Human Rights Watch believes that your election and the formation of a new government mark an important opportunity to break with past shortcomings in Ukraine’s respect for human rights. We urge you to seize this opportunity, and embark on legislative and policy reform and the promotion of practices that will firmly establish, as a central feature of your administration, the full enjoyment of human rights by all people in Ukraine.

Human Rights Watch believes that your election and the formation of a new government mark an important opportunity to break with past shortcomings in Ukraine’s respect for human rights. We urge you to seize this opportunity, and embark on legislative and policy reform and the promotion of practices that will firmly establish, as a central feature of your administration, the full enjoyment of human rights by all people in Ukraine.

Your campaign focused on the need for governance reform in Ukraine. Your election was secured precisely because the rule of law was upheld, arbitrary actions of public servants were repudiated, and the government did not interfere with people’s exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Their right to choose their leaders in genuine elections was ultimately heeded. You yourself repeatedly called on the public to assert these rights. You have also been the victim of what appears to have been state-sponsored violence, in the form of the poisoning from which we wish you a speedy and full recovery. We hope that you will now act decisively on your promise of reform so that Ukraine quickly leaves behind the environment that has allowed arbitrariness and state violence to flourish. Your own experience is a vivid example of the importance of respect for human rights, and the need for a robust institutional framework and culture of accountability to ensure that respect.

This letter outlines four human rights problems that affect the everyday lives of millions of people in Ukraine: compromised media freedoms, torture and ill- treatment, human rights and HIV-AIDS, and sex discrimination in the workplace. We ask that your government prioritize progress in these issue areas following your inauguration.

Guaranteeing Media Freedom
The climate surrounding the election campaign leading up to the October and November voting showed the varied state of media freedoms. Our research found the situation to be poor in eastern regions of Ukraine, where almost all media outlets are under direct or indirect control of local governments. In 2003, Human Rights Watch reported on how previous governments in Ukraine have exercised undue influence over media outlets’ coverage of the news, including through the use of the so called temniki—instructions to news editors detailing what stories should be covered and how. We found that in the face of increasing pressures from editors to report in specific ways on a limited number of topics, television journalists in particular had increasingly resorted to self-censorship rather than face arguments with top editors, negative reactions from the presidential authorities, or the loss of their jobs and careers.

Previous steps to address press freedom problems—most notably the law defining censorship and criminalizing government interference with the press—have not proved to be genuine attempts to ensure press freedom.

Human Rights Watch researchers were in Ukraine analyzing the state of media freedom in the run-up to the December 26 re-run election. We found a change in atmosphere compared to the period before the invalidated November ballot. But this change was hardly a reflection of any newfound commitment by the authorities to freedom of information and expression so much as a calculation on the part of many media outlets about which way the political winds were blowing. Government control and persecution of individual journalists continued in some parts of the country.

We hope you will foster an environment in which journalists no longer feel compelled to resort to self-censorship in order to avoid professional retribution. We urge your government to undertake sustained and effective measures to prevent and punish remaining forms of informal censorship, to eliminate arbitrary administrative and legal actions against television stations and other media outlets, and to end harassment of and violence against journalists. Ownership of media outlets should be made more transparent.

We also call on your government to order a full, independent investigation into the murder of the journalist Georgiy Gongadze.

Preventing Torture and Ill-treatment in Police Detention and Prisons
Your country’s human rights ombudsman receives numerous complaints of torture from criminal suspects, and has estimated that each year 30 percent of all detainees may become victims of torture or ill-treatment by law enforcement agents. Ill-treatment has resulted in permanent physical damage to many victims, and in the most severe cases, resulted in death. In the vast majority of cases, the perpetrators of torture are not investigated or prosecuted for their crimes.

We recommend that your government evaluate the degree to which law and practice related to pretrial custody fully guarantee the rights of persons deprived of their liberty. In particular, we ask that the government take legal and practical measures to ensure immediate access to counsel from the moment of detention. There is also a need for more rigorous enforcement of the criminal procedure code provision that custody pending trial be considered an exceptional measure, rather than routine practice.

Your government should ensure that the Ministry of Internal Affairs issues instructions calling on all police officers to strictly observe due process when detaining people. Police should be prevented from using administrative detention as a means of detaining individuals when there are no sufficient grounds for holding them as criminal suspects.

Prison conditions in Ukraine continue to be poor: prisons are overcrowded, and prisoners have insufficient access to food and health care. Tuberculosis is widespread. We urge your government to devote appropriate attention and resources to this problem.

Combating the Spread of HIV/AIDS
Sadly, Ukraine has one of the fastest growing HIV/AIDS epidemics in the world, and human rights violations are fuelling its growth. Your government should put in place a plan of action to combat the widespread discrimination against members of high-risk groups—injection drug users, sex workers, prisoners, and men who have sex with men—that prevents many of them from seeking HIV prevention services, and thus increases their risk of contracting the disease.

The previous government made a welcome commitment to fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing care to those affected, and we hope that your government will proceed with earlier plans to provide treatment for people with AIDS that will include generic antiretroviral drugs. Additional measures are necessary if antiretroviral therapy is to be effective and the epidemic stemmed. A government plan of action on HIV/AIDS needs to include combating the resistance shown by Ukraine's law enforcement bodies to allowing the use of methadone, which is legal in Ukraine.
Methadone is widely regarded as one of the most effective means of treating opiate dependency. It is a central element of HIV prevention in most countries since it enables heroin users to stop injecting, and it is a major tool in supporting adherence to antiretroviral therapy for opiate users living with AIDS.

Women’s Equality in the Workplace
Human Rights Watch reported in 2003 on severe discrimination women face in Ukraine’s workforce. Our ongoing analysis suggests that discrimination continues to be practiced by public and private sector employers. Women’s access to high paying or high prestige jobs is limited in both the public and private sector due to discriminatory recruitment practices. Many women are forced into lower paying jobs or remain jobless (women make up 80 percent of the unemployed in Ukraine). Your government has an obligation to stop such discrimination by government-run employment centers and set up monitoring and other mechanisms to remedy private-sector employment discrimination. It should develop a plan of action to address and prevent discrimination against women in the labor force. We hope you will lead an effort to implement such a plan of action by publicly and forcefully condemning discrimination against women in all recruitment practices and ensuring that such discrimination is outlawed and penalized. The Ukrainian labor code should be brought into harmony with international and European Union standards on nondiscrimination and equal treatment in employment, including in access to employment. The Verkhovna Rada should also enact legislation explicitly prohibiting gender specifications in job advertising.

Frustration with the lack of employment opportunities at home, and the consequent resort to leaving the country to seek work, are major factors contributing to many Ukrainian women becoming victims of trafficking into forced labor abroad, including forced sex work. Previous governments of Ukraine have made progress in reducing human trafficking through increased prosecution of suspected traffickers and programs to help victims. We hope that your government will be energetic in pursuing the fight against human trafficking.

Our program of research on Ukraine continues, and we will shortly be addressing your government again on matters relating to immigration and asylum policy particularly within the context of Ukraine’s relations with the European Union.

We thank you for your attention to the concerns in this letter and welcome a constructive dialogue with your government about promoting human rights in Ukraine.

Yours sincerely,

Rachel Denber
Acting Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division