September 2014: Burnt out rocket launchers and the remains of munitions lie amongst the rubble of a Ukrainian Armed Forces field camp near Dmitrivka in the north of Lugansk Oblast, Ukraine. (c) Jan A. Nicolas/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Human rights don’t exist in a warzone. The conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas region is now in its fourth year. Ukrainian civil society, human rights activists and international organisations such as the UN and OSCE are trying to solve and stabilise the situation. But despite the fact there is only one conflict, there are different views on how to resolve it. There are also different views regarding the territories controlled by illegal armed groups under the guise of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic”.
Currently, the OSCE and UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission operate in the territory of Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in the Donbas. The UN’s mission is to monitor the general situation in the ATO zone. The OSCE monitors and records violations in the Donbas, as well as acts as a mediator in negotiations. According to Ukrainian human rights defenders who regularly travel to the conflict zone in order to document human rights violations, representatives of the OSCE don’t always record instances where Ukrainian sovereignty is violated, as well as evidence of Russian state aggression. What is the reason for this: a lack of desire to recognise the obvious fact of war? Or is it something else?
In my view, the key point of contention between human rights defenders and peacebuilders at the UN and OSCE has to do with the shift in emphasis from external aggression to internal conflict. While rights defenders are recording violations of sovereignty and international law, the UN and OSCE are trying to “build peace”.
International organisations and the European community prefer to see the conflict in Ukraine as a largely internal one, rather than admit that there needs to be harsher resistance to the real aggressor, the Russian Federation. Peacekeeping organisations still popularise the idea that there are “pro-Ukrainian Ukrainians” and “pro-Russian Ukrainians”, with the former wanting to join Europe while the latter - Russia. For them, one of the solutions to the conflict is helping Ukrainian citizens reconcile their differences with one another, establishing a dialogue within the country and holding mediation meetings with Ukrainian citizens who have found themselves on the opposite sides of the conflict. They see the Transnistria scenario in Moldova as a possible model for resolution. Stopping the violence and creating peace is the top priority.
The Minsk Protocols have failed to significantly influence the situation
Does this scenario satisfy human rights defenders and volunteers who travel to the ATO? I don’t think so. Human rights defenders are more categorical in their thinking: for them, the fact that Ukrainian sovereignty has been violated is an undeniable fact. Likewise, international law is not being enforced and is, in fact, in crisis. After Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, it gave up its nuclear weapons under pressure from the US and Russia (at that moment, Ukraine had the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal) in exchange for safety guarantees should its sovereignty be threatened. The US, Russia, Great Britain, France and China all signed up to guarantee Ukraine’s safety. Today, this memorandum exists on paper only, while the guarantors are trying to pretend that nothing’s happening.
The Minsk Protocols have failed to significantly influence the situation. Ukrainian rights activists continue to record numerous human rights violations, inhumane treatment (especially toward both military and civilian prisoners), violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and open acts of aggression by the Russian Federation. According to international accords, civilians cannot be tortured and cannot be held prisoner during times of war. Yet the situation in the Donbas testifies to the opposite: local residents are regularly detained by armed groups whose actions are controlled from Russia. Long negotiations on prisoner exchanges take place, but they are not always successful.
According to Ukrainian rights activists, the most important thing is to try and influence the real cause of destabilisation of the Donbas — Russian aggression. Financial support and arms shipments to the self-proclaimed “DNR” and “LNR” must stop. These so-called republics will shut down should they no longer have resources. At the very least, there is a high degree of probability that this will happen, Ukrainian rights activists tell me.
We have a lot of speculation, propaganda and diplomatic games related to the Donbas
The current situation is further complicated by the fact that the Ukrainian government, after all of these years of war, is afraid to (or else simply doesn’t want to) officially recognise Russia’s armed aggression. This is why it calls its campaign an “Anti-Terrorist Operation”. Thankfully, there aren’t any terrorists in Ukraine. Instead, we have a lot of speculation, propaganda and diplomatic games related to the Donbas.
The Ukrainian parliament recently voted to approve the President Poroshenko’s law on Donbas reintegration in its first reading. This legislation involves officially recognising the Russian Federation’s armed aggression on Ukrainian territory, as well as Russian occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine.
Discussions between Ukrainian MPs are yet to die down. Our parliamentarians are now speculating on the Minsk Protocols and whether they should be referred to in the text of the new legislation or not. Those who are for inclusion of the protocols argue that this will enable Ukraine to call in UN peacekeepers and seal the border. Those against it point out that their inclusion will “conserve Putin’s aggression”.
In Ukraine’s human rights community, people are also discussing this topic. Here, the introduction of a UN peacekeeping force is seen as a necessary step. The discussion also includes the following question: should UN peacekeeping forces be stationed on the border between Russia and Ukraine or on the border between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed “republics” too?
Every day, civilians held hostage by the current situation —real people with real stories — are dying in the war or because of it
Will the UN’s blue helmets arrive in Ukraine and will the Donbas duplicate the experience of Transnistria? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, as Ukrainian MPs argue about how to reintegrate the Donbas and international organisations engage in so-called peace-building, the Russian Federation illegally transports coal out of the Donbas and showcases new feats of propaganda.
Every day, civilians held hostage by the current situation — real people with real stories — are dying in the war or because of it. “DNR” and “LNR” militants still target Ukrainian military personnel and the civilian population with shelling.
While diplomatic games continue to be played, Ukraine suffers from economic and human losses. Thousands of Ukrainian servicemen return home with post-traumatic stress syndrome, with mangled bodies and souls. Millions of people have lost their homes and were forced to abandon their native Donetsk and Luhansk.
The only way out for Ukraine is this: openly resist Russia after officially recognising an armed invasion and urging everyone involved to take responsibility for the consequences, as well as real reforms in the country, not to mention a realistic information policy to counter Russian propaganda.