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Projecting and protecting Human Rights – Ukraine

March 10, 2016

On the evening of 9th March, as the police tear gas was dispersing outside of the Russian Consulate in Odessa, in the city centre the blog was spending 2 hours with two “State” human rights policy wonks – one from within the “Beltway” and another from US Embassy Kyiv.

No specific cases of human rights wrongs were discussed – as is to be expected when bouncing policy around.

Policy options/ideas/suggestions and some creative thinking resulted – none of which can or will be repeated here.  As always the Chatham House Rule applies when meeting such people, notwithstanding the blog’s own discretion as to what appears here – or not.

However, with such an erudite readership, some (although not all) of the policy issues will appear and readers can ponder how they would deal with some of the issues discussed – and the causal effects of any decisions they reach.

Among the issues raised were the post-Soviet institutional disregard for human rights within prisons, orphanages, mental institutions etc that have not disappeared simply because other headline grabbing human rights issues are currently at the fore.  Human trafficking to, through and from Odessa remains and issue too, as does unlawful detention by the police and SBU etc.  All legacy issues simply ignored since Ukrainian independence in 1991 by consecutive political leaderships.

How to gather any constituency faith in any due process results regarding the tragedy of 2nd May in Odessa?  All official investigations are already discredited.  The ICC?  A mixed domestic/international court?  The constitutional issues with either?  Other alternatives?

How to deal with such issues effectively, and not simply throw money at the problem with no return, when rule of law in Ukraine has yet to be effectively addressed by the current national leaders?

The Crimea issue, and the human rights issues therein will not be ignored – indeed for reasons that cannot be stated here but in time will become apparent, the Crimean issues will robustly remain on the US radar and a major issue within the US Embassy Kyiv for several years to come (at least).  How to enhance monitoring, recording (both individual and systematic) incidents, and ease suffering of targeted individuals and groups?  How to preempt the outcomes of Kremlin policy failures and is there anything than can be done to deal with those consequences when they occur?

What of the occupied Donbas?

How to reach the best possible outcomes from the inevitable on-going clash between national security and human rights?

Through a wider aperture, should sanctions relating to Crimea and the occupied Donbas be coupled or decoupled?  Further, should sanctions toward the “DNR” and “LNR” be decoupled from each other?  What would any such additional degree of flexibility provide?  How would such decoupling be perceived by the numerous internal and external actors?

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What about the Human Rights Commissioner (and her office) in Ukraine?

As “good” as the new civil service law may be (if it enters into force on 1st May without prior political sabotage), it is by no means “very good” and there is a worrisome attempt to “politicise” the Human Rights office – an office that necessarily requires to be independent and a-political.

Why does the Human Rights Commissioner get no publicity?  The institution has nothing to say despite on-going legacy issues, over 1.5 million internally displaced persons that clearly have issues that the State has obligations to meet?  It would be naive to believe that there is nothing to comment upon regarding events on the front line either.

Such comments and any recommendations will of course be politically irksome for the leadership, yet the Commissioner is obliged by office, and the Ukrainian State obligated under international law, notwithstanding the constitution, to face the issues raised.

If the Commissioner is deliberately being kept out of the media, how to get them into the media?  Regular public discussions with the high profile diplomatic corps (The Pyatt’s, Waschuck’s, Gough’s and Tombinski’s) to which the media flock?  Should the human rights attachés within the embassies be doing more to push the Commissioner and/or the issues in the media?

Why is the Commissioner for Human Rights (or rather the office) not actively involved in the legislative process where certain laws being drafted will assuredly have impact upon human rights?  Should that office not be actively involved at the Verkhovna Rada committee stage, rather than allowing poor legislation to pass?  It may be civil society is actively involved in such a process, so why not the official domestic human rights body?

How to garner meaningful support for the human rights body from a President, Prime Minister and Cabinet of Ministers that have been far from supportive?  How to strengthen and promote the human rights body if that support remains absent?  Should specific aid components be conditional upon not only defending, but enhancing the role of the official domestic human rights body?

How many Ukrainians know what their human rights actually are (rather than what they may think they are)?  How many know the name of their Commissioner for Human Rights (Ms. Valeriya Lutkovska) and what powers the office holds?

Why are there no regional offices for the Commissioner of Human Rights?

What about education programmes, summer camps?  Should international agencies be more outspoken and/or more supportive of the Commissioner and office?  How feasible the entry of an external human rights “big hitter/name” being brought into the Ukrainian domestic body, and if so, what impact can be expected?

Should the officer of Commissioner for Human Rights hold more powers?  In tinkering with the legislation to grant more powers, can the certain inevitable attempts to politicise that power be roundly defeated?

The circumstances Ukraine has endured for the past few years, and which see no real end in sight, will see a tsunami of human rights issues that the post-Soviet capabilities of the institutions simply will not be able to ignore (as much as that policy has historically been the case) – or cope with – far beyond current events, unless a weak institution (which is in no way a reflection on the capable Valeriya Lutkovska) is made robust enough to not only cope in a reactionary manner, but act preemptively too.

How to frame any or all of this?  Further “failings” of the current Ukrainian leadership, or simply as “institutional strengthening” continuing along the rule of law path upon which external supporters have already invested significant political and diplomatic time and energy (and money)?

These and other policy questions were raised and answered, often with several possible answers.  Some of those answers will be the same as those reached by the erudite readership of the blog – and some perhaps won’t.

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