“We are able to be the eyes and ears of the international community in the conflict area”

20 August 2015, 16:38

Interviewed by Anna Korbut

The Special Monitoring Mission is one of the OSCE’s numerous missions. It is tasked with collecting information, establishing facts and reporting on the security and human rights situation on the ground. Under its mandate, the SMM does not conduct investigations or draw conclusions. Moreover, the monitors are unarmed civilians protected only by armored cars and personal protective equipment. Given security considerations, they are unable to work under shelling. Therefore, some may get an impression when reading their reports that the documents do not reflect the situation on the ground in Eastern Ukraine completely because, for example, they do not point at the side that starts the shelling. The Ukrainian Week spoke to Michael Bociurkiw, the Spokesperson of the OSCE SMM, about its mandate and tasks in Ukraine.

What criteria have been used to select monitors for Ukraine? And what are the proportions of member-state representatives in the SMM?

The mission – a very small group initially – started arriving here 24 hours after it was approved. Now we are approaching 600 international monitors and more than 10 centers in Ukraine, as well as three hubs in Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk. Our daily reports have evolved into solid pieces that are checked very carefully and published on the official website for public access. Our weekly reports go to the 57 participating states.

Potential participants are nominated by their countries. The OSCE then overviews their background and decides whether they are appropriate. At the moment, the biggest representation is of the US, but no country is represented at more than 10%. Many people come from the neighboring countries since they are familiar with the lay of the land. Well over 50% are from the military and law enforcement background. Many of them have worked with previous OSCE or UN missions, are familiar with the region and speak Russian. Many have particular expertise in crater analysis which is necessary to determine the direction from which the shelling comes from. We also have human rights, media and dialogue facilitation experts. They work in teams – the patrolling group usually numbers from four to eight people. Now, two thirds of our monitors are in Eastern Ukraine because of the tense situation.

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We are often asked why we have so many Russian monitors. But their number is 26 out of 516 international monitors, which is 5%. It is important for us to have Russian-speakers and people who understand the local cultural background. These monitors have had quite a bit of experience in the region in previous missions. Importantly, everyone who comes here as part of the mission and OSCE, signs the Code of Conduct. All of the information the monitors collect and sent to Kyiv is double- and triple checked before being published in our daily reports.

The SMM is often criticized for ineffectiveness of its monitoring or not being present during dangerous episodes – at night, for example – or for arriving during ceasefires while the shelling resumes once the group leaves. How accurate is this? Does this approach affect the quality of your reporting?

We’ve heard that criticism. For one thing, we do not patrol at night because it is too dangerous. Regarding the observation about the shelling resuming when a monitor group leaves: not long ago, our monitors were pinned down for 90 minutes while the shelling was happening. And that occurs with increasing frequency. However, we are a civilian mission and we are unequipped to have fire pointed at us. Recently, one of our team members was injured in Shyrokyne. That shows you that we are very close to the action and we report when we see the shelling happening.

We are now more concerned because heavy weapons such as GRADs and multiple rocket launch systems have been reintroduced into the theatre. Though many weeks after Minsk, we shouldn’t be in this position. There should be calm, withdrawal of heavy weapons and moving away from the contact line.

More widely, there are very high expectations for the SMM. We try to explain to people why we are here and what we are doing. It is important to understand that we are here upon invitation of Ukrainian government. They are the ones who asked the extension of our mandate.

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Meanwhile, most people see the mission in the middle of all of this and think that it can bring about peace. However, it is up to the sides to have political will to bring about calm. We can report on what we are seeing and on human rights violations, help facilitate dialogue and reduce tensions. We have already launched radio spots to better explain to people why we are there.

But we have noticed that people’s frustration has grown, especially in the conflict zone. The locals are tired, they want the shelling to stop. Hundreds of IDPs we have talked to told us that what will take them to return home is for the shelling to stop. There is concern that the longer the displaced people stay where they are, the more difficult it will be for them to go back.

Another aspect that we have been reporting on is the unbelievable damage to the civilian infrastructure – roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. Those have been severely shelled. The repair bill will be huge. We are also starting to take concrete steps towards facilitating demining that would enable us to go to places like Shyrokyne.

How often does the SMM face restrictions to the sites it has to monitor?

Sometimes, we are physically unable to go to a certain place. For example, we were unable to go to Shyrokyne because of the danger there. At times, we are delayed at checkpoints on both sides; they have procedures for documentation and want to search our vehicles. We have also been prevented from accessing heavy weapons storage areas or have been allowed to the areas but were restricted in what we were allowed to do – for example, checking serial numbers on heavy equipment. That is unacceptable. We need free, safe and unfettered access to do our job, and we rely on both sides for that. If we don’t have that access, we report on this and identify the parties that restrict access for us, as well remind them as often as we can about our mandate and why we are here.

As of today, both sides have yet to provide us with the full inventories? on what heavy weapons they actually have and with the routes they will use to transfer heavy weapons, so that we can monitor them. Also, they have to tell us where they are going to store those heavy weapons so that we could go and monitor. We have made several appeals to do that. Some heavy weaponry has been removed. But we are not here to report on the movement. What we want is to certify and verify that heavy weapons have been moved away. We don’t have that possibility yet.

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More generally, the value of the reporting is that we are able to be the eyes and ears of the international community in the conflict area and report on specific incidents, the impact on the civilian population. People who have stayed in the East are having a very difficult time with everything from sending their children to school to getting medicines, essential goods and pensions paid, as well as with the Ukrainian-imposed permit system. It has shown the difficulties people are having with it – things like bureaucratic delays. We do report on that. Another important aspect of our work is facilitating dialogue and access. For example, when MH17 came down, we were on the ground there 24 hours later, reporting to the world on what was going on, and facilitating access for experts and emergency workers. A couple of past weeks we’ve been busy in places around Horlivka facilitating access for workers to repair water pipes damaged from the shelling. Not only does this restore infrastructure, but it shows that the two sides can actually agree to put down arms for a few hours at least every day, and it is possible for calm to happen.

At the end of the day, we establish facts. We report as much as we can, based on what we actually hear and see. For example, if there was shelling in Shyrokyne and the situation allows, we will go there and observe what is going on, and report as much as possible on where it comes from. But we are not pointing fingers: there is enough information in our reports to enable people in the relevant positions to take action if need be.


Michael Bociurkiw is Canadian journalist. He has reported for Globe and Mail and South China Morning Post. Mr. Bociurkiw is currently Speaker of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. Before this, he was Speaker for various UN missions, including UNICEF in East Jerusalem


NOTE: Representatives of OSCE member-states in the SMM to Ukraine as of July 29, 2015

USA 50

Romania 30

Russia, Poland and Finland, each   26

Hungary  23

Germany 22

Italy 21

UK and Sweden, each  18

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