Nils Muižnieks: Civil activists should organize to provide regular information about what it is going on in their regions to the international community. The world will be watching what happens in Ukraine very closely in the coming weeks and months
In early February, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muižnieks paid an urgent visit to Ukraine to assess the situation with human rights, including the way law enfrocers treated protesters, in Kyiv and regions. Based on his visit, a report will be drafted to be presented to the CoE Committee of Ministers. The Ukrainian Week talks to Mr. Muižnieks about his preliminary findings back in Strasbourg
UW: On February 18-19, over 20 people were killed in the violence crackdown on protesters, several hundred people were injured. How do you assess the situation?
I am greatly concerned by the recent eruption of violence in Ukraine. My thoughts are with the families of the victims and those who have been injured. To restore peace in the country and solve the current crisis, it is imperative to put an immediate stop to violence and prevent any more human suffering. I call on all sides to abandon the use of violence and to engage in serious negotiations to get out of this horrible crisis. I urge the authorities to do their utmost to protect human lives.
My colleagues and I in the Council of Europe are all monitoring the situation closely. I am in touch with the PACE rapporteurs who are currently in Ukraine. After my report is published, I will continue to follow the situation and then assess how best I can engage again to keep human rights on the agenda during this crisis.
UW: What are your first conclusions based on the trip to Kyiv?
I’m glad I went because it is a critical time and I needed to understand what was going on the ground. I was one of the first representatives of international human rights organizations at that time to have been on the ground there, especially in the regions.
There is great interest in my findings both in the CoE’s Committee of Ministers here, and in other international organizations and national capitals. I’m glad to see that the tension is deescalating a little bit, some of the buildings have been vacated. When I was in Ukraine, my sense was that the risk of violence was very high and the threshold for violence was very low. (Explanation: here the Commissioner means that when he was there, the tension was so high that even the smallest incident could have provoked a violent reaction)
We will publish a report on this within the next two to three weeks. Then, we will discuss it with great interest at the Committee of Ministers. I presented my provisional findings a couple of days ago to the Committee of Ministers and there was huge interest in them. People are eagerly awaiting the report. Then, we will see how the situation develops in Ukraine. But I will go back when needed, if I feel that the tension is building and my presence may be useful. It is difficult for me to predict when that could be but we are monitoring the developments in Ukraine very closely.
UW: IstheInteriorMinistryledbyVitaliyZakharchenko, andthushepersonally, responsibleforviolations of human rights by the Ukrainian police? If anything like that happened in an EU member-state, what would it mean for the minister in charge?
I think that individual people should be held responsible for any violations of human rights. This means that every police officer who is engaged in that should be held accountable, as should be anybody who gave the command. One thing I was concerned about is that, the day after I left Ukraine, I learned that several people who had been fired from their posts for their role in the November 30 violence (Oleksandr Popov, Head of the Kyiv State Administration; Volodymyr Sivkovych, ex-Deputy Secretary of the National Defence and Security Council; and Volodymyr Koriak, ex-Chief of the Kyiv Police. The three were charged with ordering the violent police crackdown on peaceful protesters on the night of November 29-30 – Ed.) were acquitted by court. To me, this reinforces the message of the need to combat impunity for violation of human rights in Ukraine. Only seven investigations are underway against different police officers. That’s quite a small number. These acquittals also underline the need to bring to justice those who have committed violations.
Whether or not the Minister of the Interior is ultimately responsible for what happened is not for me to say. What is clear though is that investigations of reported violations and prosecutions for them are necessary.
UW: The Council of Europe proposed a plan to set up a three-party commission with the Ukrainian opposition and government to investigatepolicecrimes. Just about a week ago no progress was visible in that direction. In your opinion, how could the Council of Europe take part in the process? Could your office oversee or monitor such investigation, for instance?
This was a proposal put on the table by Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland back in early December and it is still on the table. The CoE Committee of Ministers as well as the EU are pushing Ukrainian authorities quite hard to go forward on this proposal.
I have told the Minister of Interior and Deputy Prosecutor General that, if they had investigated and prosecution of people involved in the violence, there would be no demand for international involvement in supervising the investigations. I think what we have now in Ukraine is the complete lack of trust in the police and in the ability of law enforcement to investigate wrongdoings. This is why there is such a strong demand, both on part of the opposition and civil society, as well as the international community, to have international involvement in the supervision of these investigations.
My own view is that this is the core step the government can take to build confidence with civil society and the opposition is to move forward with these investigations. Our international involvement in that would be quite useful, I think, in bridging this gulf of confidence between the sides. I’m hoping that this will move forward.
However, I have contradictory signals from the Ukrainian authorities. Some representatives of them think international involvement is a good idea. Others have reservations or are very reluctant to accept it. So, I think there is no clear stance yet on that on the part of the government.
UW: If the investigation does not take place, what will the consequences for the Ukrainian authorities be?
The Ukrainian authorities have already come under significant international scrutiny. It is clearly not going to ease in the coming weeks and months. Everybody is waiting and hoping for signs of seriousness and commitment on doing the right thing in terms of human rights on part of the Ukrainian authorities. The investigation and prosecution of police officers involved in wrongdoings would be a clear signal that the Ukrainian authorities acknowledge their problems and are willing to address them.
As to the consequences , I think that is more of a political question that goes beyond my mandate to help the Ukrainian authorities to meet their human rights obligations. But if you look at what the political bodies such as the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly or the EU, are doing, some of the talk there has been of strong consequences politically.
UW: CoEco-rapporteursMariettadePurbe-LindenandMailis Reps insisted that the CoE’s resolution on Ukraine passed in January retains the possibility of stripping the Ukrainian delegation of its voting right at the CoE if Ukrainians’ rights to peaceful protests continue to be violated. How likely is that? What is your opinion on the effectiveness of sanctions?
Sanctions are not really part of my toolbox. I am for engagement and assistance. But in certain contexts they do seem to have a certain impact.
It is difficult for me to assess the likeliness of measures by the PACE. My own view is that the de-occupation of administration buildings and the onset of the political dialogue is a step away from that precipice. I hope this will be followed by additional steps, including the establishment of an Advisory Panel, the end to police impunity, the introduction of police identification numbers and some serious steps to improve access to justice and the judiciary, as well as to adopt a law on freedom of assembly.
UW: What instruments can citizens use to protect themselves and express their demands in a system where there are no legal instruments left and the government ignores protesters despite the fact that millions take it to the streets? With the government-controlled police and courts, what can ensure that activists are not going to be jailed or kidnapped further on, as the attention to the current protests goes down?
I don’t think international attention will divert from Ukraine for quite a while. I think the situation is quite serious here and the world will be watching what happens in Ukraine very closely in the coming weeks and months.
What can Ukrainian citizens do? First of all, use all legal means at their disposal. I have already mentioned that there is complete lack of trust in the judiciary. Interestingly, even some defence lawyers I have met distrust the judiciary. Still, they want to use all the means at their disposal to try to make the system work. That’s encouraging.
Even though people have little confidence in the ombudsman (ParliamentCommissioner for human rights), they should submit complains to this institution. One message I gave to civil society activists, especially in the regions – Dnipropetrovsk and Zaporizhzhia – was that the international community lacks information about what’s going outside Kyiv. What they could do is organize among themselves to provide regular information about human rights development in the regions to the international community. I’ve been stressing to my colleagues in the international community that there is strong demand in Ukraine for international presence on the ground to watch, monitor and gather information.
I think there are a lot of consultations going on right now among different organizations, including the Council of Europe, the OSCE and the EU, about how best to provide that. It’s clear that we, the international community, need to be engaged to work with civil society and ensure human rights in Ukraine.
UW: Western media have often reported that the protests in Ukraine are dominated by nationalists and fascists. Did you notice signs of intolerance, anti-Semitism of xenophobia when you were here? What was your impression of the Maidan?
I am not in a position to make an in-depth analysis of the inhabitants of the Maidan. What is clear is that they are a diverse group of people. But I didn’t notice extremist slogans or symbols there. When people are talking about anti-Semitism, they can look at the Berkut’s site. There is a lot of that there.
I think that such elements exist in every society. But they do not seem to be very dominant in Ukraine at this time. The political divide here is about other issues.
UW: You have visited different regions in Ukraine. Did you see the difference in the scale of violations of human rights between Eastern and Central Ukraine?
We wanted to go to different regions because Ukraine is such a diverse place and the conflict has been playing out differently in different regions. Vinnytsia, for instance, was interesting because significant violence was avoided there when the police chief basically told the Berkut to get back to their buses. There were still some conflicts but it was primarily the police who suffered and were hospitalized, while no protesters were taken to hospitals there. Vinnytsia has a popular mayor and the police chief who did not want to permit any violence against protesters. That led to a peaceful negotiated freeing of the occupied building after a week. In other places, it played out quite differently. Dnipropetrovsk or Zaporizhzhia saw a much more significant scale of violence by the police and titushky. The state administration building in Dnipropetrovsk is heavily fortified.
One interesting aspect what that, representatives of different opposition parties worktogether with civil society and defence lawyers in Zaporizhzhia, whereas in Dnipropetrovsk there is barely any work with civil society on the part of the opposition parties. That was my impression. Their civil society is more isolated and faces a more difficult task
UW: How did you like the Maidan’s hand-made hospital and its doctors?
The impressive thing about the hospital is that it has grown out of nothing into a place with an operating room and a pharmacy now. All this has been done on donations and volunteer labour. The hospital seems to treat many people. I was impressed by the commitment of the doctors who are donating their time to all this. I was equally impressed by volunteers at other medical facilities who were there to assist anybody in need of medical care, to make sure that nobody disappeared and to serve as a liaison between the patients and their families. To me, this is quite an impressive level of organization and solidarity. There is a lot of self-help and solidarity expressed. And this is heartening. This shows that there is a lot of civic engagement and activism that manifests itself not only in going to rallies and demonstrations, but in helping others – it’s a great resource and a great source of hope for Ukraine’s future.