KYIV/ GENEVA (29 August 2014) – Intense fighting, including the use of heavy weaponry by both sides, in densely populated areas of eastern Ukraine, has increased the loss of civilian life, with an average of around 36 people being killed every day, says a new report issued on Friday by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The report, which covers the period 16 July to 17 August, expresses dismay at the killing and wounding of civilians who are trapped in urban areas or attempting to flee the fighting in eastern Ukraine using “safe” corridors, established by the Government.
“Deliberate targeting of civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law, and more must be done to protect them,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. “All those involved in the hostilities in the affected areas of the east must at all times comply with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution. This is particularly important in densely populated areas.”
“There is an urgent need to end the fighting and violence in the eastern regions, before more civilians are harmed or forced to flee, or face intolerable hardships trapped inside the conflict zones,” she added.
The report produced by the UN Human Rights Office documents a wide array of serious human rights abuses committed primarily by the armed groups who have seized control over a large part of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine since mid-April. It also documents violations committed by Ukrainian forces in their efforts to recapture territory, from which armed groups are conducting operations and in which they have located military objectives.
According to the report, civilians fleeing the intense and prolonged fighting in eastern Ukraine have been targeted and killed; others have been prevented by the armed groups from leaving the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk as the Ukraine Government tightened its blockades around the two main strongholds of the armed groups. Supposedly “safe” corridors established by the Ukrainian forces to enable residents to flee from these cities, traversed areas where the fighting was ongoing. Civilians using these corridors were subsequently killed or injured.
Although more than half the population of Luhansk and Donetsk cities have now left, not enough was done in time to evacuate people from the areas of fighting, the report says, especially those most vulnerable such as institutionalized children, older people and people with disabilities. The evacuation of many children to other parts of Ukraine was blocked by armed groups.
Reports of serious human rights abuses by the armed groups have continued, including abductions involving physical and psychological torture and ill-treatment of the detainees, with many subjected to forced labour. While it is not known precisely how many people still remain in captivity, the report says that, as of 17 August, at least 468 people were believed to be still detained by various armed groups.
There have also been reports of human rights violations, such as arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and torture, committed by the Ukrainian territorial and special battalions. More control should be exercised over these battalions, “in particular instructing them in international humanitarian law.” The Government has arrested more than 1,000 people in eastern Ukraine because of what it calls “irrefutable evidence of their participation in terrorist activities.” But, according to the report, procedural rights “have not always been observed and there are reports of ill-treatment during arrest or while in custody."
Over 1,500 cases of alleged offenses committed by local officials and citizens in the east have already been investigated by Ukrainian authorities, and more than 150 people have been prosecuted. The police in areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions regained by the Government have had to prove they were not involved in any crimes while under the control of the armed groups. Nevertheless, “residents of these regions back under the control of the Government report the fear of reprisals, the lack of confidence that their own cases will be investigated, and fear that impunity will continue with no accountability,” the report says.
The Ukraine Parliament approved three laws that would significantly expand the powers of law enforcement bodies in relation to the Government’s security operation in the east that “appear to be in conflict with international human rights norms and standards. While it is acknowledged that times of emergency might require limiting certain guarantees, in all circumstances such measures must remain consistent with the norms of international law,” the report states.
"Justice and accountability must replace impunity for major human rights violations that have occurred over the past four months,” the High Commissioner said. “And justice must be applied to all. It is essential that the Government takes firm action to prevent reprisals and all other forms of unlawful retribution. The application of the rule of law must be meticulous, and in full accord with international standards, if public confidence in State institutions is to be restored.”
The report also notes that in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, harassment and discrimination have continued against Ukrainian nationals, Crimean Tatars and other minorities. “No serious attempts have been made (by Crimean authorities) to investigate allegations of human rights abuses committed by the so-called Crimean self-defence forces following the March ‘referendum’. Meanwhile complaints against the self-defence forces continued,” it says, adding that more than 2,800 people left Crimea for mainland Ukraine during the past month, bringing the total number of internally displaced persons from Crimea in Ukraine to more than 16,000. The number of displaced in the country as a whole was 190,000 as of 20 August.
At least 2,593 people have been killed in Ukraine between mid-April and 27 August 2014.*
*This total compiled by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission and the World Health Organisation includes members of the Ukrainian armed forces as reported by the Council for National Security and Defence, and civilians and some members of the armed groups (for which no total losses are known) as reported by medical establishments and local administrations.
The mandate of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay ends on Sunday 31 August, after six years. Her successor, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, will officially take up the post of High Commissioner on 4 September.