Ukraine Shouldn’t Abandon Human Rights under New Martial Law
On November 26, the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of enforcing the declaration of martial law in Ukraine’s 10 regions that border Russia, including Russia-occupied Crimea and parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia-backed armed groups.
President Petro Poroshenko proposed martial law in response to a conflict between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Azov Sea. According to numerous media reports, on November 25, Russian forces attacked three Ukrainian naval vessels near the coast of Crimea, claiming they had illegally sailed into Russia-controlled waters. Russian authorities seized the Ukrainian ship, captured its crew members, and temporarily blocked Ukraine’s access to the Kerch Strait. Moscow and Kyiv share the Sea of Azov under a 2003 treaty.
Under yesterday’s declaration, martial law will be in force for 30 days, during which the government can restrict numerous rights guaranteed by the Ukrainian constitution, including such key fundamental rights as freedom of expression, assembly, and movement.
While the Ukrainian government has an obligation to ensure national security, authorities do not have a carte blanche to restrict rights. Any such restrictions have to be justified as proportionate and necessary to respond to a specific threat and by specific circumstances. Under no circumstances should the government use rights restrictions under martial law as a pretext to clamp down on discontent or to chill critical voices, including critical journalists.
Ukraine’s introduction of martial law also does not in any way mean that the relevant provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights or the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights are suspended or don't apply. Under both treaties, states are allowed to limit certain rights during emergency situations, including armed conflict, and Ukraine has already done so in 2015 and 2017. In terms of Ukraine’s obligations to uphold rights under these treaties, martial law means only that Ukraine may seek to invoke a temporary (in this case for 30 days) emergency to justify additional, extraordinary restrictions that would still be subject to scrutiny by the supervisory bodies of the Council of Europe and the United Nations. Ukraine should update the Council of Europe and the UN’s Human Rights Committee of any further restrictions that could be imposed under current martial law.
With presidential elections planned for spring 2019, many people fear Poroshenko’s widely unpopular government will leverage martial law to suspend the vote and manipulate election conditions to ensure another term in office. Ukraine’s international partners should ensure that doesn’t happen.