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24.04.2020 | Halya Coynash
Human Rights Abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea

Russia uses Covid-19 to try to get sanctions lifted while continuing aggression unabated

Barbed wire and Russian flag Image ICTV.ua, armed search of home of lawyer Emil Kurbedinov s in occupied Crimea
   

While Ukrainian soldiers are being killed, and hostages tortured in the Russian proxy Donbas ‘republics’, and repression continues unabated in occupied Crimea, Russia is actively using the coronavirus pandemic as a means of getting sanctions withdrawn.  Moscow’s unrelenting efforts to manipulate the crisis for its own ends have prompted Ukrainian human rights and civic NGOs to issue an appeal to western countries to preserve all existing sanctions imposed over Russia’s aggression until Ukraine’s territorial integrity has been restored and all political prisoners, POWs and hostages freed.

As well as apparent behind -the-scenes negotiations between the Kremlin and the White House,  Russia has also been pushing UN resolutions on so-called ‘solidarity during the pandemic’ which seem very clearly aimed at getting sanctions eased, and ultimately withdrawn. After a first resolution was rejected by the United Nations General Assembly on 2 April, Moscow adapted and reintroduced it on 22 April.  The original resolution had called for an end to trade wars and protectionist measures, and had stipulated that unilateral sanctions should not be applied without approval from the UN Security Council, where Russia has power of veto.  The revised resolution had dropped the reference to unilateral sanctions, but endorsed a call “to adopt urgent and effective measures to eliminate the use of unilateral coercive economic measures against developing countries.”

In the current situation where the General Assembly is not meeting due to the pandemic, a single member state’s objections can block a resolution.  Dmytro Kuleba announced on 22 April that Kyiv had, once again, blocked what he termed a manipulative use of coronavirus to seek a softening in the sanction regime.

Moscow’s version of the resolution’s defeat was, of course, very different.  It claimed that its aim had been “to call on the international community to show solidarity in the face of the pandemic”, especially in showing support for developing countries”.  Russia’s ‘support’ for the latter has generally come in the form of weapons, and any such position would doubtless be used to seek the lifting of its sanctions. 

Ukraine is very grateful to its western partners who have seen through the manipulation and have steadfastly insisted that the road to removal of sanctions must be Russia’s compliance with international law and end to its aggression.  Estonai’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu has, for example, pointed out that Russia and the Donbas militants it controls are using the coronavirus pandemic to try to destabilize Ukraine. The militants, he noted, had used the virus “as an excuse to block access to Donbass for observers from the OSCE mission, UN agencies and the Red Cross. There are also great difficulties with humanitarian aid reaching the region. All this blatantly contradicts the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire and unlimited humanitarian access”.   “The sanctions on Russia must remain in place. The fact that we are all fighting the coronavirus together does not mean that we should close our eyes to blatant violations of international law”, Reinsalu stressed.

After long-term denial of the crisis, and with the health service already in disarray, Russia is facing a major crisis.  This has not stopped Moscow from a new wave of conscription, including in occupied Crimea, or from continuing its arrests and political trials of Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners.  There has been no cessation in violence in occupied Donbas, and Russia is continuing its obstruction and attempts to distort the truth about the downing of Malaysian airliner MH17 by a Russian Buk missile on 17 July 2014.

In their statement, Ukrainian civic and human rights organizations stressed that “aggressive international players” must not be allowed to exploit this huge crisis to  evade liability for their actions.  There must be no let-up in pressure on authoritarian regimes if the latter are continuing the illegal actions that prompted the sanctions.

The NGOs point to the recent calls from moral leaders to put an end to military action and other conflict and to lift sanctions in order to fight the spread of coronavirus.  There may well be occasions where sanctions can be lifted, they write, but not in cases where an aggressor state is continuing its aggression, while at the time using the pandemic to get sanctions removed on humanitarian grounds.  This could, in fact, result in a different humanitarian crisis, since the removal of sanctions would embolden the state to escalate aggression and repressive measures.

There are serious grounds for fearing exactly such a scenario if sanctions against Russia were to be removed, and also for anticipating that Russia will continue using the pandemic in various international structures to push for precisely such easing of sanctions.  The authors are grateful to all those countries and their representatives who have expressed their unwavering determination to maintain sanctions until Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and its occupation of Ukrainian territory ends, and all Ukrainian political prisoners are freed.

As well as retaining all current sanctions, they ask that the EU and all Ukraine’s international partners respond actively to Russia’s human rights violations, especially in occupied Crimea, by imposing additional sanctions against those individuals responsible for such violations.

The appeal is available in Ukrainian and English.

Russia is currently holding around 90 Ukrainian political prisoners, with the majority of them Crimean Tatars, imprisoned for their faith and civic activism.  Russian President Vladimir Putin recently issued a decree envisaging that Ukrainians, who have not taken Russian citizenship, can have their land taken away from them.  Rather than complying with the UN International Court of Justice’s order to reinstate the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people, Russia has instead resorted to preposterous, and in one case, fatal, attempts to discredit world-renowned Mejlis leaders and veterans of the Crimean Tatar national movement. 

See:

Putin prohibits Ukrainians from owning land in Russian-annexed Crimea

Russian invaders charge Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev with “illegally crossing their border”

#StayHome and Help Russia’s Ukrainian Political Prisoners  (with a list of all the political prisoners)


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