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9 July, 2014  ▪  Anna Korbut

Nils Muižnieks: “Once the central government has a long-term plan for IDPs, assistance from the international community will be forthcoming”

The Ukrainian Week talks to Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks about the flow of IDPs from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, ways for the government to deal with the problem Ukraine has never faced before, and about the hard lesson on integration of minorities Russia’s neighbours had to learn

U.W.: During your latest visit to Kyiv and Odesa in June, you met with IDPs from Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. How serious is the threat the Crimeans are fleeing problem? Is the government effective in helping them, or is it civil activists who deal with them?

This time, I have met with representatives of Crimean Tatars and Mustafa Dzhemilev (the leader of Crimean Tatars – Ed.); IDPs from Crimea who live in temporary accommodation; as well as NGOs monitoring the situation in Crimea. I have also met with IDPs from Sloviansk and elsewhere who arrived in Kyiv. The number of IDPs from the East and Crimea is growing every day. Many of these people are traumatized. I have met women with children and pregnant women who had made their way through battlefields holding white flags. I met people who arrived with almost nothing and are unable to access their bank accounts in Crimea. I heard stories of people being asked for their trudova knyzhka (workbooks) and propyska (residence registration) which they clearly do not have because they have fled a conflict.

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The response of volunteers and local governments is very welcoming and generous. But the scale of the challenge requires a more central, long-term durable response from the government. First of all, the central government has to register IDPs in a central registry, assess their needs, then draw a medium-term plan and ask the international community for assistance. That assistance will be forthcoming but the plan is necessary.

For one thing, the number of IDPs is likely to keep growing. It can be expected that many Crimeans want their children to finish schools here, arrange to sell their property in Crimea in some way; many teachers wanted to finish the school year before moving to mainland Ukraine. I have also not heard any reports from Eastern Ukraine that could leave me optimistic about the flow of IDPs from Eastern Ukraine stopping anytime soon.

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U.W.: Are they actually getting that support and assistance from the central government? Or is it mostly activists who deal with them?

The regional governments in particular appear to be doing quite a lot. In Odesa, many people have been put in sanatoria – that is a good short-term solution. However, some durable solutions need to be found for when the heating season starts in October. I was told that they are receiving some psychological assistance as well. But their needs are still growing rapidly, and some serious planning should take place about that.

One thing which struck me as being a bit unhelpful was that, when we arrived in the Kyiv airport from Odesa, I saw an information poster providing hotline numbers for Ukrainian citizens from Crimea who needed assistance. But all the information was in the Ukrainian language. To me, this is not the best way to reach people who are Russian-speakers. I understand concerns about language, but when people arrive and need assistance, they need to be able to get it in the language they speak.

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U.W.: What are specific kinds of assistance the international community can provide, if the Ukrainian government does come up with a long-term plan you mentioned?

UNHCR is an agency that specializes in dealing with IDPs and refugees. They have done this many times in different contexts and could play the lead role in the process. I will try to raise awareness about the need for this assistance among Council of Europe member-states. And I have now deployed an advisor here in Kyiv. He will stay here till the end of the year and will be my eyes and ears here, informing me regularly. I myself hope to come back sometime in the fall.

This is a new situation for Ukraine. It’s clear that there will be shortcomings in the response to it. But, given the growing number and particular vulnerability of these people, dealing with their needs should be a priority.

U.W.: How would you assess the level of cooperation between civil society and the government? How effective is it, if any?

Ukraine is in the transitional phase, and this was very obvious to me during my visit. You have a new President but an old parliament which does not necessarily reflect the current trends in society. In various ministries, you have some newly-appointed ministers and deputy ministers, but they are surrounded by people from the old government. You have a situation of conflict and a rapid inflow of IDPs, plus a looming economic crisis because of the gas war. So, Ukraine has found itself caught in a huge flux.

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I have heard stories of good cooperation and dialogue in some areas, but I have also heard a lot of frustration about civil society not being listened to, whether it is on the IDP issues or others addressing human rights violations.

Right now, Ukraine is in a mixed situation, however it has a huge resource in its civil society that I saw. I saw IDPs living in the servants’ quarters of Mezhyhiria, the former president’s palace. The self-organization of the current administration at that facility was amazing. It is incredibly heartwarming. But as the IDP pressure grows, you will need the central government to take over the lead role in dealing with it.

U.W.: Are there any specific tools that the international community, in addition to Ukrainian activists, can put pressure on the current government to undertake that responsibility?

I think it is less a question of pressure than of convincing the authorities that there is no shame in asking the international community for help. It is clear that Ukrainian coffers were pillaged by the previous regime. Everybody knows and understands this. Clearly, Ukraine will need assistance to address various challenges now, including the IDP one. I think the international community will be very forthcoming with that once the central government has a more coordinated long-term response to offer.

U.W.: In our previous interviews we talked about the International Advisory Panel to help Ukraine investigate crimes on the Maidan, and about restoration of trust for the police and courts as a top priority for the new government. The Panel was set up in April upon the initiative of CoE Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland. Has there been any progress on the investigation and cooperation with the new Ukrainian government?

This is more a question to Secretary General. As I understand, the IAP has had several meetings here, they are waiting to really begin their work in Ukraine, and they are waiting to get the requested information from the Ukrainian authorities from various ministries and government agencies. Before they can really get to work, they have to comprehend the answers to all their questions which, I understand, they have not yet received. There is a lot of potential for them to be the bridge between civil society and investigative authorities.

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There have been some shortcomings in the investigation, which is not surprising given the situation of flux Ukraine is facing. You just had an interim General Prosecutor, now you have a new one. You have serious problems with the base of evidence - not only for Maidan crimes, but for the tragedy in the Odesa Trade Unions Building. The latter was open to the public for several days after the fire, for instance.

So, there are some serious challenges faced by investigators. I heard a number of people criticize the authorities for either giving to little information, or giving too much and wrong kinds of information. In other words, there is little transparency on the process of the official investigation, yet there are occasional lapses concerning the presumption of innocence and the need to protect personal information.

In Odesa, I met a very interesting civil initiative of investigative journalists from various political persuasions, forensic medical experts and police officers who are trying to find out facts themselves. They were absolutely scathing in their criticism of law enforcers, placing much of the blame for the tragedy on their failures. The trust thus has not yet been rebuilt because many people do not see any significant reforms in the police in particular. I know that there are some ongoing investigations, but we need to see serious changes in terms of how police officers are recruited, trained, disciplined, and in terms of how investigations into misconduct by law enforcers are carried out.

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U.W.: You have written much about integration in Latvian society and post-imperial minorities there. Similarly to Ukraine, Baltic States have what looks like poorly integrated Russian-speaking groups which tend to be pro-Russian, especially after they joined the EU and NATO. Do you see any parallels between those and pro-Russian groups in Ukraine? What could be done to integrate them into Ukrainian society effectively?

I don’t see a lot of parallels between Latvia and Ukraine. But the essential principle of integration remains operable in both contexts. To have an integrated society, you need to ensure participation of all in public life. They should feel that they have a stake in the game. Therefore, participation of all segments of society is essential to restore peace. Ukraine also needs the promotion of non-discrimination and equality. When people feel that they are not getting fair treatment, integration is hindered. You also need intercultural cooperation and dialogue. I was heartened by some civil society initiatives and some of the work that the OSCE is doing in Odesa, but I think that one thing I heard is that there is still a lot of hate speech and threats from the two opposing sides there - the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian groups - conveyed through the media. The authorities need to take these seriously. For integration to take place, everybody needs to feel secure, not threatened. One small thing I could mention about Latvia is that one thing its government has realized, is that they need to have more effective communication policies with Russian-speakers. These first of all include public broadcasting in the Russian language because there is a lot of misinformation going around. And you can’t curb it by banning or restricting. Outcompeting is an effective way out. This would make these people involved in the language they understand. At least, that’s a lesson many countries bordering Russia have learned now.

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