Report details ‘dramatic’ rights abuses against Ukrainians who voted wrong in Putin referendum

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — Describing the situation as a “collapse of law and order” in the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed rebel Republics, and amid on- going hostilities between the Ukrainian government troops and Russian backed separatists, a scathing new UN report overviews a fast deteriorating human rights situation in Ukraine.

The survey speaks of “serious human rights abuses, intimidation and harassment of the local population perpetrated by armed groups” as part of a larger plan to break away Russian-ethnic regions from the central government.”

The report comes amid flareups in fighting and warnings by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that his country should prepare for a possible “full scale” Russian invasion.

Ukrainian armored personnel on the frontline near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30. / AFP
Ukrainian armored personnel on the frontline near Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 30. / AFP

The Report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights details a systematic plan of foreign fighters and supplies from the Russian Federation openly infiltrating Ukraine’s eastern frontier where armed groups from the “so called governance structure of the Donetsk people’s republic’ and the Luhansk people’s republic’ area accountable for human rights abuses committed on territories under their control.”

The report states that since the beginning of hostilities in mid-April 2014 at least 6,362 people were killed and 16,000 wounded in Ukraine’s troubled eastern regions. And despite cease-fires, the indiscriminate shelling and shooting continues from both sides to the conflict.

Tragically more than 1.2 million people have been internally displaced from their homes since the fighting started thus creating yet another humanitarian crisis, this time in Eastern Europe.

Much of the recent troubles stem from Ukraine’s own torn ethnicity in which a sizable minority along the eastern frontier bordering Russia favor some sort of association with Moscow. Yet, a larger majority in democratic Ukraine favors the West and would like to integrate closer into European institutions rather than with Russia.

Ukraine was a crucial economic and strategic region during the former Soviet Union, and there’s little question that President Vladimir Putin’s hyper-nationalist government wishes to bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s political orbit.

Since regaining its full sovereignty from the Soviet system in 1991, an independent Ukraine has never been far from Russia’s shadows. President Petro Poroshenko told parliament “Ukrainians were the first to feel the effects of two totalitarian systems, Nazi and communist.” Since independence Ukraine has seen its freedoms challenged domestically by poor government, corruption and political infighting.

Just last year the strategic Crimean peninsula, home to a large and nostalgic Russian population, became the focus of Putin’s attention. Moscow engineered a “referendum” on the region’s political future, predictably won the vote, and ceremoniously annexed the region, allowing Putin a political propaganda victory. Crimea is home to large Russian naval facilities

The Crimean crisis brought a new chill to East/West relations. Yet, the political backlash saw Russia buffeted in the UN Security Council with rhetoric not seen since the Cold War and more substantively the U.S. and Europe slap a new series of economic sanctions on Russia which have come to put an increasing strain on its economy.

The UN’s Human Rights report puts a focus on Crimea warning of, “human rights violations targeting mostly those who have opposed the unlawful ‘referendum’ in March 2014 and the arrival of authorities applying the laws of the Russian Federation.” The report stresses that Crimean media outlets as well as religious institutions have faced harassment.

The report underscores, “The impact of the conflict on the economic and social rights of civilians continues to be dramatic.” During the past few years Ukraine’s economy has gone into free fall with projected growth this year expected to be negative nine percent.

The survey calls on both sides to seek common ground, observe the cease-fires, but tasks the Kiev government to “investigate violations of human rights and international law committed in the east, including by government forces.” It calls on Russia to “put an end to arbitrary arrests and detentions of political opponents in Crimea.”

Most of these localized “people’s republics” are run by ill-disciplined vodka-lubricated local militia who are loosely in alignment with Moscow. Though Russia has armed and, in many cases, sent troops to aid the separatists, it is likely Putin has created a political Frankenstein by allowing such a disruptive force along an international border.

The new chill between Washington and Moscow makes mockery of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s politically wishful “reset with Russia,” and equally challenges the European Union to find a creative solution to a percolating problem which is inside Europe.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).

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