Ukraine is about more than Yulia Tymoshenko and a soccer tournament. That is surely running through the minds of Ukrainian officials as the European football championships, hosted by Ukraine and Poland, start.
Weeks of negative publicity on why Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, is in prison and how she is being treated, have taken their toll on the country's image. And media reports about racist violence at Ukraine soccer matches have raised concerns over Kiev's preparedness for the tournament itself.
These issues deserve all the attention they have received. On Tymoshenko, the government should urgently address the concerns that her prosecution and conviction were politically motivated – and worries about similar vendettas against some of her former government allies.
Yet it is important to keep a wider focus on the human-rights landscape. Such a broad perspective is also vital for Kiev's Western partners, especially the European Union and the United States. Good relations between Ukraine and the West are important for both sides. Kiev is not meeting key international human rights obligations, and the EU and the US can use both carrots and sticks to encourage action.
Many of Ukraine's human-rights problems predate the administration of President Viktor Yanukovych. He is certainly not off the hook, but it is clear that another shift in the political power balance – say, after the October parliamentary – would not necessarily solve all problems.
Three diverse issues – gay rights, the situation of migrants and asylum-seekers, and the rights of cancer patients to access pain-killing drugs – highlight these wider challenges.
Homosexuality has been officially legal in Ukraine since 1991, but Ukraine has no laws against discrimination due to sexual orientation. Activists' efforts to hold their first Gay Pride rally in Kiev last month were dashed when police warned of possible attacks by right-wing thugs but appeared unwilling to protect the march.
Parliament is also considering a private members' bill to impose prison terms on people guilty of spreading the “propaganda of homosexuality” – providing information about gay issues to anyone in Ukraine.
As with similar laws in five major Russian regions, it would limit freedom of speech and assembly and threaten the health of those seeking vital information affecting their lives, such as on HIV and AIDS. Several ruling-party legislators support the bill, which violates Ukraine's international human-rights commitments, and which activists worry could move towards adoption before parliamentary elections this autumn.
On migrant rights, Ukraine has been struggling for years with its status as a transit country on the EU's external border. A hunger strike over lack of fair assessment of their asylum claims by Somalis in February – broken up violently by police – triggered international headlines but was the tip of the iceberg in terms of the plight of tens of thousands of migrants, and Ukraine authorities' inadequate responses.
Half the migrants in Ukraine interviewed for a recent Human Rights Watch report said that police and border guards had beaten – in some cases tortured – them. Ukraine's asylum system is dysfunctional, without a fair process to assess refugee claims. Despite this, the EU has a deal with Kiev to return migrants who entered via Ukraine, and regularly does so, despite often appalling treatment and lack of meaningful protection.
Ukraine is also failing on its obligation to provide basic health care – in particular pain relief – to up to 80,000 cancer patients every year. Vlad Zhukovsky, a patient with a brain tumour tried to commit suicide due to pain, and said afterward: “I wanted to fall head down [out of the window] and be dead right away so it wouldn't hurt anymore.”
As in most former Soviet countries, restrictive drug policies that block adequate access to medicines like morphine and a lack of training of healthcare workers result in many patients – especially in rural areas – suffering unnecessarily from severe cancer pain. Amendments to existing laws could make an immediate difference for many patients and their families.
Ukraine has been open to addressing some of these issues. A law signed by Yanukovych last month removes provisions that enabled officials to forcibly return asylum-seekers to their home countries. And the government says it is working on regulatory reforms on pain relief.
Ukraine deserves support – and close monitoring – of such efforts. Genuine steps to tackle other rights abuses – police mistreatment, even torture, of detainees, threats against civil-society activists, and pressure on the media – would be further signs of progress. For Ukraine's international partners, any enhancement of relations, such as new agreements between the EU and Ukraine, needs a strong human-rights component, including benchmarks for progress with timelines for implementation.
There is plenty for both sides to work on – also after the final whistle at the European soccer final in Kiev on 1 July.
Hugh Williamson is director of the Europe and central Asia division of Human Rights Watch and is based in Berlin.