war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

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Dangerous National Guard bill condemned as ‘a step towards a police state’ in Ukraine

Halya Coynash

A draft bill which would give members of Ukraine’s National Guard the right to shoot without warning under certain circumstances has been strongly criticised by the Human Rights Ombudsman, some human rights groups, including ‘Police under Control’  and politicians.  They warn that the bill would give the National Guard wide police powers which are inappropriate for an armed formation and could lead to them being used, as the Berkut riot police were used under President Viktor Yanukovych, to crush peaceful protest. 

Ukraine’s National Guard was formed in March 2014, after the disbanding of both Berkut and the Internal Troops who had both been deployed against Euromaidan protesters.  It is formally part of the Interior Ministry, and some of the original volunteer battalions, including Azov and Donbas, have been incorporated into it.

The original Law on the National Guard from 2014 did state that it was “a military formation with law-keeping functions”, which included protecting public safety, public order, as well as defending the border and “stopping terrorist activities; the activities of illegal militarized or armed formations (groups), terrorist organizations, organized groups and criminal organizations”.

Draft Law 6556 proposes amendments aimed, the authors assert, “at refining the legal principles of the activities of the National Guard”.

Ukraine’s Ombudsman Valeria Lutkovska has a much harsher description.  In her statement, she writes that the adoption of this law would carry serious risks to human rights.  She backs the call from Serhiy Bahlai from Police Under Control, that the draft bill be rejected.

Up till now Bahlai explains, the National Guard took part in maintaining public order. but only in an auxiliary fashion.  That would change if this law were to be adopted, and the National Guard would be able to independently take on some police functions, such as the right to examine or search residences without a court order; the power “to use force and firearms without clearly stated conditions; the right to detain people suspected of administrative or criminal offences, as well as to draw up protocols on certain types of administrative offences.  

This is despite the National Guard having no training in the kind of skills and knowledge needed for a civilian police force.

A particularly important point which would drag Ukraine back to the Yanukovych years is that, while police must have insignia identifying where they are from, the National Guard officers would enjoy effective anonymity. 

A potentially very dangerous aspect of the bill is that it would allow individual National Guard officers who felt that their “minimum safe space” had been crossed to use weapons without warning.

Politicians backing the bill have cited experience in some other countries and the norms of other Ukrainian laws.  Police may well be permitted to use weapons in situations where their own life is threatened by a person whose unlawful behaviour they are endeavouring to stop.  Here, however, such a right would be held by people from a militarized background, with apparent discretion to decide when their ‘minimum safe distance’ had been crossed.  

Both Bahlai and the Kharkiv Institute for Social Research stress that the proposed bill does not meet the requirements of the Constitution since the National Guard is a militarized formation, and that the bill would give it powers unsuited to such a formation.  The Kharkiv Institute’s legal analysis also speaks of direct human rights threats in the amendments proposed by Draft Law 6556. 

The draft bill proposes to significantly increase the powers of the National Guard throughout the country, not just in the area of military conflict with the possible use of force and weapons.  At the same time, no additional methods are proposed for controlling this and ensuring that there is no abuse of these additional powers.

The authors warn of the further militarization of the National Guard, which makes the functions referred to beyond the military zone and in peacetime in question.  The bill envisages the National Guard being provided with all forms of weapons, including the most lethal. 

The bill restricts control by the Defence Ministry of the National Guard  while carrying out military tasks in the conflict zone or fighting terrorism, concentrating all decisions on its structure, numbers, makeup, etc. with the Interior Ministry.

Denis Kobzin, Director of the above-mentioned Kharkiv Institute, has noted bitterly that the public are not hearing enough about this alarming bill.  The criticism “is drowning” in the endless appearances on TV and publications by representatives of the Interior Ministry and advisors to the Minister Arsen Avakov.  To some extent they’re working, he says.  “Populist slogans about security and war, manipulation of facts and reference to European experience” are gradually changing the uninitiated viewer’s image of reality and ensuring support for this latest step towards setting up a police state”. 

There is a long way to go since the bill has not even had its first reading, and there does appear to be opposition among many politicians as well.

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