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Ukraine: Briefing by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights

Tomorrow morning (8 August), at the request of Lithuania, the Security Council will have a briefing on the human rights situation in Ukraine. The Council will be briefed by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović via video teleconference and a representative from Ukraine may participate. The meeting takes place following the publication of the fourth monthly report of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU), covering the period from 8 June – 15 July. In his briefing Šimonović is likely to present some findings from the report, as well as update members on recent human rights-related developments not covered in the reporting period. In a new development that could affect tomorrow’s meeting, at press time Russia had just circulated a draft press statement on the decision by Ukraine authorities to suspend the ceasefire at the crash site of MH17 for discussion under “any other business” this evening. It is unclear if the draft press statement can be adopted tomorrow, but it could result in this issue being raised by some members.

The HRMMU report shows a further deterioration in the situation, especially in eastern Ukraine. According to HRMMU, human rights violations are most prevalent in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, which have become sites of intense fighting between the government and the pro-Russian rebels. The report cites an increase in the use of heavy weaponry in and around populated areas, causing heavy destruction of residential buildings and loss of civilian life. In the report, HRMMU presents findings of deliberate targeting by the armed groups of the public utilities and services in eastern Ukraine. Some areas have been left without running water or electricity, and without other basic public services such as police and medical services, contributing to the collapse of the rule of law. The report also notes that there has been further professionalisation of the rebels fighting in the east and that many of the leaders of these groups are Russian nationals with fighting experience in conflicts such as Chechnya and Transnistria. The shooting down of another Ukrainian fighter jet in eastern Ukraine today apparently by the rebels could prompt some Council members to push for Russia to help deescalate the situation. Russia is likely to dismiss any claims of its involvement in Ukraine and will likely blame the crisis on the central government for conducting military operations against the rebels.

The report also states that instances of abduction, kidnapping and unlawful imprisonment have continued at an increased pace. According to the report, there are a significant number of allegations of enforced disappearances and executions by both rebel and government forces, as well as an increased number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). At the meeting Russia is likely to focus more on this aspect of the report, especially in light of its recent announcement that it is ready to send humanitarian assistance or a humanitarian mission to Ukraine. The UN Refugee Agency has estimated that there are around 117,000 IDPs in Ukraine at present. According to findings by HRMMU, there has been a lack of coordination, planning and resources in accommodating the growing number of IDPs coming from the east. HRMMU has noted that there is a need for greater involvement of the central government in accommodating IDPs as well as a need for central registry to document all IDPs.

The increasing number of IDPs from Crimea, caused by the worsening of the human rights situation there, is also highlighted in the report. It cites increased instances of hate speech and negative rhetoric in the media and various forms of harassment of minorities in Crimea. With the crisis in the east and the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 downing dominating the discussion at recent meetings on Ukraine, the human rights situation in Crimea and other parts of Ukraine have received less attention. However, the report may prompt some Council members to focus on the situation in Crimea again.

Earlier this week (5 August), Russia called for an urgent meeting on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine. Following the request, the Council held a public meeting with a briefing by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) director, John Ging, and the representative of Ukraine participating. In his briefing Ging voiced concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Ukraine, and spoke of the large number of causalities, IDPs and civilians living in conflict zones. He said that the violence in eastern Ukraine had put nearly four million people at risk and damaged key infrastructure, including water supplies and medical facilities. Ging also provided information on OCHA’s efforts to address the most urgent humanitarian needs and called on all sides to facilitate free movement of civilians and humanitarian assistance.

At the meeting Ambassador Vitaly Churkin (Russia) accused Ukraine of intensifying its military operations in the east, causing the humanitarian crisis that led to large numbers of refugees fleeing to Russia. In that context, Churkin informed the members of the Council that Russia had appealed to UN agencies to send a humanitarian mission to Ukraine. He also stated that Russia was willing to provide humanitarian assistance to affected areas in Ukraine without any additional help from other countries and invited other humanitarian agencies to monitor its humanitarian convoys for the sake of transparency.

Other members of the Council, particularly the P3 and European members, accused Russia of fuelling the conflict in Ukraine by providing military support for the rebels. Though the Council seems to be in agreement that the humanitarian situation in Ukraine is worsening, there is still no consensus on whether it presents a humanitarian crisis. The UK, for example, echoed the views of some Council members that the situation in Ukraine, though dire, is still not comparable to humanitarian crises elsewhere.

At the meeting some Council members questioned Russia’s motive for calling an urgent meeting on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine just days before Å imonović was scheduled to brief the Council on the same topic. This marks the second time OCHA has briefed the Council, at the request of Russia, just before Šimonović was scheduled to brief on the human rights and humanitarian situation in Ukraine.

Although Russia did not suggest any sort of outcome on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine during Tuesday’s meeting, it may still choose to do so in the near future. During its presidency in June, Russia presented a draft resolution on the humanitarian situation and humanitarian corridors. However the draft did not move past the initial negotiation phase due to fundamental differences over issues like territorial integrity and references to Crimea.

On 6 August, NATO announced that around 20,000 Russian troops had amassed at the border with Ukraine and warned that those troops could be used to invade Ukraine on the pretext of a humanitarian mission. At the same time, the US and NATO have continued to accuse Russia of providing weapons and support to the rebels in the east. It is likely that some Council members, specifically the P3 and European members, will raise the issue of the build-up of Russian troops on the border and call for the withdrawal of those troops.

On the political front there have been some positive developments, especially with regard to the trilateral contact group consisting of representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe . On 31 July, the contact group met for the first time with representatives of separatist groups from Donetsk and Lugansk. Following the meeting, the contact group issued a press statement, in which it committed to securing free access to the MH17 crash site and reiterated that “the release of hostages and other illegally detained persons is an important element for securing a mutually agreed and sustainable cease-fire”.

On 31 July, the Ukraine ratified an agreement with Australia and the Netherlands establishing the “International Mission for Protection of Investigation”, which will, under the leadership of the Netherlands, facilitate recovery of victims and conduct the investigation of flight MH17 as called for in resolution 2166. On 1 August, the Netherlands sent a letter to the Council informing it that international efforts on the recovery of remains will be coordinated by the Netherlands, with the participation of Australia and Malaysia. Though the first investigators sent to the crash site were unarmed, the agreement ratified with Ukraine does allow investigators to carry light weapons for personal protection if necessitated by the security situation. International investigators managed to gain safe access to the site on 31 July when they formally started the investigation. However, on 6 August the investigation was called off by the Netherlands due to fighting near the crash site. Even though the briefing in the Council will focus on the human rights situation, it is likely that some Council members. Some members may stress the need for a ceasefire in order for the investigations to continue.

It is becoming apparent from the information provided by HRMMU and other UN agencies that the humanitarian situation in Ukraine is deteriorating. According to HRMMU,it will likely become even more alarming in the winter months and it seems that Council members are becoming increasingly aware of this. Considering the greater involvement of UN agencies in Ukraine and the overall deterioration of the situation, some Council members may be interested in having more regular briefings on the humanitarian situation.

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