Nils Muižnieks: «My fear is that people will forget the suffering taking place in Ukraine»
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks on the human rights situation in Donbas and Crimea, and his further plan regarding these territories
Mr. Muižnieks has published a report on July 11, which covers his visit to Ukraine from 21 to 25 March, 2016. As stated in the report, he travelled to Kyiv, Dnipro and the non-government controlled city of Donetsk. He held discussions with the state authorities, lawyers and civil society representatives, and also interviewed victims of torture on both sides of the contact line.
Did you meet any obstructions while preparing your report? In case you did, from which side?
I had excellent cooperation with the Ukrainian authorities. They facilitated my work in any way they could. I met good cooperation from the other side in Donetsk, but my major complaints were that I did not get access to the places of detention. I requested that, but they said that it was not foreseen in what they called «local legislation». I visited old persons home and a psychiatric institution, but in the latter I was not permitted to go to closed ward.
But I did have their cooperation in arriving to Donetsk and I did receive security protection and I got to see something, but not the most important things. I insisted that the monitoring of closed institutions was the normal thing they should get used to and I urged them to cooperate with the International Committee of Red Cross.
How would you appraise the efficiency of Ukrainian government's actions in fulfilling human rights in Donbas?
It is a very difficult situation when you are amid the conflict and you have legitimate security concerns that have to be taken care of. What I urged Ukrainian authorities to do here is to revisit the issue of freedom of movement. The temporary order regarding permits to cross—this is the issue that needs to be approached with maximum amount of flexibility not to put people living in non-government controlled areas in a very difficult situation.
The second thing is about paying pensions. People are entitled to their pensions regardless of where they live. I understand the difficulties: the Ukrainian government can't transfer money to the non-government controlled areas, but it should delink the IDP status from the payment of pensions. They are property, people have the right to access their property.
While I was in Ukraine, the process of verification of IDP status underway. While this is taking place, many people lost access to their IDP benefits. I understand that the number of IDPs might be inflated and people who are registered as ones might not actually live on the government-controlled side. On the one hand, there are legitimate concerns on fraud as people are trying to get benefits they are not entitled to. On the other hand, the IDPs who are on the government-controlled side become extremely vulnerable. They have lost their property, their livelihood and have probably been traumatized by the conflict. So all the efforts should be taken so that these people do not suffer during the process of verification.
The issues I raised on both sides were ill-treatment, allegations of torture and holding people in incommunicado detention or informal places of detention. We heard very similar stories from both sides of the line. As I said before, on the government-controlled side there is access to the places of detention for international monitors; this is not the case on the other side. Regarding accountability, I've heard a good report from chief military prosecutor about measures taken against servicemen as well as volunteers in voluntary battalions for ill-treatment and other kinds of misconduct. Criminal investigations were launched. Still, to my knowledge, there is no similar process on the other side.
In your opinion, how interested the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Committee of Ministers are in your report? How relevant is the issue of Ukraine for the Council of Europe?
I'm trying to make it more relevant for the Council of Europe and the rest of Europe, because my fear is that people will forget the suffering taking place in Ukraine, forget about the conflict because it is overshadowed by other crises and challenges—the refugee crisis, Brexit and other issues. So, one goal I have is to keep Ukraine on the agenda.
Up until now, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers have been very interested in my work in Ukraine. I've engaged in a number of debates in the Parliamentary Assembly to inform the deputies of my work and conclusions. The same goes for the Committee of Ministers. This report has not yet been presented to the Parliamentary Assembly or to the Committee of Ministers—I intend to do that in September. But my intention was to publish the report now to try to keep Ukraine in people's minds, on the agenda, and to maintain my dialogue with Ukrainian authorities.
What else are you planning on doing regarding Donbas and Crimea? Do you have a long-term strategy regarding these cases?
I hope to be able to return to Crimea to do a follow-up monitoring. That has not been possible in the last year and a half since Russian authorities have not been facilitating my work there. I hope that will change.
Regarding Donbas, I intend to continue to engage as I see necessary and appropriate. I might do a follow-up visit—I've been twice there in less than a year. I was hoping to get higher access to the decision-makers, as well as to places of detention—it didn't work. I thought it was useful to go there to stress the necessity of human rights monitoring to them, but my hope to gain better access was not fulfilled.
One issue that I've been raising is that of missing persons. We have recently put out a paper looking at the standards and best practices in this area. I hope to take it forward to both sides, but also—if I can—to push all sides to creating an international mechanism to deal with this issue. It has to be dealt with now, because the more time passes, the more difficult it will be to get evidence, witness testimony and find remains of missing people if they have been killed.
The other issue that I am very interested in pursuing is the National Human Rights Plan. Together with the UN we have been pushing Ukrainian authorities to adopt such a strategy. They have adopted one, but there is very little funding available for implementing it. So I intend to engage with Ukrainian authorities on that plan to see how I can help push the process forward.
And then, of course, I hope to raise these issues in my dialogue with Russian authorities. But, as I have said, in the last year and a half my dialogue with them has been very limited for reasons beyond my control.
Nils Muižnieks is a Latvian-American human rights activist and political scientist. He has served as the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights since April 2012. Prior to his appointment as Commissioner for Human Rights, he held prominent posts such as Programme Director at the Soros Foundation-Latvia, Director of the Advanced Social and Political Research Institute at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Latvia in Riga; Chairman of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance; Latvian minister responsible for social integration, anti-discrimination, minority rights, and civil society development; and Director of the Latvian Centre for Human Rights and Ethnic Studies (now Latvian Centre for Human Rights).