Committees vs. Compliance
Ukraine’s leaders’ faith in the power of committees is misguided. Assurances that a committee has been created to investigate this violation or that may have washed – with some – two years ago. If they are still offered as a panacea for all Ukraine’s democratic aches and pains, then presumably those in the frontline of criticism have no other ammunition. Or hope they can make it to cover before being exposed.
The Environment Ministry’s spokesperson did just that when confronted in Geneva in early September with a direct question about the murder of civic activist Volodymyr Honcharenko and investigation into the claim he made at a press conference four days earlier about chemically contaminated scrap metal in Dnipropetrovsk. It certainly looks bad to inform the working group monitoring compliance with the Aarhus Convention that the authorities are continuing to ignore their obligations under the convention and muffle the issue. The Aarhus Convention people were assured that a committee had been set up and that the results of tests were expected on 10 September.
This was news to the Ukrainian environmental and human rights organizations who have been calling for a proper investigation since Mr Honcharenko’s murder, as well as his organization which had warned the authorities and been ignored for much longer.
This is not the first such supposed flurry of activity, since the local authorities also came up with an investigatory committee which supposedly carried out tests and conclusively rejected all Mr Honcharenko’s allegations. Nobody knows what samples were tested and the air tests spoken of were by definition inappropriate given the specific chemical involved,
Nor were any results forthcoming on 10 September. A number of environmental and human rights groups have therefore sent a letter to the Bureau of the Aarhus Convention setting the record straight and listing key violations over the investigation into warnings of seriously contaminated scrap metal which could end up being sold, conceivably exported.
This is not about “telling on” the authorities. Proper response is needed, not yet another fob-off committee. On 27 July Volodymyr Honcharenko produced evidence indicating a high likelihood that chemically contaminated scrap metal had already put workers not informed of the danger in hospital. He showed photos demonstrating the load being transported without any permit or proper precautions around the city of Kryvy Rih. Even the traffic police who should under any circumstances have been monitoring a load weighing 180 tonnes were not to be seen, let alone others with a direct duty to protect public safety.
Mr Honcharenko was fatally injured in a deliberate attack four days later. The attempts seen over the last 6 weeks to muffle and / or conceal the issue he was working on when murdered also place the investigation into his death in jeopardy. For this reason a number of prominent journalists, civic and human rights activists and members of the public have signed an appeal, still open for endorsement, calling for a proper investigation which must include tests of the scrap metal with samples taken in the presence of NGOs and the media. They call also for the media to keep the case in the spotlight. A few days ago we marked the twelfth anniversary of Georgy Gongadze’s murder. By now nobody is under any illusion that the present regime is as uninterested as its predecessors in finding those who ordered the journalist’s murder. Volodymyr Honcharenko was not a journalist, but his investigations concerned information of vital public importance and often exposed violations, including by those in power. There will be no end to impunity if inconvenient voices can be brutally silenced.