Lives in Ukraine being lost in accountability vacuum, warns UN rights expert

18 September 2015

The Ukrainian Government and the armed groups operating in the country must implement a proper system of accountability to end the violence, an independent United Nations human rights expert warned today.

“Thousands of people have died in Ukraine over the last two years, both in the context of a brutal armed conflict in eastern Ukraine and in the rest of the country,” said the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, speaking at the end of his first official visit to the country.

While in Ukraine, Mr. Heyns examined the level of protection of the right to life, as well as the measures taken to prevent unlawful killings.

He also observed the effects of shelling, and raised concerns that many civilian casualties might have been avoided if the parties to the conflict had taken stronger measures to mitigate such losses.

Highlighting allegations of indiscriminate shelling, as well as the placing of artillery in civilian-populated areas, including schools and hospitals, the expert expressed his concern that there was “very little evidence that either the Government or the armed groups investigate any of these allegations.”

On a more positive note, the ceasefire negotiated at Minsk in February 2015 has largely been observed during the last few weeks. “The opportunity should be used by both sides to put measures into place to reduce the toll that the war is exacting from everyone concerned,” said Mr. Heyns.

At the same time, he highlighted allegations of serious violations taking place in Crimea.

“Ukraine faces serious challenges, and violations will almost inevitably occur,” said Mr. Heyns. “The only way forward is for all parties actively to confront that fact and to ensure that a functioning system of accountability for a common set of standards is put into place.”

Global attention was drawn to Ukraine nearly two years ago when a mass demonstration in the centre of Kyiv resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people. Only a few months later groups of demonstrators participating in another mass demonstration clashed in Odessa, resulting in the deaths of at least 48 people, many trapped in a burning building.

“Ukrainian authorities – former and present – had responsibilities to protect life both at Maidan and during the events of 2 May in Odessa, and their failure to do so had tragic results,” Mr Heyns said. “Those shortcomings are only exacerbated by the subsequent failure properly to investigate the cause of these deaths in the aftermath, and to take steps aimed at redress.”

According to the expert, the legal framework for the protection of the right to life is largely in place, but its implementation seems highly problematic as there are accountability failures for violations of these norms on many levels. “The Security Service of Ukraine has been the subject of widespread allegations – and seems to be above the law,” he noted.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.

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