02.11.2007 | Yevhen Zakharov

On human rights issues and dilemmas


In an interview given to UNIAN the Head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Yevhen Zakharov speaks of the dividing line between politicians and human rights defenders, the work of the Ombudsperson and the relation between material wellbeing and freedom of speech.

How would you assess the present human rights situation in Ukraine?

It all depends on which country you compare it with, and which period of time. If we compare it with Soviet times, then the situation is much better. There is no political persecution, people are not punished for their words, the enforcement agencies are not used as a weapon for crushing the opposition, etc. If we look at Russia and other countries of the CIS, our situation is considerably better. On the other hand, it’s worse than in Central and Eastern Europe. 

I would divide violations into more and less dangerous. There is interference from the state which has a significant impact on the future. For example, one threat lies in constant attempts to restrict the freedom of the information flow and control of the Internet.  Another serious danger I see as being violence from the law enforcement bodies, meaning the use of torture or beating. When such things take place, they generate an attitude towards ill-treatment as something permissible which can be applied for a good purpose. Having once allowed such treatment of criminals, one can very quickly move towards other people

A further serious problem is that of the enormous rift between rich and poor. There is a principle described in Rawls’ work “A Theory of Justice” that inequality is good for everybody.  The meaning of this is that if one person has become rich, then all others should be at least a little better off as a consequence.  There is none of that in Ukraine. At least a fifth of the population lives in very difficult circumstances. In comparison with developed countries the gap is over 5 – 10 times. A country cannot be prosperous when many people can only just survive.  This leads to considerable inequality when poorer families cannot provide their children with a decent standard of education, and where an illness is an absolute catastrophe.  In this context the increases in housing and communal charges taking place without a rise in salaries and pensions are unwarranted and unacceptable, and require collective resistance. Colossal problems are presented by the lack of an independent judiciary and the violation of the right to privacy.

The State always nurtures the desire for control.  It can reach the point where a person’s whole life enters the state’s information database. Everything is heading in that direction. They want to make the tax number the single universal code for a person. They’ll gather data under that number about income, property, credit history, trips, family, how much money the person has saved, after the introduction of electronic medical cards – the person’s state of health. Everything will be known!  It will take one minute to receive a full dossier on a person, and this is what one calls a police state

What in your view are the most pressing issues facing the Ukrainian human rights movement?

There are not many human rights organizations and most of those functioning are fairly weak. So the problem of quality and effectiveness of human rights protection is pressing, and this is directly dependent on their professional ability and competence. We need to learn and grow, both in size and quality. That involves among other things specializing – working mainly on one specific right or freedom.

We need to create an environment for this which would promote a human rights community, ensure the conditions for the development of legally-trained young people able to find professional fulfilment in human rights defence.

For example, use of case law from the European Court of Human Rights provides good opportunities for professional development. There is huge scope there. A lawyer needs to know English or French (or better still, both) very well, be computer literate and be able to use the Internet effectively. All this is as fundamental as knowledge of both Ukrainian and European Court jurisprudence.  Having focused on a specific right or several interlinked rights covered by the European Convention on Human Rights, it’s vital to be au fait with European Court case law on that right, as well as other international agreements and recommendations from the UN, Council of Europe, OSCE, etc.  That’s as well as being familiar with their court practice, court and administrative practice in Ukraine, and also following any changes in this area.

How do you assess the role of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union?  Do the authorities, especially at local level, listen to you?

UHHRU is at the present time the only nationwide association of human rights organizations made up of 23 of the strongest and most authoritative organizations in the country. Each has a certain level of influence at regional level, and UHHRU itself at national level. For example, it was thanks to UHHRU and its members that all criminal investigations against members of the opposition attempted during the election campaign of 2004 came to nothing. We have won other strategic litigations, for example, against the police in cases involving torture. We have established the real owners of national television and radio broadcasting companies,  Thanks to our efforts the Criminal Procedure Code has been returned for revision 5 times, and a new draft is presently being drawn up.  There have been a number of other draft laws.

I could give other examples of the impact which UHHRU and other human rights organizations have. However there are very few of them, far less than in countries with a long democratic tradition, and they can become lost amid the vast numbers of violations.  An additional problem is that the violations are systemic being entrenched both in legislation and its application. So we see impact but not as strong and clear yet as one would wish.

What objectives does UHHRU set at the present time and what advice would you give today’s human rights defenders?
I see its main objective as being to create a strong and vibrant human rights community which can provide young people with opportunities for professional and personal development. To achieve this, UHHRU needs to grow and develop its work in all regions of the country, becoming stronger and more effective at protecting human rights, promoting changes in legislation, drawing up its own draft laws, raising awareness of human rights issues both among professional groups, and with the public in general. It is vital that human rights organizations develop strong contacts with bar lawyers and work together.

As far as advice is concerned, this may sound a bit old-fashioned, but I would mention the following: think first about the person you’re defending, not about your role, retaining the main thing which is empathy for victims of violence. An indifferent human rights defender is simply inconceivable. Secondly, don’t mix up politics and human rights work. Politicians want power for themselves and their political faction while  human rights defenders want the rule of law.  You can’t wear both hats at the same time.  Thirdly, show tolerance to other people’s views. In a democratic society all should be represented, and you are defending a person’s rights regardless of whether or not you agree with him or her. Fourthly, do not lose your independence and don’t take money from government sources. Finally, don’t blame the government for every possible ill - it’s people like you who work there, try to espouse a philosophy based on acknowledging blame, rather than lashing out. It’s much more constructive to look for the roots of problems in yourself, than in others.

Has your idea of freedom changed? Is it possible to be a dissident in a country that espouses democratic values?

It hasn’t changed. As at the beginning of the 1970s freedom remains for me most important and means the opportunity to freely choose ones own fate without being dictated to or coerced. Ideally limitation of freedom should be solely linked with moral demands.

If a country only proclaims democratic values, yet remains totalitarian, like the USSR, then in order to retain ones self-respect there is no other possibility but to be a dissident. I would perhaps rephrase your question – is it possible to be a dissident where there is no longer an ideological monolith. In such a country one can no longer talk of dissidents. There will always be people with different views.

In numerous public surveys we see that human rights in people’s awareness are relegated to a secondary position compared with the material problems of the average Ukrainian. Why have our people not yet reached an understanding of the direct link, for example, between freedom of speech and the right to a decent salary or pension?

I wouldn’t be that categorical, especially not since the Orange Revolution. I’m aware of other such surveys which found that the main value was seen as freedom.  I’d just like to say that human rights in public awareness have yet to be fully examined. People are different – some have understood the direct link, some have not yet.

In general this stems from Soviet upbringing, from a dismissive attitude to the value of ideals which always lost out under the communists to materialist values. It has its roots also in different attitudes to the state with some expecting manna from heaven, while others just beg the government to not stop them from living and working. People whose priority is material wellbeing think that freedom can wait. And then we have the opposite since if there’s no freedom, there’ll be no wellbeing.

You are the co-chair of the Ministry of Internal Affairs Public Committee for the Observance of Human Rights. What would you say has been most important in the work of the Committee over the last year and a half? How does it affect the life of the average Ukrainian?

You mustn’t expect miracles from the Public Council. It’s still at the beginning stage and it is only a consultative and advisory body. I think the main task is to create such a system of councils attached to regional departments of the MIA and to establish good channels of communication with civic activists on the Council and joint implementation of projects aimed at ensuring adherence to human rights in MIA practice.

The main thing is that this process is gradually expanding and developing though not as quickly and effectively as one would wish. This is what I mentioned earlier. Where there is a strong human rights organization in a region, the regional council works well. If there isn’t one, then the MIA scarcely understands what the council is for.

We can point to success in the work of MIA mobile groups on monitoring the observance of human rights in MIA places of imprisonment - in its temporary holding centres [ITT] reception and distribution centres, police station cells, etc. One should also mention useful studies of the rights of MIA staff themselves, as well as projects for providing free legal aid, public awareness regarding the work of the MIA, and others. Fairly recently there was a discussion in human rights circles about whether civic organizations should “lobby” human rights defender Kateryna Levchenko to get a strong place on the candidate list for the political faction “Our Ukraine – People’s Self-Defence”.  Among the organizations which signed a letter to the head of the faction were organizations within UHHRU. How do you relate to such initiatives?

In this case positively. However I would like to say that there is no general rule and it all depends on specific details and nuances. In my opinion, there are times when such appeals can be supported, others where they cannot. We should also understand one thing: a human rights defender cannot be a politician. By that I meant that as soon as s/he becomes a politician, they cease to be a human rights activist.  I spoke about that with Kateryna Levchenko and she is well aware of it. However she can be a good partner and helper of human rights organizations, and they can provide her with a source of information and expert work. So what is there to stop such support? Especially given that there is no obligation to support the political faction which she is affiliated to. The point was only to have her given a place on the candidate list which would realistically get her into parliament. 

There was another element in this situation which has not been given due attention, this involving defence of the right to stand for electoral office. The point is that some parties this year decided from the outset to only have members of their parties on the candidate list. This is however a flagrant violation of political rights and such restrictions are not contained in the Constitution. It’s quite absurd when a Presidential candidate can be a person not affiliated to any party, but if you want to get onto the district council you need to make your reverences to the local party bosses. Levchenko refused to join Nasha Ukraina [Our Ukraine] specifically because she considers herself a human rights defender. Because she wasn’t in the party, they didn’t want to put her on the candidate list.  Having found out about this, from May to July I publicly spoke on a number of occasions about the violation of the right to be elected in the case of non-party members. As a result, they did end up putting non-party people on their lists.

What kind of involvement of civic organizations in party life would you regard as acceptable?

There are civic organizations which are enlisted by parties, especially during election campaigns. For human rights organizations however any such involvement is impossible since they immediately cease to be human rights organizations. Obviously here too such a categorical position must be qualified. There may be times when human rights organizations work shoulder to shoulder with political parties in defence of human rights and the freedom of the people, where authoritarianism is on the rise. For example, at the moment in Russia during the electoral campaign some human rights activists will be working together with opposition factions – the Union of Right Forces, Yabloko, and this is quite natural. However I feel that in such situations the initiative should come from human rights activists and they should not merge with the political factions.

You were the second candidate during the election for a new Human Rights Ombudsperson, against the present Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova.  How do you rate her work over the last half year?

There have been no fundamental changes in her work. Her activities and that of her Secretariat remain chaotic, which can in fact be said of the entire State policy on human rights. Although it should be noted that the work has become more active, with more statements, press releases and the website being updated more often – 9-10 times a month as against once or twice before. However there should be 9-10 pieces of information daily.

If one analyzes the content of the press releases, statements of the Ombudsperson and the cases which are launched, one can conclude that the Ombudsperson’s activities are indirectly linked with the political position of the Party of the Regions.  Nina Karpachova has not freed herself from this influence.

Some actions by the Secretariat are in my view effectively aimed not at protecting, but punishing people making complaints. How can one send a complaint about the unlawful actions of penal staff to the same Department for the Execution of Sentences?  However we should mention that there have been cases where Nina Karpachova’s intervention has been positive and victims of abuse have received assistance.

I believe that the lack of cooperation of the Ombudsperson with nongovernmental human rights organizations deprives her of an additional resource for human rights protection. Even the Ministry of Internal Affairs avails itself of this resource, but not the Human Rights Ombudsperson.

UHHRU each year presents an anti-award “Thistle of the Year” to those individuals or institutions which most flagrantly violate human rights. Could you raise the veil of secrecy a bit and at least give us some idea about candidates for the award in 2007?

As last year, likely candidates will be prosecutor’s offices and the State Department for the Execution of Sentences. However whereas last year we named the department as a whole, this time I suspect there will be specific public officials among the candidates. However I can’t name this until the decision of the UHHRU Board.

The interviewer was Tetyana Pechonchy

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