How long can you stand stil?
Volodymyr Yavorsky, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, answers questions regarding the human rights situation in 2008
What rights were most often restricted or violated in 2008?
Volodymyr Yavorsky: I would name the right to a fair trial, the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment by the police, and in places of confinement; arbitrary arrests by the police. Those were the worst violations in 2008. Perhaps I should also mention mass infringements of property rights as well as the rising poverty of the population as a result of violations of special economic rights.
Just before the publication of the annual report “Human rights in Ukraine – 2008”, Yevhen Zakharov, Co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, called the situation in Ukraine with human rights “stably bad”. Does that mean that the situation has become stagnant? Since which year has there been no progress in human rights?
We have seen some progress since 2004. It was evident in the area of civil rights, and in economic rights. However effectively since 2007 the situation has been stagnant/, since that development had been the result of political will, and was not backed up with reforms. I mean that structural reform changes which could guarantee further development were not carried out. They are ready, are either in parliament or with the Cabinet of Ministers for discussion, however they have not been passed now for two years.
With this lack of systematic reform, the situation is standing still. In fact, in some ways it is getting worse since this political will is weakening and is not consolidated via legislative moves. This is the problem. For example, the President declared 2006 to be the year of court reform. A whole concept strategy for reforming the court system was prepared, and passed by Presidential decree. Draft laws were drawn up according to it.
These draft laws were submitted by the President to parliament as urgent. In 2007 they were passed in their first reading, but since then have not been considered again. We thus have a vital document which could significantly defend people’s rights and have impact on the whole judicial system, and yet it’s been sitting there in parliament for two years.
In which area were human rights best protected in 2004?
For example, in 2004 there was a considerable reduction in the number of cases of torture by police officers. In 2004 there were very few such allegations made, whereas at the present time they are fairly frequent. We receive around 400-500 a year and yet that is still much less than in previous years because the Ministry of Internal Affairs has created certain mechanisms which make it possible to investigate such human rights violations. That is a certain positive change. On the other hand, the situation in the Department for the Execution of Sentences is getting worse and there has been no let up in mass beatings by special units. A person in prison virtually has no rights and is in a slave’s position, and since 2004 this situation has been worsening. The conditions there have improved, however treatment of prisoners remains the same as in Soviet times.
What impact on human rights is the permanent political instability having?
That’s seen in the lack of systematic reforms and as a result a certain regression in some rights where some progress had been achieved. This is directly attributable to the crisis since you can’t resolve the problems there are. The Cabinet of Ministers has been changed many times over recent years. One Government comes, carries out reforms, then another appears and cancels them, starting from the beginning again. It’s therefore very difficult to work with the Government, it’s simply impossible to do nothing and there’s no stability and continuity. It’s absurd that all draft laws passed by the previous regime should be revoked.
What is needed so as to improve the human rights situation in Ukraine? Which reforms are most urgent?
Court reform is needed, safeguards of judges’ independence and of enforcement of court rulings, reform of the law enforcement agencies – the adoption of a new version of the Criminal Procedure Code. There need to be new versions of the laws on civic associations, on personal data protection. The law on the protection of public morality should be reviewed, since in its previous version it does not meet international standards.
Who is the greater violator of human rights in Ukraine?
Probably the Department for the Execution of Sentences and the Prosecutor General’s Office. The role of the latter is very indirect, and it does not itself directly violate human rights, yet it does fail to fulfil its obligations as in accordance with international standards. – for example, carrying out proper investigations of allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and into killings.
Take the case of Georgy Gongadze. It is in fact public and clear, however there is such fear in Ukraine the Prosecutor General’s Office is simply not carrying out a proper investigation. One could also mention the National Commission for the Protection of Public Morality, it is already competing to form a threesome of the most dangerous structures violating human rights. However it is at a somewhat less brutal level.
Over recent years, following 2004, Ukraine has fallen several rungs in the ratings of some international nongovernmental organizations. For example, Freedom House considers that the Ukrainian media is only “partially free”, and in terms of press freedom we stand in 115th place out of 195 countries. How are such ratings worked out, and how much can they be trusted?
It’s hard to say since they carried out in different ways. Some via sociological surveys, yet according to our observations people are often inclined to say that things are much worse than they are in actual fact, at least in some areas. For example, we carried out a study of violations of human rights and ideas about such violations. They showed, for example, that the problem of language minorities, discrimination according to language worried no more than 10% of the population. The percentage was thus quite low. Yet many international organizations have given some positive ratings. Moreover, after 2004 something did begin to happen, the attitude of the authorities changed, the law enforcement agencies began behaving differently, and there has been more freedom, therefore there has been some progress. Now many organizations have not seen progress over the last 2-3 years and therefore they’re lowering the rating.
This year we observed an attempt at constitutional reform. It was unsuccessful, however we have the opportunity to assess in which direction leading political parties view the development of the country. What can you say about the changes to the Constitution that were suggested?
I am not enthusiastic about the changes that are being proposed. Everybody understands that reform is needed since the conflict in government is systemic. However the changes are not aimed at improving defence of human rights. On the contrary, they are aimed at reducing independence of the courts. For example, they proposed electing local judges, who will therefore end up in the hands of local political parties and oligarchs. And this means that you can whistle for independence.
And these provisions are the most popular in all draft Constitutions, and are therefore not being done with the good of the country in mind, but what will suit a given party, and how they’ll help it win the elections. This political expediency among those in power is one of the reasons why we have haven’t moved forward for many years. Everything is determined by political expediency. We’re doing it this way today, we’ll do it another way tomorrow because it’s not expedient like that anymore.
And if we are guided by political expediency and not the needs of the State and of people, then we’ll never see any progress. Therefore the situation could end up with many rich people, while the State and the people getting poorer, with no progress.
You can therefore predict that we could turn into a country like Columbia or Mexico?
We’re completely different from Latin Americans. We have a European culture, another mentality. We are reasonably free, and very similar to EU countries like Romania or Bulgaria. And we could achieve much more, however unfortunately we are wasting our huge potential. Our country probably doesn’t have such ambitious aspirations as Russia to be first. However in all post-Soviet countries, besides the Baltic republics, we are in a leading position as regards rights and freedoms. The point is that we have wasted possibilities.
The best ratings for human rights are in the Scandinavian countries. What are they doing right?
It’s simply that they think about the country and people. A good example is that when the European Court of Human Rights is only beginning to examine an application from one of the Scandinavian countries, the country involved immediately legislates the relevant changes. That is, they see that there is a violation and rectify it even before the Court’s judgment. Whereas our country has made 6 changes in connection with Court judgments out of 450 proposed.
What does this mean? That we take such values as human rights as something imposed on us, which isn’t so important. We just need to earn more money, supposedly. We don’t have the money, so we don’t have the rights and democracy. While the Scandinavians understand that they can’t have one without the other. They’re two sides of the same coin. It’s inconceivable that they could have stopped people taking their money out of the bank as happened in Ukraine. It’s your property, and you can’t speak of economic development in such a case.
The Interviewer was Oksana Synytska, from the Institute for Mass Information at www.imi.org.ua
(very slightly abridged )