What's In Blue

Ukraine: Meeting under the “Threats to International Peace and Security” Agenda Item

Tomorrow morning (17 November), the Security Council will convene for an open briefing on Ukraine under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item. Russia requested the meeting to discuss its allegations that Ukrainian authorities are persecuting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Briefings are expected from Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and head of the UN Human Rights Office in New York Ilze Brands Kehris and the Deputy Chairman of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Synodal Department for Church Relations with Society and the Media, Vakhtang Kipshidze.

This will be the third formal Council meeting convened by Russia on the issue of religious freedom in Ukraine. At Russia’s request, the Security Council held briefings on 17 January and 26 July under the “Threats to international peace and security” agenda item, both of which focused on Moscow’s allegations that Ukraine is persecuting the UOC. Russia also convened an Arria-formula meeting (an informal format) on 12 May, titled “Situation with freedom of religion and belief in Ukraine: persecution of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church”. (For more information, see our 11 May What’s in Blue story.)

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) was established in 1990 as a self-governing church within the canonical authority of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), also known as the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1992, clergy seeking independence from the ROC set up the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). Religious divisions in Ukraine deepened after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, given the historical ties of the UOC-MP to Moscow. After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the UOC-MP sought to distance itself from Moscow, declaring complete independence from the Moscow Patriarchate on 27 May 2022. Nonetheless, Ukrainian authorities have accused some UOC-MP members of maintaining close ties to Moscow.

On 1 December 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a decree for the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers to introduce legislation prohibiting religious organisations that are “affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation” to operate in Ukraine. The decree requires this law to be “in accordance with the norms of international law in the field of freedom of conscience and Ukraine’s obligations in connection with joining the Council of Europe”. Zelenskyy also announced sanctions against senior clergy of the UOC accused of collaboration with Russia. The decree also commissioned Ukraine’s State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience to carry out an investigation into the canonical connection between the UOC and the Moscow Patriarchate. The inquiry concluded that the UOC remained canonically linked and subordinate to the ROC.

Since October 2022, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has conducted numerous raids on UOC religious sites, and Ukrainian authorities have launched dozens of criminal cases against UOC-MP clergy and sanctioned members of the clergy in Crimea and the Donbas region. On 10 March, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Information Policy ordered the UOC-MP to leave the Pechersk Lavra monastery in Kyiv by 29 March, accusing the UOC-MP of violating “the terms of the agreement regarding the use of state property”. On 1 April, a court in Kyiv ordered the abbot of the Pechersk Lavra monastery, Metropolitan Pavel, to be put under house arrest for allegedly justifying Russia’s aggression.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Russia is expected to accuse Ukrainian authorities of employing repressive policies against the UOC. It is likely to criticise Ukraine’s parliament for approving draft legislation on 19 October, which, if adopted, would prohibit activities of religious organisations “that are affiliated with the centers of influence of a religious organization, the management center of which is located outside of Ukraine in a state that carries out armed aggression against Ukraine”. In a 26 October press briefing, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova described the draft legislation as “legally invalid”, arguing that it “violates the Constitution of Ukraine and is dividing society by wounding the feelings of millions of Orthodox believers”.

Moscow has been critical of the UN’s approach to addressing the issue of religious freedom in Ukraine. In a 31 October opinion piece, Zakharova called on the UN Secretariat to “muster the courage to condemn the many years of oppression of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church by the Kiev regime”, adding that “[n]either the UN Secretary-General, nor his spokesperson have said a word in defence of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine”. Zakharova noted that Russia’s Permanent Mission to the UN has “flooded the UN Secretariat with letters on this matter”.

Ukraine, for its part, has rejected Russia’s allegations. At the same time, it has expressed a willingness to engage in discussions about human rights issues at the Security Council. During the Security Council’s 17 January briefing, Ukraine suggested that if Russia were genuinely concerned about human rights, it might be appropriate to “return human rights to the Council’s agenda and thoroughly address the Secretary-General’s reports on the human rights situation in occupied Crimea, Ukraine, and the report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine”, including through a “Council meeting to address the implications of the Russian war of aggression on the human rights situation in Ukraine”.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Brands Kehris is expected to highlight the human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed against civilians in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. She is likely to voice concerns about the curtailment of religious freedom and the freedom of association throughout Ukraine. At the 17 January Security Council briefing, Brands Kehris criticised the draft legislation, which was yet to be approved by the Ukrainian parliament, warning that it “could undermine the right of freedom of religion or belief”. She appealed to Ukrainian authorities to guarantee that all searches conducted in premises and places of worship are in strict accordance with international law.

Brands Kehris may urge Russia to uphold and protect the fundamental rights of all individuals and groups in the regions it occupies in Ukraine, including rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, association, thought, conscience, and religion. She may also call on Ukraine to ensure that any legislation or decisions affecting religious communities do not unnecessarily restrict religious freedom or discriminate against any religious group. Brands Kehris may reference a 4 October report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which examines the human rights situation in Ukraine from 1 February to 31 July. The report documents ten instances of physical violence and six threats stemming from “conflicts between parishioners of different Orthodox Christian communities”. It also draws attention to several instances of religious freedom violations committed by Russian armed forces and authorities in territories occupied by Russia.

Several Council members are expected to condemn Russia for its violations of religious freedom in both the territories it occupies and in areas under Ukrainian control, including shelling religious and cultural heritage sites and detaining clergy. These members may refer to the 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, which prohibits attacks on places of worship. Some may also mention Security Council resolution 2347 of 24 March 2017, which condemns the unlawful destruction of religious sites and artefacts and affirms that such attacks may constitute war crimes. As at 2 November, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) had verified damage to 124 religious sites resulting from the war in Ukraine.

These members may note that yesterday (15 November), the Third Committee of the General Assembly approved a resolution titled “Situation of human rights in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, including the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol” (A/C.3/78/L.42). The resolution condemns the reported serious violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of human rights committed against residents of the temporarily controlled or occupied territories of Ukraine, including “reported abuses of other fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, religion or belief and association and the right to peaceful assembly”. The resolution was approved by a vote of 77 in favour to 14 against, with 79 abstentions. Among Security Council members, China and Russia voted against the resolution, five abstained—Brazil, Gabon, Ghana, Mozambique, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—and the remaining eight members voted in favour.

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