03.03.2011 | Yevhen Zakharov

Human rights in Ukraine: assessment of the new regime’s first year


In Ukraine from 2005 to 2009, with certain exceptions there was no integrated and systematic policy on improving the human rights situation. The actions of virtually all bodies of power were ineffective and chaotic.  The attempts to improve the situation made by human rights organizations, some sections and individual civil servants within the MIA and Ministry of Justice, the National Commission on the Strengthening of Democracy and Affirmation of the Rule of Law resulted in some progress, however the political crisis, general attitude of the political forces to human rights as to something of secondary importance and insignificant against political expediency prevented systematic improvements.

Following the elections, the new President and government inherited systemic human rights problems including: large-scale and flagrant violations of the right to fair trial, to protection from torture and other forms of unlawful violence, unwarranted detention, the poverty of a considerable percentage of the population, as well as others. The authorities during 2010 not only failed to demonstrate any intention to improve the situation, but even reduced the positive processes which had been underway and new trends in violations of human rights emerged, together with disregard for such rights. One saw a sharp assault on civil rights and political freedoms.

There were far more violations of freedom of peaceful assembly during this period then from 2005-2009 put together. On 25 March the Cabinet of Ministers issued an instruction to the Kyiv City State Administration “on using comprehensive measures for organizing work with citizens and their organizations, including preventing and stopping in future the holding of protests near the premises of the President’s Administration and the Cabinet of Ministers”. This instruction is a flagrant violation of freedom of peaceful assembly and a number of articles of the Constitution.

The Minister of Internal Affairs stated that for peaceful gatherings one should allocate “some big field on the outskirts of Kyiv where nobody will disturb anybody”.  Traffic Police officers prevented people from many regions getting to Kyiv for an opposition rally on 11 May. The transport companies were warned that they could have their licenses removed if they took the people to the rally. Only one nationwide TV channel, STB, reported this.  In general, the use of the police as an instrument in fighting political opponents and the public has become a regular feature. For example, in Kharkiv on 15 May police officers prevented local residents from holding a peaceful protest over the rubbish being left on the city streets. Two protesters were detained. During the events to mark President Yanukovych’s first 100 days in office on 3 June, the police obstructed opposition supporters from holding a protest near the Ukraina Palace where the President was giving his address. At the same time, activists from the Party of the Regions were able to hold a meeting in support of Yanukovych opposite the Palace without any obstruction. On 8 July the traffic police prevented buses with member of the Front for Change (led by Arseny Yatsenyuk) from Zaporizhya, Mykolaiv, Ternopil and Chernihiv from getting to a rally in Kyiv against the draft Tax Code. On 27-28 July the traffic police prevented pilgrims from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate from getting to Kyiv for the events around the Festival of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus. The list of cases where the police have interfered in political and civic actions is getting longer and longer.

Both Ukrainian and international experts have reported a marked deterioration in the situation with freedom of expression since the end of February 2010. You can still find a lot of material critical of the new administration on the Internet and in the printed media. However on television censorship has re-emerged in various ways, including banning or simply avoidance of reports critical of the government, reduction in editorial control and the issuing of specific instructions to include or remove certain political issues and facts. In general the news on television and radio stations have again become bland and vapid, and talk more about natural and other cataclysms abroad than events in Ukraine. The reduction in freedom of expression can also be seen in the disappearance of several hard-hitting talk shows, and the cancellation of the broadcasting licenses of two independent TV stations, TVi and Channel 5.

The number of physical attacks and cases of harassment of journalists has increased in the last six months, with the reaction of the authorities being inadequate. Those responsible have not been held to account. Vasyl Klymentyev, Chief Editor of the newspaper "New Style" disappeared on 11 August in Kharkiv. Klymentyev’s disappearance is reportedly linked to his reporting on corruption in the Kharkiv region. The police initiated a homicide investigation despite his body not having been found. The investigation, in our opinion, is sluggish and inefficient.

There has been a considerable reduction in political liberty overall. The Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University Father Boris Gudzyak reported that an SBU [Security Service] officer had tried to get him to sign a letter, without leaving him even a copy, in which the Rector would agree to warn students off taking part in any protests “not authorized by the authorities” Father Gudzyak did not even read the letter and made the visit public. It is, however, certain that many rectors of institutes signed such a letter. We are also aware of a separate Order from 22 April this year according to which in district Departments of Education in Kyiv and in each secondary school,   people were appointed responsible for “providing information regarding the city authorities, enhancing the quality of information and analytical material on socio-political and highly publicized events in the city and districts, including providing swift information about what is happening in the district on a day to day basis”. The motive for the issue of this order is simple: “increasing the attention of the President’s Administration leadership to information regarding the city authorities”, and this information will be sent to the department of internal policy of the State administration.

The existence of such letters from the SBU to rectors and such orders demonstrate the wish to impose total control over civic life in educational institutions. At the same time, students across the country, particularly those protesting against the new Minister of Education, have for some time complained of being under pressure.  At present this is on the level of “preventive chats” in the Dean’s office, yet these are laced with threats of expulsion if the students don’t give up protest activities. The SBU has applied the same “preventive measures” with regard to activists of NGOs in connection with their protest activities.

It is clear that we are dealing here with “prophylactic measures”, when the SBU have taken a written undertaking from blogger Oleh Shynkarenko to not criticize the authorities “in strong form” on his Live Journal blog. Everybody now knows that the SBU not only reads individual blogs but may turn up on their authors’ doorsteps. Obviously, in all democratic countries secret surveillance does take place aimed at preventing terrorist acts or real threats to the life of a public figure or to State security. Neither the blogger who wrote the words “kill the reptile” with President Yanukovych in mind, nor the members of the Kharkiv regional branch of the Union of Ukrainian Youth [SUM] who wrote a letter to President Obama, nor Nico Lange, Director of the Kyiv Office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, who wrote a critical article about authoritarian tendencies during Yanukovych’s first 100 days in office, presented any such danger. If they had, then the blogger and representatives of SUM would have been arrested so that their criminal behaviour could be proved by the court, and Nico Lange would not, after 10 gruelling hours at the airport, have been let back into the country (although the Prosecutor General’s Office, as well as the SBU, have still officially called his actions "interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs).

In a democratic country such intimidation and pressure on citizens and guests to the country are not merely prohibited by law, but absolutely unthinkable, and there is simply no place for so called “prophylactic measures”.

The policy on memory has changed radically. Material on the history of political repression has been removed from the websites of the President and regional administrations.  New attempts to foist a Soviet view of history and to rehabilitate Stalinism, with a bust of the dictator being erected in Zaporizhya on 5 May elicited outrage. Only 141 Verkhovna Rada Deputies supported a draft resolution condemning the erection of the monument. While declaring the wish to unite the country, the Party of the Regions, together with their coalition partner – the Lytvyn Bloc and the Communist Party – are effectively dividing it, since nothing could be more divisive than such steps.

The same can be said about the “revision” of history textbooks. This year already the Ministry of Education has updated textbooks for the fifth grade. In the next school year a revised textbook on most recent history is scheduled for issue for the 11th grade.

The Ministry of Education has adjusted the history syllabus for the 9th grade and proposed the relevant changes to the textbook: “Introduction to Ukrainian History”: reference has been removed to the artificial nature of the Famine of 1932-1933, the repressions in Western Ukraine in 1939 after the Soviet Union occupied it; fragments of a text about the Heroes of Kruty (students who died defending Kyiv in 1918); the actions of the Ukrainian Resistance Army [UPA] during the Second World War, and the Orange Revolution.

There are around 20 proposals for changes to the textbook with a significant number of these concerning the policy of the Russian Empire and USSR in Ukraine, and aimed at forming an unaggressive image of them.

There have been flagrant abuses of the right to privacy.  The President’s Administration has introduced illegal collection of personal information which is in flagrant breach of the Constitution and the recently passed Law on Personal Data Protection (which, incidentally, has very seriously flaws).  The Deputy Head of the President’s Administration and the Head of the Central Department of Regional and Staffing Policy , S. Skubashevsky, sent a circular to the Head of the Crimean Council of Ministers and to the Heads of regional administrations in which they propose “in order to receive information regarding the socio-political, socio-economic situation in Ukraine’s regions” by 9 July 2010 to “prepare passports of the regions as of 1 July 2010 (following a fixed format) and send them by email. These passports should be updated and sent on a quarterly basis.

There are 11 sections of the passport with these including, as well as some about the population structure, socio-economic readings, social sphere, etc, the following:

6. Political parties, civic organizations, professional societies;

9. Results of the last elections;

10 Heads of the district, enterprises, institutions, organizations, well-known and influential people (those with impact on the political situation

11. Means of communication

In Section 6 , as well as lists of professional societies, district and city branches of parties, civic organizations, they want the number of members, address, as well as full names, telephone, position and home address of their heads.

Section 9 wants the results of all elections from 2004, as well as information about factions and groups within councils, including personal data about the heads, information about their influence on the council and relations with the head of the council.

In Section 10 you need to give personal data about heads of enterprises, institutions, organizations and educational institutions of the area; heads of agricultural and farming businesses; council deputies, heads and deputy heads, and secretaries of rural councils, as well as so-called “influential individuals”. The data collected includes information about their party affiliation (political orientation) and who they supported at the presidential elections in 2010.

Section 11 wants detailed information about television and radio companies and the printed press set up in the region, including their sources of finance.

The collection of personal data is clearly being carried out to ensure control over political activity in the country and the advantage of the ruling party.

This same purpose is pursued by the “Standard agreement between co-founders of a media outlet and the editorial office regarding guarantees for the independence of editorial policy”. This contains the requirement for co-founders of the media outlet to “publicly declare their support for a political force at the elections, stating which specific political force, as well as the forms of such support”. Editors are required to provide written notification to the co-founders of membership of a party or civic organization.

The appearance of the same text for this agreement in two regional (oblast) centres – Sumy and Ternopil – give good grounds for assuming that the agreement has been introduced throughout the country.

Ukrainian and international observers and specialists who monitored the campaign for the 31 October Local Elections gave an extremely negative assessment of the elections. The organization and running of the local elections bore witness to a clear move backwards by the political regime to the disregard for democratic standards and freedoms. The campaign was the worst for five years. The overall assessment of the elections (from the adoption of the Law which significantly reduced rights, established certain privileges and restricted public control, to the process of determining the elections’ outcome) give grounds for asserting that the local elections did not meet the standards for free, honest, fair and transparent elections. Civic groups could observe the elections but everything was done to prevent fully-fledged public control.

Plans for a radical review of the direction and content of educational reform announced by the Minister of Education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, the opening of preparatory courses and the possibility of entrance exams to higher educational institutions along the old grounds mean an effective cancellation of independent external assessment, the loss of equal access to higher education and a restoration of the former scale of corruption in higher education. The President of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Serhiy Kvit believes that Dmytro Tabachnyk’s policy is aimed at authoritarian centralization of management and degradation of science and education in Ukraine. The Ministry of Education has drawn up a draft Law on Higher Education which is effectively aimed at stymieing the development of Ukrainian universities, depriving them of any autonomy, preventing them reaching an internationally competitive level. The draft law needs to be totally rejected with a new one drawn up on entirely different lines.

The Verkhovna Rada has passed a number of laws which seriously violate human rights (for example, the Law on the Local Elections, many articles of which do not meet generally recognized democratic norms and standards) and is concept strategies and draft laws aimed at protecting them, for example, a concept framework for the reform of the judiciary, criminal justice and the progressive Criminal Procedure Code.

The judicial reform proposed by the President despite a number of positive innovations violates the Constitution and international standards for the right to a fair trial, and runs counter to the public’s needs. . The extended powers of the High Council of Justice to appoint and dismiss the heads of courts, as well as to examine judges’ complaints against being refused indefinite tenure, are in breach of Article 131 of the Constitution. Equally in breach of the Constitution is the removal of the Supreme Court’s possibilities on standardizing court practice through its being stripped of its right to pass the final judgment in a case, the retention of the possibility of examination of court rulings in case of conflicting application of only norms of material, not procedural law, and only where such a review is allowed by the relevant high specialized court whose ruling is being appealed against.

The failure to establish objective criteria and competition when moving judges, including when electing them to higher level courts is also not in line with international standards. The same is true of the retention of an inquisitional (not adversarial) procedure for holding judges to account where a member of the High Council of Justice or the Higher Qualifying Commission of Judges is at the same time investigator, prosecutor and judge with respect to the judge.

The public’s interests are also not adhered to with: the introduction of the possibility of court examination without the participation of a party who was not informed of the hearing through, for example, the fault of the post; the significant reduction in the time frames for lodging appeals and cassation appeals; reduction in the periods for examination of a case at each level to one or two months, in some categories to 20, 15 or even 5 days; removal of the right to ask for a judge to be taken off a case if the circumstances giving grounds for this are learned about only after the examination of the case has begun.

Following the adoption of the Law on the Judicial System and Status of Judges, citizens have received swift, but unjust court proceedings from dependent judges. In order to ensure fair courts and real independence for judges, the Law needs to be returned to the Verkhovna Rada for new consideration.

It should be noted that preventive safeguards in the checking of draft laws by the Ministry of Justice to see that they comply with case law of the European Court of Human Rights are effectively not working.

There have been repressive measures and violence against trade union activists and human rights defenders. The Krasnodonvuhyllya company [coal mining – translator] is destroying the Independent Miners’ Union because it refused to give its consent to a worsening in pay conditions in breach of legislation. On 14 September journalist and human rights defender, head of the Kherson Regional Branch of the Committee of Voters of Ukraine, member of the Board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Dementiy Bily, was beaten up by the security guards of Kherson’s Mayor, Volodymyr Saldo.

Administrative pressure by the authorities has increased which is evidenced by the significant increase in complaints against arbitrary behaviour by tax and other regulatory bodies.

The list of cases involving harassment of civic and human rights activists goes on and on. There have been such cases in Kyiv, Lviv, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Vinnytsa, Kherson, Zaporizhya, the Crimea and other cities. The number of such cases during the last 6 months of 2010 far exceeded their number over the previous five years altogether. On 27 October the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union published an open appeal demanding that the authorities stop the harassment and calling on the international community, international organizations and foreign embassies to try to influence Ukraine’s policy so as to stop harassment of human rights activists for their work. The appeal European Union and EU countries to more actively apply the Guiding Principles of the EU on the protection of human rights and to draw up a plan for inculcating these in Ukraine.

Administrative pressure by the authorities has increased which is evidenced by the significant increase in complaints against arbitrary behaviour by tax and other regulatory bodies. During the second half of 2010 the relations between small business owners and the authorities turned into open confrontation due to the preparation and adoption of the Tax Code.

We would note that President Yanukovych has on a number of occasions reacted to cases of human rights abuse in his speeches, asserting that “criticism from opponents is a vital component of democratic society”, that “you mustn’t save on human rights” and so forth. However one has the impression that these statements are a ritual and nobody plans to follow such recommendations.

There is virtually no response from the authorities and bodies of local self-government  to appeals from the public, to protests against unlawful actions, reports of human rights abuse with these all simply ignored. Instead the regime in the second half of 2010 resorted to open political persecution.

At the same time protests are increasing. Over the first 6 months of 2010 the number of peaceful public gatherings rose by 30%, with the number exceeding that for all of 2009. The number during the second half of the year was clearly much higher than during the first. The Administration should therefore realize that pressure by means of force on society will only exacerbate conflict. According to research carried out by the Razumkov Centre 60% of those surveyed are prepared to take part in protest, with 32 of the 60% willing to take part in unlawful protests. This is highly disturbing and should be a very serious signal to the regime that its policy is unacceptable and needs to be changed.


See Human Rights in Ukraine – 2009-2010 for more detail

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