Ukraine could again slip into cycle of calm giving way to savage fighting – senior UN rights official

Entrance to Sloviansk city, Ukraine, pockmarked with bullets and shrapnel. Photo: UNICEF Ukraine/Pavel Zmey

11 December 2015 – A senior United Nations human rights official warned today that the fighting in Ukraine, which has recently decreased, could erupt again with a massive civilian toll in a conflict that has already left over 9,000 people dead and nearly 21,000 injured over the past two years.

“We should not also forget that the current relative calm in the conflict area may be just another manifestation of the repeating pattern we have been observing in Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict,” UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović told the Security Council.

“A surge in hostilities accompanied by massive civilian casualties, which is followed by a ceasefire agreement, which is then followed by a decrease in hostilities and civilian casualties, and which is once again followed by a new escalation of hostilities,” he said referring to the current reinvigorated ceasefire agreed on in August.

“This must not happen again. The overall death toll of the conflict is already too high,” he added, stressing that the current figure in eastern Ukraine of at least 9,115 people killed is a conservative estimate, with the real number considered to be higher.

Implementation of the previous ceasefire accords is the only viable strategy for achieving a peaceful solution in the eastern Donbas region, which is key to resolving the human rights crisis in Ukraine, he said.

In a report issued earlier this week the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine warned that the situation remains “highly flammable” due the inflow of ammunition, weaponry and fighters from Russia into territories controlled by armed groups.

It also reported that 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.

Echoing this, Mr. Šimonović told the Security Council that local residents remain without effective protection of their rights, with places of detention maintained by the armed groups virtually inaccessible for independent oversight.

“These are the places where human rights abuses are most frequently reported, and where victims are most vulnerable,” he added, citing reports of overcrowding, insufficient nutrition, lack of adequate medical treatment, as well as of numerous cases of ill-treatment, torture and forced labour, including women mock executions, beatings and electrocution.

Referring to lack of medical care and social services, with funerals becoming unaffordable and the onset of winter and obstacles faced by humanitarian organisations potentially worsening the situation, he quoted one in Donetsk telling the Mission: “We are afraid to give birth and we are afraid to die.”

He also cited allegations of enforced disappearances, arbitrary and incommunicado detentions, torture and ill-treatment by Government forces against people suspected of supporting the two self-proclaimed republics, and called for a prompt investigation of every reported case.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson noted that the majority of provisions of the ceasefire agreements reached this year and last in Minsk, Belarus, remain unimplemented, due to divergent interpretations, including conditions for holding local elections in rebel-controlled areas, control over border areas and the departure of foreign armed groups, amnesty and “special status” constitutional changes.

“These problems threaten the whole political process,” he told the Council. “The conflict zone remains highly militarized. There is a danger of serious escalation.”

He also stressed the urgent need to tackle mines and explosives that were left after the fighting and are now the leading cause of death and injuries in eastern Ukraine. “This problem requires sustained attention, through stepped up awareness-raising, education and humanitarian mine action programmes,” he said.

“All parties must, without delay, work toward a durable political solution. Greater political will and flexibility must be demonstrated by all concerned. Millions of women, children, elderly and persons with disabilities, are directly affected on both sides of the contact line. Further delays will mean further suffering for far too many people, now hoping for a peaceful holiday season.”

Addressing the Council by link-up from the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the Director of Operations of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), John Ging, reported on his mission to eastern Ukraine.

“I witnessed the devastating impact of the conflict, in particular on the most vulnerable: the elderly and the sick: 2.7 million people are living in non-Government-controlled areas with limited freedom of movement, and 800,000 people live in difficult and dangerous conditions along the contact line between Government and non-Government-controlled areas,” he said.

“Over the past days I have seen the unacceptable physical hardships and indignities faced by people, so many of them elderly, simply trying to move about their own country to access basic services such as healthcare and pensions. People have to queue on the roadside for hours and hours to cross the contact lines, often overnight, in freezing conditions with no shelter or sanitation facilities.”

He protested “in the strongest possible terms” the suspension of humanitarian programmes and the expulsion of humanitarian actors by the de facto authorities in non-Government controlled areas.

“Closing protection, food, health, water, shelter and recovery programmes has had a devastating impact on an already vulnerable and suffering people,” he stressed.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

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

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