Despite less fighting, eastern Ukraine still ‘highly flammable,’ UN reports, as death toll tops 9,000

A woman and her daughters sit in candlelight in a bomb shelter on the outskirts of the city of Debaltsevo in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. Photo: UNICEF/Aleksey Filippov

9 December 2015 – Despite a significant reduction in hostilities in eastern Ukraine in the last few months in a conflict that has already left over 9,000 people dead and nearly 21,000 injured, serious human rights concerns persist, including killings, torture and impunity, the United Nations reported today.

The situation remains “highly flammable” due the inflow of ammunition, weaponry and fighters from Russia into territories controlled by armed groups, although an accord in August to strengthen a frequently violated earlier ceasefire led to the withdrawal of heavy weapons by the Ukrainian military and the armed groups, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine said in its latest report.

Serious human rights abuses against people in the territories controlled by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk people’s republic” and “Luhansk people’s republic” continue, including killings, torture, ill-treatment, illegal detention and forced labour, lack of freedom of movement, assembly and expression, the Mission added in the report, the 12th it has issued on the nearly two-year-old conflict.

It also noted that elements of Ukraine’s security service appear to enjoy a high degree of impunity in documented cases of “enforced disappearance, arbitrary and incommunicado detention as well as torture and ill treatment of people suspected of trespassing against territorial integrity or terrorism or believed to be supporters” of the two self-proclaimed republics.

Moreover, millions of people living in the affected areas face a difficult humanitarian situation and local residents continue to remain without effective protection of their rights.

“An estimated 2.9 million people living in the conflict area continued to face difficulties in exercising their economic and social rights, in particular access to quality medical care, accommodation, social services and benefits, as well as compensatory mechanisms for damaged, seized or looted property,” the report said.

“The situation for an estimated 800,000 people living along both sides of the contact line has been particularly difficult.”

Between 16 August and 15 November, the time period covered by the report, 47 civilians were killed and 131 injured. The total death toll since mid-April last year is at least 9,098, with another 20,732 injured, including civilians, Ukrainian armed forces and armed groups.

The new casualties resulted largely from explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices, “underscoring the urgent need for extensive mine clearance and mine awareness actions on both sides of the contact line,” the report said.

It cited pervasive self-censorship and the inability of media professionals to exercise their freedom of expression in the east, adding that restrictions against media professionals by the Government also undermine freedom of expression.

Turning to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the report said residents continue to be affected by the broad curtailment of their rights due to the application of a restrictive legal framework imposed upon them by Russia.

The Mission continues to receive allegations of violations of the right to life, liberty, security and physical integrity, to a fair trial and to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, it added, also noting that the trade blockade of Crimea imposed by Ukrainian activists has led to human rights abuses, which were not properly addressed by law enforcement officers.

“Civilians in the conflict-afflicted eastern parts of Ukraine end the year as they began it, in a very difficult humanitarian and human rights situation,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said, summing up the report.

“Elderly people have no access to their life savings, people with disabilities have little assistance, and reduced access to healthcare has left many in dismal, precarious, even life-threatening situations.”

While welcoming the reduction in hostilities, he urged all sides to fully implement the ceasefire accords and reminded all sides, including those in control of certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, that they can be held criminally accountable for the human rights abuses committed in territories under their control.

In late February 2014, the situation in Ukraine transcended what was initially seen as an internal Ukrainian political crisis into violent clashes in parts of the country, later reaching full-scale conflict in the east. Nevertheless, despite a September 2014 ceasefire agreed in Minsk, the situation has since deteriorated, with serious consequences for the country’s unity, territorial integrity and stability.

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