Report on the human rights mission to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group [KHPG], together with the German NGO ‘European Exchange’ and representatives of NGOs from the Russian Federation and Germany with the support of the German Foreign Ministry, carried out an international mission to monitor human rights in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts on territory which is back under Ukrainian control.
The mission involved three visits to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts: on October 16; from Nov 16 to 18 (map - 16.11 ; 17.11 ; 18.11 ; 19.11 ) and from Dec 2 to 5 (map - 2.12 ; 3.12 ; 4.12 ; 5.12 ). The international group of observers visited the following Donetsk oblast cities: Krasny Lyman; Sviatohirsk; Sloviansk; Kramatorsk; Druzhkivka; Artemivsk; Kostiantynivka and Debaltseve; and the Luhansk oblast cities: Svatovo; Starobelsk; Popasna and Shchastya.
Vladimir Hlushchenko, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine
Yury Hukov, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine
Lyudmila Klochko, KHPG, Kharkiv, Ukraine
Oleg Orlov, Memorial Human Rights Centre, Moscow, RF
Yuri Petrov, Moscow, RF
Mikhail Sergeev, Moscow, RF
Wolfgang Templin, journalist, Berlin, Germany
Kristina Schubert, journalist, Berlin, Germany
The monitoring group express their gratitude to all staff of bodies of local self-government; journalists; members of NGOs and political parties; fighters and the command of battalions of the territorial defence and armed forces of Ukraine; residents of the above-mentioned cities who agreed to share their observations, impressions and information with us.
We are also grateful to the ATO [anti-terrorist operation] headquarters for their support and accompaniment for our visits.
In April 2014 protests by pro-Russian citizens in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts turned into open confrontation between the so-called ‘insurgents’ and the Ukrainian authorities. In several cities of the Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv oblasts administrative buildings were seized.
On April 7 acting President Oleksandr Turchynov announced the creation of an anti-crisis headquarters. On April 12 a group of armed militants headed by a Russian national Igor Strelkov [real name: Girkin] seized power in Sloviansk, a city in the Donetsk oblast. On April 15 Turchynov announced the beginning of a force phase of the anti-terrorist operation as the Ukrainian authorities’ response to the seizure by armed men of administrative buildings in the east of the country.
The basis for the imposition of an anti-terrorist operation regime was the Law on Fighting Terrorism. ‘DPR’ and ‘LPR’ [the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics] have been declared terrorist organizations in Ukraine.
The aim of the visits was to investigate the situation as regards observance of personal, political and social rights on territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts which is back under the control of the Ukrainian authorities. We took a number of interviews of representatives of local self-government; journalists; military servicemen and local residents. We also examined and assessed the destruction caused by military action and were in military units. The report also includes information received as a result of appeals from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group for consultative hope from internally displaced persons (IDP), military servicemen and residents of liberated territory over the period from April through November 2014. There is also information received from talking with IDP in the Kharkiv oblast during that same period.
The monitoring group documented cases of rights infringements in the social sphere, with respect to unlawful detention; unlawful deprivation of liberty; unlawful seizure of people’s property and disappearances.
We consider that the Ukrainian government has not made proper effort to avoid unwarranted destruction in the course of the anti-terrorist operation, has not provided timely protection of the rights and liberties of temporarily displaced people; and has not sufficiently ensured that people are informed about threats to their rights. The government has consistently been late in taking urgent decisions which has led to additional suffering, both physical and psychological. Many people on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts have felt abandoned by the Ukrainian authorities and lost hope of re-establishing their customary lives.
We believe that the international community failed to adequately assess the threat to human rights at the early stages of the conflict in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Help from international organizations came extremely late. Information about the situation in the ATO zone was often distorted.
The areas of the ATO has seen a significant level of destruction. Restoration of the infrastructure and public buildings has in the main been taken on by the state, financing this work from the budgets at all levels and non-budget (enlisted) funds. The owners of private homes damaged or totally destroyed in the course of the ATO have been left to deal with their problems and are restoring their housing alone. Small business owners and those running small family businesses are in the same situation – they are themselves restoring their devastated kiosks, shops and other structures used in running their business.
The situation for IDP requires particular attention, and administrative provisions to ensure their rights; material assistance, as well as help in finding jobs and accommodation.
The conflict in Donbas has resulted in serious damage to housing; public buildings; various businesses, both state-owned and private. Infrastructure has suffered, with bridges blown up and road surfaces damaged. The level of destruction is different in various inhabited areas. For example, among cities liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces at the beginning of July, it is Sloviansk and Artemivsk teacher training college; Debaltseve, the largest railway junction in the Donetsk oblast, on Dec 4. The night before, at around 3 a.m. the city was subjected to a mass shelling from Grad and Smerch missiles. Shells damaged buildings in the micro-district of Cheremushki. Residential homes were damaged, some seriously, as were garages and the heating main. The communal services have been ascertaining the damage caused, and residents have, where they could, tried to cover the blown out windows and balcony doors with plastic protective film. There were casualties from the shelling, with at least one death – of an elderly person living in the building at 120 Kirov St reported., Valentyn Lykholit, bad treatment of prisoners was not allowed as they ‘need to be exchanged in good condition”. He explains that prisoners are held for a long time in the battalion because Aidar is itself holding talks on exchange of prisoners with the opposing side. Mr Lykholit does not deny that some members of the Aidar Battalion have engaged in absolutely unsavoury activities: racketeering; unlawful appropriation of other’s property; abductions. He insists, however, that these are an absolute minority – no more than 50 people, and that the former commander of Aidar had provided protection for such activities. At the present time the leadership of the battalion is different and the majority are fighting excellently.
We were able to meet with a former Aidar fighter who spoke of one case where a captured separatist not given medical aid after being beaten by members of Aidar had died.
The deputy commander of the Luhansk -1 battalion, Valentyn Tkalych is adamant that people are not held by the Luhansk-1 battalion for more than 72 hours, but are sent to a police station as soon as possible. The battalion’s functions include ‘purging’ the area of liberation of inhabited areas and subsequent security. Detentions are usually carried where there is operational data During the ‘purge’, they pay attention to characteristic signs that a person has recently used a weapon, or operational information. They cooperate with the SBU and police. If the detained person is wounded or ill, he is taken to hospital.
The position of the Roma
Since the beginning of military action, the Roma have found themselves in the most difficult situation due to their absolute defencelessness and the huge number of prejudices prevalent in Ukrainian society. In areas not controlled by the Ukrainian military, they have been and continue to be subjected to open aggression from militants of the so-called DPR and LPR. In cities like Sloviansk [Donetsk oblast], the militants have carried out real ethnic cleansing against the Roma Under the guise of an anti-drugs operation, the insurgents have gone into Roma homes; beaten up the inhabitants, including women and children and taken away anything valuable belonging to the Roma. During these purges, several Roma were gravely injured and killed. Furthermore, according to Roma questioned by members of the mission, all Roma were prohibited from leaving territory controlled by the militants. Roma who have tried to flee to safe regions have run up against an unfriendly attitude to them or direct violence at checkpoints, both from one and the other side. Those who have been able to leave the military zone have encountered difficulties in receiving humanitarian aid and being settled in such cities as Kharkiv, Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Mykolaiv and others. This in the first instance is due to a dismissive attitude to them from volunteers and staff of social institutions, as well as the fact that many Roma do not have documents identifying them. Many of the families of Roma who have fled are for that reason left to go hungry, to live in parks, on the street or at railway stations because they have been refused assistance.
Members of the mission particularly noted that the main help to displaced persons, including Roma, was provided in the first instance by NGOs and members of volunteer movements in those areas, whereas state assistance was either lacking, or provided at a minimum level. This was the main reason why displaced Roma lacked basic necessities. In most cases they could only receive them once.
The local population on territory not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities had awaited the arrival of the Ukrainian armed forces with great trepidation. The separatists had done everything to scare the population about the arrival of the ‘punitive forces’. The residents of Krasny Lyman, the city liberated first on June 4 recounted how they had awaited with terror ‘purges’; arrests; repression from the Ukrainian armed forces. However the ‘purge’ was confined to a simple viewing of flats, without even checking documents, and the first day of Sloviansk’s liberation began with free sausages being handed out. There were no reports later either of repression against the local population in liberated cities.
In inhabited areas freed by the Ukrainian armed forces, public order is ensured by the police and units of the National Guard – Interior Ministry units which were previously called internal forces. Some of the local population who had previously been pro-Ukrainian were openly pleased that it was not only the local police, but also units directly subordinate to Kyiv that were patrolling the streets. However a fairly significant part of the population were not happy at the presence in the city or settlement of people armed with machine guns. There are no reports of any significant conflicts, however the local press did report various misunderstandings. Nonetheless, local residents are frightened of armed people. Several local residents are convinced that the military drink a lot of alcohol. At least they asserted that they had seen them buying a lot of vodka.
In cities that are very close to the zone of military action there are units of the Ukrainian army. There are a fair number of people in military uniform on the streets and military technology being moved about. In Debaltseve we observed the movement of armoured carriers without insignia and number plates. Most of the local population are well-disposed to the military, but wary and they report having seen military servicemen buying large amounts of alcohol. The Debaltseve city authorities have agreed with the command of the Ukrainian units on a ban on selling military alcoholic drinks in shops.
Representatives of the local authorities told us about help that Ukrainian soldiers had provided to the inhabited areas. For example, Volodymyr Tyurin, deputy Mayor of Shchastya recounted how the Aidar Battalion had helped the city. They shared their food, diesel fuel and assisted in organizing supplies to the city by convoying food and humanitarian aid by a road subject to shelling.
In all the cities where we were able to meet with representatives of the local self-government, we were told that mutual understanding had been established with the military and that there was mutually beneficial cooperation.
The head of the Aidar Battalion headquarters, Valentyn Lykhopit informed that the local population of the village next to where the battalion’s camp is based had initially been highly suspicious of the Aidar fighters. They assumed that their village could suffer through having such neighbours. They were also suspicious of the fighters themselves. However later the villagers changed their opinion and have asked the battalion not to leave – “it’s more peaceful with you”.
It should be noted that Ukrainian military “protected buildings” are located outside residential areas (with one exception) in order to prevent the latter coming under shelling from the other side. This is the complete opposite of the actions of the militants who, according to residents of Sloviansk, have carried out shelling using heavy artillery directly from residential areas.
The humanitarian situation
In all inhabited areas liberated by the Ukrainian army during the period from June to July, the shops are working and there is food and essential products. Electricity, water and gas supplies, as well as sewage, are working. The area is being cleared of explosive items. City transport, hospitals and chemists are all working. The work of the ambulance service is provided for, and schools and kindergartens are open.
Pensions and other social payments are being allocated and salaries paid to public sector workers.
In areas within the zone of military action (Popasna; Shchastya in the Luhansk oblast and Debaltseve in the Donetsk oblast) there is disruption to electricity, water and gas supplies, as well as with ensuring heat since the communications are suffering from artillery shelling. The local authorities are trying to restore supplies of water and heat as quickly as possible. There is a much more limited range of goods in shops and some of them are shut. Medical care is provided at the minimal level needed. Some of the schools in the Luhansk oblast have gone over to distance learning. There are disruptions also with social payments and pensions. In Shchastya, for example, pensions and social benefits have not been paid for around 4 months. This situation arouse due to the city’s administrative subordination to the Zhovtnevy district of the Luhansk oblast which is occupied by the separatists. Four long months were needed to transfer Shchastya to the Novoaidarsky district of the Luhansk oblast. This indicates serious problems with taking operational decisions at the level of the oblast and the Cabinet of Ministers.
Particular attention should be given to people temporarily displaced from territory which is not controlled or only partially controlled by the Ukrainian authorities [IDP].
According to the Emergencies Service, as of Oct 18 there were 420 thousand IDP. The UN estimates that around 1 million people had been forced to leave their homes, and that this number was constantly increasing. After the Minsk agreement, i.e. after Sept. 5 many IDP began returning to their homes as they were hoping for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. However there was no real ceasefire, and the situation has worsened. In connection with the adoption by the Cabinet of Ministers of Resolution No. 595 on Nov 7 which stops government funding paying social benefits on territory not controlled by Ukraine, the funding of pensions and other social benefits has been stopped. This has resulted in pensioners being unable to survive on occupation territory. The situation is especially bad in some areas of the Luhansk oblast, and in Pyervomaisk [Luhansk oblast, the situation is close to a humanitarian catastrophe.
In October – November this year the flow of IDP increased.
The first IDP from the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts appeared in the middle of April 2014. On April 12 power in Sloviansk effectively passed to Strelkov’s [Girkin’s] armed group. Already by April 16 the first displaced person had turned to the Kharkiv Human Rights Group with problems related to getting established. Displaced people from the Crimea and Sevastopol began leaving in the middle of March, before the official annexation of the Crimea. However, unfortunately, Ukraine’s central authorities did not managed to swiftly take decisions regarding the status of internally displaced people. On June 19 the Verkhovna Rada adopted a law on displaced people which was vetoed by the President. The law was indeed clearly imperfect and did not defend the rights of IDP. All issues regarding registration according to place of temporary residence; employment; accommodation; medical care and humanitarian aid were left to bodies of local self-government. These issues were dealt with in each district, city and oblast without coordination with the central authorities. Evacuation of people from the zone of conflict, including penitentiary institutions; children’s homes and social care facilities was not organized Issues regarding evacuation of people from the ATO zone and humanitarian aid have been dealt with by volunteers and in some places by the local self-government, sometimes with the help of volunteer battalions.
It was only on Oct 20 that parliament adopted the Law on ensuring the rights and freedoms of internally displaced persons, with this coming into force on Nov. 22. On Oct 1, 2014 the government adopted two very important resolutions defining the rules of procedure for registration of IDP (Resolution No. 509) and, finally, determining the amount of financial help for IDP (Resolution No. 505). These resolutions oblige social services departments in districts and cities of regional subordination to register IDP and to appoint payments. Those departments were unable to cope with the huge flow of people and in many districts and cities there were large queues of people wanting to register. The above-mentioned Resolution No. 595 forced pensioners previously living in areas not under Ukrainian control and not planning to leave their homes to go to territory controlled by the Ukrainian authorities. The entry into force on Nov 22 of the Law on IDP made the work of social services departments even more difficult since they were given the function of checking whether IDP really live at the address indicated in the documents. For the IDP themselves, the law’s entry into force made it even harder to get the status they wanted since the requirement was added that they register with State Migration Service bodies.
If the law had been passed in May, and the Cabinet of Ministers’ resolutions in, say, June, then it might have been realistic to ensure timely registration and timely receipt of benefits. This would have reduced and simplified the work of bodies of local self-government and would not have aroused complaints from IDP.
The shortage of cash in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts also needs to be mentioned. Due to difficulties with delivering cash, with attacks on postmen and money collectors and with bankomats being robbed, in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts the large majority of social payments are made using bank cards. At the same time a limit is imposed with people only able to withdraw 500 UAH [around 26 EUR) cash from their cards. Only large shops have terminals for paying for goods on a non-cash basis from bank cards. All of this leads to queues at bankomats. At the time of our visit to Debaltseve, only one bankomat was working. This situation leads to the population being disgruntled and additionally complicates the already difficult social situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Who then is helping people in the ATO zone?
When asked which international organizations are providing them with assistance, all representatives of local self-government very quickly recall the Czech fund ‘People in need’ – the help with construction material is absolutely invaluable for constantly shelled cities. They are also grateful to the International Red Cross. Help for bodies of local self-government and local administrations in providing for the needs of cities and of IDEP has been given by large Ukrainian charitable funds: the Rinat Akhmetov Fund; the Serhiy Vylkul Fund. Help for the Ukrainian military was especially invaluable during the first days after liberation. Local volunteers and volunteers from other oblasts are working, as well as religious and civic organizations.
Due to the fact that the Ukrainian government did not turn to the convention bodies of the UN and Council of Europe with a warning of restrictions of human rights and fundamental freedoms in particular areas of the ATO zone, one can expect a large number of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights and the UN convention bodies. The government should therefore resolve the problems regarding such statements.