Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Look at Human Rights in War-torn Ukraine
Has Ukraine curtailed respect for human rights in the course of the one-year Russo-Ukraine war of 2014-15? For insights into this important aspect of Ukraine’s sovereignty I turned to Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (, which connects local human rights organizations throughout Ukraine. It fulfills a vital function as a resource and information center. 

Even though Ukraine is embroiled in a war with Russia, what is the status of human rights in Ukraine?
I think the war is getting in the way of vital reforms, which is frustrating since there finally seemed to be a political will for such reforms. Reforms are urgently needed, for example, for the police, the prosecutor’s office and most importantly, the judicial system. There are reforms as well as with anti-corruption measures, but they’re very slow in coming.
Some events may be occurring for the worse, or are at least dangerous for society, such as, for example, the arrests and detention of Ruslan Kotsaba and Andriy Zakharchuk on various dubious “treason” charges. Also, attempts to regulate what is shown or not shown on television are overly clumsy, and the creation of an Information Policy Ministry is, in my opinion, a very dangerous step for Ukraine. ( (I criticized the establishment of this Ministry on December 8, 2014.)

Since your organization has Kharkiv in its name, can you please summarize the status of human rights in this eastern Ukrainian city?
Because of its geographical position, its political leaders and politically more divided population, Kharkiv has been one of the targets of terrorist acts, which are almost certainly part of the undeclared war waged by Russia against Ukraine. The bomb on February 22 aimed at killing or maiming people preparing for a unity procession is only the latest of a number of such attacks. (Four people were killed as a result of this terrorist act. The Security Service of Ukraine has blamed Russia for this bombing.)
But there have been some positive court rulings (especially over protests in Gorky Park). One court ban, however, ( showed that the city authorities under Hennadiy Kernes have not renounced their repressive attempts to restrict peaceful protests.

Has Russia’s conduct during its war with Ukraine been in accordance with globally accepted conventions regarding war, prisoners of war, protecting civilian lives and human rights?
Anything but. I think there are ever increasing grounds for taking Russia and its proxies to the International Criminal Court and it is therefore very important that Ukraine ratifies the Rome Statute that established four core international crimes: genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression. Those crimes shall not be subject to any statute of limitations. Russia has not declared war but is fighting in Ukraine, and is providing its proxies with sophisticated weapons that they have already used to down a passenger airliner, to shell Mariupol, and a bus at a checkpoint (where there was every likelihood of hitting a civilian target). It is also guilty of torture, breaches of the Geneva Conventions, abduction, and gross violations of the European Convention in its treatment of Nadiya Savchenko.
And that’s just to begin with.

Do you think President Poroshenko will maintain human rights principles after the war while protecting Ukraine’s independence, statehood and sovereignty?
I hope so. Maidan is a responsibility – his and also those Ukrainians who will, I hope, not allow Ukraine’s new leaders to revert to old patterns.

Does the continued imprisonment of Nadiya Savchenko and others constitute a case of prisoners of war or are they victims of human rights violations? Have international agencies been contacted on their behalf? 
To the last question, yes. Amnesty International has responded with regard to Sentsov and Kolchenko, but I don’t think it or Human Rights Watch have responded about Nadiya Savchenko – I don’t know or understand why not.
Formally, Nadiya Savchenko is not a POW because there is no official state of war. She has been recognized by EU, USA, PACE, etc. as falling under the first Minsk agreement – she is illegally held. Particularly because she was captured by Kremlin-backed militants in Luhansk oblast and abducted to Russia.
Oleg Sentsov and Oleksander Kolchenko are political prisoners. There are others who I believe are being held illegally, but each case is specific and doesn’t fall into simple categories.

What is status of Ruslan Kotsaba, about who you wrote recently on your website? 
He is still in detention with the appeals court unfortunately upholding a wrong decision (

Is Russia a threat to regional peace, stability and justice or is it a global threat that the free world must deal with?
Both! Even if it is mainly a threat to the region, its breach of fundamental principles of international law and the fact that some of the countries are members of NATO mean that the West is reacting to Russia much too slowly, much too weakly.

Beyond merely Russia, what are the major external threats to human rights in Ukraine? And internal? 
External – I would say only Russia.
Internally, all the bitterness, the chaos and destruction caused by the war, and the desperate difficulty that the situation creates for carrying out real reforms.

What is the state of human rights for Ukrainians in Russia? Are their cultural, linguistic, religious and national rights threatened because of Russia’s war with Ukraine?
I haven’t heard of anything particular, but I don’t think their rights as a national minority have ever been greatly observed. 

Is the Ukrainian nation – the people – aware enough of human rights abuses and their rights as citizens to defend their human rights? Will the government help them protect their rights?
By comparison with Russians, for example, yes, but probably not like in Canada and the United States. There is still a huge weight of cynicism and brutal realism about a system where the police is not seen as a protector of the population, and people don’t expect justice from the courts. I think that perpetuates corruption and fatalism. But not always because Maidan won, so awareness is growing. As for the second question – well, I hope so!

How can Ukrainians in the Diaspora and free world in general help in preserving human rights in Ukraine?
Through helping inform their societies and governments about what is happening, through pressure on their governments, for example, to take much tougher measures against Russia, which is the main source of Ukraine’s problems at the moment. 
I think it is also important not to be tolerant of failings of the new administration. President Viktor Yushchenko’s failure to deliver on reforms was tolerated for too long because the people didn’t want to help Russia and the opposition by criticizing a popular pro-Ukrainian president. And also because many people in the Diaspora liked his stands on the Holodomor, on Shukhevych (Roman Shukhevych-Taras Chuprynka, commander in chief of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed in a skirmish with MVD in March 1950) and Bandera (Stepan Bandera, leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists assassinated by a Russian agent in October 1959), and did not consider the fact that this was happening in lieu of urgently needed reforms.

I will be tapping Halya Coynash’s insights for time to time in future blogs.