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Escalation of hostilities has exacerbated civilian suffering – UN report
KYIV/GENEVA (15 March 2017) – A sharp escalation of hostilities between 29 January and 3 February 2017 had a devastating impact on all aspects of life for civilians living along the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Fighting caused seven civilian deaths and 46 civilian injuries in only six days (equal to the monthly average in 2016), extensive damage to civilian infrastructure, and deprived tens of thousands of people of life-saving services and basic necessities, according to a UN report released on Wednesday. Military and armed group presence in residential areas and close to water facilities exacerbated the situation, endangering lives, civilian property and essential infrastructure. The UN Human Rights Mission documented such presence as close as 200 metres.
The report covers the period between 16 November 2016 and 15 February 2017, during which the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission recorded 130 conflict-related civilian casualties: 23 deaths and 107 injuries. The total death toll from mid-April 2014 to 12 March 2017 is at least 9,940, with at least 23,455 people injured. This is a conservative estimate based on available data. These figures include Ukrainian armed forces, civilians and members of armed groups. Over 2,000 are civilians who have been killed in hostilities.* The number of civilians injured due to the conflict is estimated at between 7,000 and 9,000.
As all victims of the conflict have the right to recognition, remedy and reparation, steps taken by the Government towards greater protection of civilians injured and maimed due to hostilities are welcome. The report stresses the critical need for the new legislation to be applied to all, ensuring equal protection. “Regardless of which party to the conflict bears responsibility for the harm, the Government must ensure that all victims have effective access to the rights to health, an adequate standard of living, and social security,” the report states.
To save lives and alleviate suffering, the UN Human Rights Office reiterates the urgent need for the full implementation of the provisions of Minsk agreements, including the immediate and full respect for the ceasefire.
The report by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine describes how, in villages locked in ‘no man’s land’ between checkpoints, several hundreds of people are isolated and deprived of basic necessities: no access to ambulance services; the nearest grocery store a seven-kilometre walk away; children crossing the contact line and walk up to three kilometres to go to school.
By undermining the freedom of movement, the contact line continued to isolate and divide communities in conflict-affected areas. On a daily basis, on average of 23,000 people wait for hours in degrading conditions to cross the contact line through one of only five available corridors in freezing temperatures.
The report contains findings based on in-depth interviews with 205 witnesses and victims conducted on both sides of the contact line. Many interviews were held in Government detention facilities where the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission had unfettered access. On the other side of the contact line, where armed groups continued to detain individuals, it conducted two visits to places of deprivation of liberty, but was not given the opportunity to speak to detainees in private – which is deeply worrying given the serious allegations of abuses in these places.
“This heightens concerns that the conditions in which individuals are deprived of their liberty by armed groups may amount to ill-treatment and that they may be subjected to torture, including sexual and gender-based violence,” emphasizes the report.
The report also raises concerns regarding the abusive treatment of detainees and other human rights violations in Crimea.** The report describes cases of the authorities in Crimea extracting confessions through torture and ill-treatment; subjecting certain individuals to imposed psychiatric internment, and interfering in the professional activities of defence lawyers.
Across Ukraine, there is a low level of trust in the judiciary, mostly resulting from frequent abuses of due process, including undue delays and interference with the judicial process. While the trial of five ‘Berkut’ servicemen accused of killing 48 protestors on 20 February 2014 at Maidan in Kyiv is ongoing, the UN Human Rights Office remains concerned that senior level officials have not been held accountable. Almost three years since the 2 May 2014 violence in Odesa, those responsible for the deaths of 48 people have yet to be brought to justice.
While welcoming the Government’s efforts to improve access to social and economic rights across Ukraine, including for internally displaced persons, the report recalls that at least 160,000 pensioners residing in the territory controlled by armed groups have been deprived of their pensions since November 2014. The report urges the Government to ensure that everyone has access to their social entitlements, including by de-linking access to pensions from IDP registration.
While welcoming attempts by the Government to improve access to information, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission has observed that freedom of opinion and expression on both sides of the contact line are restricted and politically charged. The report highlights instances where journalists and bloggers have been detained and expelled by armed groups, and attempts by Government and paramilitary groups to curb rhetoric perceived as being anti-Ukrainian and pro-Russian online, on television and in printed media across Ukraine.
The report also tracks the progress of the reform process and makes recommendations for human rights related legislative developments. In particular, it welcomes and calls for the effective implementation of the Plan of Action, defining State policy towards citizens living in territory controlled by armed groups. The UN Human Rights Office believes this can become a means of fostering peace-building efforts and reconciliation.
* With an additional 298 passengers killed as a result of the MH-17 plane crash.
** On 19 December 2016, the United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution 71/205 on the “situation of human rights in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol”, recalling General Assembly resolution 68/262 on the “Territorial integrity of Ukraine” of 27 March 2014.
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