Ukraine: UN experts urge accountability for human rights violations by foreign fighters

Men from the village of Nikishine in Donetsk, Ukraine are covering the roof with UNHCR plastic sheet delivered by Czech NGO People in Need. Photo: Iva Zimova, People in Need

22 March 2016 – Today in Geneva, the United Nations Working Group on mercenaries called on the Government of Ukraine to ensure accountability for human rights violations committed by foreign armed actors during the conflict that has plagued the country since 2014.

“What is particularly concerning is that with the diverse array of foreign armed actors who joined the conflict, reports on human rights violations by these individuals have not been properly investigated or brought to justice,” said Patricia Arias, who formed the Group with co-human rights expert Saeed Mokbil.

The Group's delegation expressed deep concern about allegations of mercenaries joining all sides to the conflict, which they stressed was clearly prohibited under international law.

“To date, foreign fighters have been prosecuted for various crimes including terrorist-related offences, but no prosecutions have been in relation to the human rights violations that took place,” Ms. Arias said.

At the end of an official five-day visit to the country, the experts revealed that human rights violations had reportedly been committed at the hands of not only mercenaries, but also other foreign fighters, ranging from volunteers to paid service men and women, and independent militia members to professional military.

The Ukraine authorities informed the expert group that at least 176 identified foreigners were serving in armed groups of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics, which reportedly include large numbers from Russia, Serbia, Belarus, France and Italy, among others. Women were also among the combatants, though in a significantly smaller extent.

“Although we received much information pointing to several levels of foreigner engagement in the armed conflict in Ukraine, the lack of coherent information on payments and the motivations of fighters make it difficult for us to ascertain which fighters are mercenaries,” noted Mr. Mokbil.

In 2015, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted legal amendments permitting the inclusion of foreigners and stateless persons to serve in its regular armed forces and its National Guard, including those who fought in the volunteer battalions during the conflict.

“However, impunity for human rights violations remains largely unquestioned, paving the way for a murky zone with negligible accountability,” Mr. Mokbil said. “We urge the Government of Ukraine to ensure accountability for violations that have been instigated by all parties to the conflict, to ensure justice for victims.”

Working Group's Recommendations

The Working Group reiterated the need to draw up a strategy on foreign engagement in the conflict, within the framework of the Minsk Protocol – the 2014 agreement to halt armed hostilities in certain districts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Highlighting provision 10, which obliges all sides of the conflict to withdraw illegal armed formations, military equipment and mercenaries, the experts also requested its full implementation by the Government.

They further urged “all parties to the conflict to fulfil their obligations under international human rights law and ensure respect for all civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights with respect to the activities of foreigners in armed groups.”

According to the press release, the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv and the 16 March 2014 referendum in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea – determined by the UN General Assembly on the territorial integrity of Ukraine – were followed by the outbreak of armed hostilities in eastern Ukraine that brought an influx of fighters from abroad, significantly influencing human rights in the country.

From 14 to 18 March, the delegation met Government authorities, parliamentarians, judicial officials, civil society organizations and members of the diplomatic corps along with representatives of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk people's republic.'

The lack of concrete information on the profile of foreign armed actors was a challenge for the fact-finding visit. While the expert group did not discover any particular data on private military companies – currently prohibited by Ukrainian law – it called for this sector to be regulated to prevent potential human rights violations.

The UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries will present its visit report to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016.

News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Ukraine: growing despair among over three million civilians in conflict zone – UN report

Related Stories

In-depth Interviews