A letter to the United Nations Human Rights Committee to guide their upcoming review of Ukraine’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Human Rights Watch highlights key issues of concern with respect to abuses fueling Ukraine’s HIV/AIDS epidemic, including torture and other ill-treatment by police and discrimination by health care providers; the forcible return of Uzbek asylum seekers; and other violations of the rights of migrants and asylum seekers.
Re: Human Rights Committee Review of Ukraine
Dear Committee Member,
We write in advance of the upcoming Human Rights Committee (“the Committee”) review of Ukraine, to highlight a few priority areas of concern which we hope will inform your consideration of Ukraine’s compliance with the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (“the Covenant”). In preparing this letter, we have taken note of the “List of issues” drawn up by the Committee during its pre-sessional meeting in July, and wish both to offer complementary information on some of the areas already singled out for concern by the Committee, and to highlight key areas of concern not reflected in the “List of issues,” in the hope of seeing them taken up during the review.
The forcible return of Uzbek asylum seekers
We welcome the emphasis placed by the Committee, as reflected in the “List of issues,” on the forcible return of 10 Uzbek asylum seekers in February 2006. With regard to these returns, we hope that you will challenge any attempt by the government to categorize this action as anything other than refoulement, and request information as to what steps have been taken to hold accountable state agents who were responsible for returning the men.
The committee may recall that the Uzbek asylum seekers were detained February 7, 2006. On February 13, while in custody, they were informed that the migration service had denied their applications for refugee status. The Ukrainian government has claimed that the asylum seekers declined in writing their right to appeal the denial, though it is not at all clear whether this decision was made with the benefit of competent counsel. The men were deported on February 14, following a Simferopol court ruling on their deportation.
The Ukrainian government has acknowledged that the asylum seekers were denied the opportunity to appeal their asylum claim. It also acknowledges that the UN high commissioner on human rights found that Uzbek security forces committed “serious human rights violations, mainly the right to life” and that the UN special rapporteur on torture “repeatedly recognized Uzbekistan as a country, where systematic tortures are applied [sic]” and that torture is used on a massive scale against people charged with crimes against the state. Yet senior Ukrainian government officials have stated to Human Rights Watch that in deporting the 10 asylum seekers Ukraine was not in violation of its nonrefoulement obligation.
Migration and asylum policy
As noted in our prior contribution, submitted in June 2006 to feed into the pre-sessional working group discussion on Ukraine, Human Rights Watch’s report “Ukraine: On the Margins. Rights Violations against Migrants and Asylum Seekers at the New Eastern Border of the European Union” documents how migrants and asylum seekers in Ukraine are subject to routine detention in appalling conditions, face violence, robbery and extortion, are denied legal assistance, and in some cases are returned to countries where they face persecution, torture or ill-treatment.
We hope to see the Human Rights Committee use the opportunity of its upcoming consideration of Ukraine to emphasize the need for urgent improvements in Ukraine’s treatment of migrants and asylum-seekers as a key component of its obligations under the Covenant. In particular, we hope the Committee will probe the State Party on its routine practice of detaining undocumented migrants, including those with families and children. Those in custody are in many cases held in remote locations where there appear to be significant barriers to access to counsel or other means to exercise the right to challenge detention in court. We were pleased to note that the “List of issues” queries the Ukrainian government as to “the reasons for the alleged large number of foreigners in detention facilities,” and encourage you to use the opportunity of the upcoming review to ask the government the following specific follow-up questions:
1. What measures are being taken to give undocumented migrants the ability in practice to exercise their right to challenge their detention before a court of law?
2. With regard to undocumented migrants, particularly children, what alternatives to detention are currently under consideration, and what barriers exist to implementing alternatives to detention?
3. What safeguards will be put in place to ensure that detention centers meet European standards?
4. What steps will Ukraine undertake to manage the large flows of undocumented migrants where neither deportation nor voluntary repatriation is possible to avoid serial detentions?
Gender-specific job advertising
We note the welcome emphasis on gender equality in the “List of issues,” and in particular, the Committee’s concern about the low number of women in legislative and executive posts. As evidenced by our extensive research conducted in 2003, systematic discrimination against women in the recruitment and hiring processes in Ukraine is an important problem that has not received sufficient attention to date. A particularly visible and egregious aspect of this discrimination are the job advertisements that often specify gender among the list of requirements for work in businesses and government agencies, dissuading women from even attempting to apply for jobs that match their professional qualifications. We hope you will use the upcoming review of Ukraine as an opportunity to highlight concern about such advertisements, and to ask the government the following:
1. When it intends to ensure that gender-specific job advertisements are banned;
2. What measures—in the form of, for example, increased inspections or administrative measures such as fines—it plans to implement to enforce this ban;
3. What actions the Ukrainian government has taken to ensure and monitor gender equality in the state employment sector. Does it, for example, issue reports on the gender breakdown for various categories of jobs that are paid from the state budget? If so, has the government made such reports publicly available?
4. Clarification as to what Ukrainian legislation can be used for bringing sex discrimination suits, and any statistical information about the numbers of such suits brought and their result.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
We welcome the emphasis placed by the Committee on the Ukrainian government’s response to the widespread problem of police harassment and torture in the country.
In this regard, we wish to draw your attention to our research findings on HIV/AIDS-related abuses in Ukraine—detailed in a March 2006 report entitled “Rhetoric and Risk: Human Rights Abuses Impeding Ukraine’s Fight against HIV/AIDS”—a dominant feature of which were police actions that violate fundamental human rights protections against torture and other forms of ill-treatment. Our research indicates that these abuses drive those at highest risk of HIV/AIDS away from lifesaving services that the government has pledged to provide. Police in Ukraine subject drug users and sex workers to physical and psychological pressure, including severe beatings, electroshock, partial suffocation with gas masks, and threats of rape, as a means to extort money or information from them.
Our research also found that drug users in particular make especially easy targets for arrest or ill-treatment by police needing to fulfill arrest quotas. Police use drug addiction as a tool to coerce testimony from drug users, who may succumb to pressure to admit to false charges when faced with painful withdrawal symptoms in custody. Ukrainian attorneys and social workers have likewise reported that police intentionally use withdrawal as part of investigative measures to coerce incriminating testimony from drug users; extort money from drug users by threatening to detain them, forcing them to suffer withdrawal; and deny medical assistance to drug users going through withdrawal.
Another systemic factor that contributes to police abuse in Ukraine are the periodic “work plans,” which police reportedly must fulfill, creating an incentive for police to engage in torture or other abusive tactics to extract confessions from criminal suspects. In its 2002 review of Ukraine, the U.N. Committee against Torture expressed concern about “the numerous convictions based on confessions” in the country, as well as the fact that the “number of solved crimes” was among the “criteria for the promotion of investigators.” The Committee against Torture concluded that this factor “can lead to torture and ill-treatment of detainees or suspects to force them to ‘confess.’”
The expectation that police will solve a high number of crimes, and that this is a measure of police success, also encourage police to seek out easy targets for arrest. In this regard, we note that the “List of issues” asks whether particular groups, such as members of some minorities, have been most at risk in facing acts of torture and ill-treatment, and would like to draw your attention to our research indicating that drug users and sex workers are among those at particular risk of facing torture and ill-treatment for police needing to fill arrest quotas, for the reasons described above.
We were pleased to note that the Committee has specifically asked the Ukrainian government for information about concrete steps taken with respect to the exclusion of coerced statements as evidence, and encourage you in this regard to ask specifically about measures taken to ensure that statements coerced from drug users in withdrawal are excluded.
In questioning the Ukrainian government about concrete steps taken to address police harassment and torture, we also encourage you to ask about the following:
1. What steps have been taken to reform the evaluation of police performance so that the evaluation standard of effectiveness is not based on the simple counting of solved cases but instead on the impact of law enforcement activities on combating major crimes?
2. What steps have been taken to reform policies that permit or encourage police practices that cause mental and physical suffering to the victim, such as the use of drug withdrawal to coerce testimony from drug users?
3. What steps have been taken to ensure that drug users and sex workers are able to file complaints about police harassment or torture against them?
We note with concern that the “List of issues” does not contain any reference to the Ukrainian government’s response to its HIV/AIDS epidemic—the worst HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe, and one of the fastest growing epidemics in the world. As noted in our June 2006 contribution toward the Committee’s pre-sessional discussion on Ukraine, Human Rights Watch’s research in 2005 and 2006 found that Ukraine’s efforts to fight HIV/AIDS are being undermined by widespread human rights abuses against drug users, sex workers, and people living with HIV/AIDS in the criminal justice and health systems.
Police abuse of sex workers, drug users, and outreach workers violates fundamental human rights protections against torture and other forms of ill treatment as described above. In addition, police interference with the delivery of HIV prevention information (including with the provision of sterile syringes, a practice supported by Ukraine’s anti-AIDS law), and government failure to ensure access to opiate substitution therapy also violate fundamental rights to obtain HIV/AIDS information and services without fear of punishment. Impeding drug users from obtaining or using sterile syringes also amounts to imposing death as a punishment for illicit drug use, violating the fundamental right to life.
Our research also found that people living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS face widespread discrimination in the health care system. They are denied medical treatment, and face violations of their privacy by health care providers who disclose confidential information about their HIV status. Denial of care was identified by people living with HIV/AIDS, physicians specializing in AIDS care, and AIDS service workers as a particular problem for people seeking treatment at tuberculosis clinics. Tuberculosis is widespread in Ukraine, easily transmitted, and a major cause of death for people living with HIV/AIDS. Refusal to treat people living with HIV/AIDS for tuberculosis threatens to jeopardize their lives and the health of thousands of other people in Ukraine.
A more comprehensive account of these abuses can be found in our above-mentioned March 2006 report “Rhetoric and Risk: Human Rights Abuses Impeding Ukraine’s Fight against HIV/AIDS.”
It is vital that the international community convey a message to the Ukrainian authorities that makes clear that compliance with international human rights standards is critical to an effective fight against HIV/AIDS, and urge the Ukrainian leadership to address the shortcomings mentioned above that impede this fight. In that regard, we encourage the Committee to raise concern about human rights abuses that impede Ukraine’s fight against HIV/AIDS, and to formulate specific recommendations to the government to address them.
We particularly encourage the Committee to use the opportunity of the upcoming review to question the Ukrainian government about the following:
1. The concrete steps that it has taken to protect the rights of all Ukrainians, including those living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS, to HIV/AIDS information and services;
2. Measures taken to stop the unlawful use of force and other ill-treatment by police and other agents of the state against drug users and sex workers, including measures to stop interference by police and other agents of the state with HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and treatment services for drug users;
3. Measures taken to expand the scope and support for humane treatment for drug addiction, including in prisons, and including the prompt implementation of opiate substitution therapy with methadone and buprenorphine; and
4. Measures taken to ensure that drug users and people living with and at high risk of HIV/AIDS can obtain complete, accurate information about HIV/AIDS and related information and services, as well as other health services to which they are entitled, without fear of punishment or discrimination.
Thank you very much for your consideration, and with best wishes for a productive session.
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch