daily lives of millions in the conflict zone and in the country as whole, with the heaviest burden falling on those living in the immediate vicinity to the contact line. As one civilian told my colleagues, ‘it is now worse than in 2014 because we can no longer bear it”, stated Fiona Frazer, the Head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.
Based on 290 in-depth interviews with witnesses and victims of human rights violations and abuses, the report provides details of 20 individual cases of killings, deprivation of liberty, enforced disappearances, torture, and conflict-related sexual violence committed on both sides of the contact line. This caseload and the lack of justice illustrate the prevailing atmosphere of impunity for grave violations in the conflict zone.
The report cautions about the situation of people who are detained incommunicado in both the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ and self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’. The Monitoring Mission continued to be denied access to detainees, raising serious concerns regarding detention conditions, as well as possible further human rights abuses such as torture and ill-treatment.
In conflict-related cases, victims’ complaints of torture are often disregarded, even when submitted in court. As a result, investigations into allegations of torture are rarely opened and when they are, they have been ineffective.
The report also condemns interference with the judiciary in conflict-related cases, giving four emblematic examples, and underlying that substantial pressure was exerted on judges in numerous cases.
Also highlighted is the broad interpretation and application of terrorism-related provisions of the Criminal Code, as well as those on high treason and trespass on territorial integrity of the country. In one emblematic case, a journalist in Zhytomyr charged inter alia with treason and terrorism based on his publications is facing up to 15 years of imprisonment.
In territory controlled by armed groups, justice remained inaccessible, and residents did not have effective protection of their rights. Behind closed doors, conflict-related detainees are ‘convicted’ without recourse to effective remedy. This is a grave concern given that the ‘supreme court’ of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ pronounced a second ‘death penalty’, in November.
Justice is yet to be achieved in high profile cases such as the killing of protesters at Maidan and the 2 May 2014 violence in Odesa, concludes the report. In Maidan cases, a total of 380 persons are under investigation for committing crimes against protesters. In Odesa, 19 persons were acquitted of disturbances in the city centre. In both cases, no one has been held responsible for major outbreaks of violence and the resulting deaths.
Protracted investigations and trials in many conflict-related cases resulted in prolonged detentions of the accused in pre-trial detention facilities (SIZOs), where the issue of access to medical care remains acute.
The report welcomes the transfer of 19 pre-conflict prisoners from penal colonies in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ to facilities in government-controlled territory. It is of concern, however, that, despite numerous requests, pre-conflict prisoners have never been transferred from penal colonies in territory controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’, and that the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ denies transfer requests of prisoners with residence registration in Donetsk region. One of the main reasons why prisoners requested to be transferred was to enable them to maintain contacts with family, as since the conflict erupted, relatives could not easily cross the contact line.
In each month of the reporting period, more than one million crossings of the contact line, an average of 37,000 a day, were recorded. The report cites people claiming corruption and overly complicated checking procedures. In one incident a mother was forced to give life-saving injections to her disabled child while being held up at a checkpoint for eight hours. They had been stopped for carrying more packs of medication than was allowed.
The UN Human Rights Office, which does not have access to Crimea, continues to analyse the situation there from its offices in mainland Ukraine, on the basis of relevant UN General Assembly resolutions.** The report describes cases of arbitrary searches and arrests, torture, and infringements on fundamental freedoms which disproportionately affected Crimean Tatars. Further, the UN Human Rights Office underlines that the Russian Federation, as Occupying Power, fails to respect the Ukrainian laws which were in place in Crimea, in violation of international humanitarian law.
The report concludes that to address acute systemic challenges, Government policies should evolve in an inclusive manner, and together with judicial reforms, foster accountability and promote social cohesion.
In parallel, the implementation in full of the Minsk agreements by all parties to the conflict is critical for peace and reconciliation.
*In total, at least 2,818 civilians have been killed, and between 7,000 and 9,000 injured during the conflict. This includes 298 civilians on board of Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight on 17 July 2014.
**UN General Assembly resolution 68/262, reaffirming the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and General Assembly resolution 71/205, recognizing Crimea as a territory of Ukraine which is temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation.
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