Opposition supporters take part in a rally in front of the Parliament building in Kiev on November 7, 2013.

©2013 Reuters

(Brussels) – The European Union should ensure that human rights are at the core of its relationships with the countries involved in the Eastern Partnership. On November 28 and 29, 2013, the EU will convene a summit of its eastern neighbors in Vilnius, at which it is expected to lay the foundation for deeper political and economic ties with several partnership countries.
 

The EU’s Eastern Partnership is a series of initiatives that seek to deepen political and economic integration with six post-Soviet countries – Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. The EU has said that a shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights forms the core of the Eastern Partnership policies. On November 18 the EU will decide whether to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine at the summit.

“As the summit leaders get together in Vilnius, the EU should be very clear that it is serious about human rights,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tangible improvements in rights, not vague promises to tackle problems later, should serve as the basis for closer political and economic ties between the EU and its eastern partners.”

The EU’s eastern partners have diverse records, but all have a wide range of human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said. The EU’s approach to these countries should be principled and consistent, no matter what particular framework for relations it ultimately chooses for each of them.

In June 2012, EU foreign ministers adopted a landmark EU Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy, pledging to promote human rights, democracy, and the rule of law across all areas of the EU’s external actions, saying that human rights will be promoted “without exception” and placed “at the center of its relations with all third countries.”

In recent years, the EU has been negotiating Association Agreements with all of the Eastern Partnership countries, with the exception of Belarus. An Association Agreement is a legal framework for deeply integrated relations with the EU, which include a new comprehensive free trade agreement and the possibility for easing visa rules.

The EU has repeatedly stated that each country’s pace of democratic reforms and commitment to shared values would determine the intensity of cooperation with the EU.

Ukraine and the EU initialed an Association Agreement in March 2012. But after Ukraine’s 2012 parliamentary elections, which the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) said lacked transparency, the EU required the Ukrainian government to address several human rights concerns before the Association Agreement could go forward. These included stopping politically motivated prosecutions of former top government officials – including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – and ensuring that they do not happen again. They also included ensuring fair and transparent elections and judicial reform.

An EU report assessing Ukraine’s progress on selective justice is likely to be published next week.

Protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from discrimination and violence, reforming the country’s deeply flawed asylum system, and protecting media freedom are all crucial human rights problems that need to be addressed in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said.

“Ending selective justice in Ukraine and ensuring electoral and judiciary reform are important issues but there are other, crucial human rights problems in Ukraine the EU will need to address in the course of its relationship with Ukraine,”  Williamson said. 

The EU has closely tied movement toward Association Agreements to progress in governance and human rights, among other areas. It has issued annual reports on each country’s progress in addressing a series of human rights and governance issues and held out the promise of “more for more”: more integration with the EU as more progress was made on governance and other issues.

Georgia and Moldova are expected to initial Association Agreements at the summit. The EU’s 2013 progress report on Georgia highlighted the need to ensure the independence of the judiciary, avoid selective justice, and increase accountability and democratic oversight of law enforcement agencies.

In September Armenia’s president, Serzh Sargsyan, stunned many when he announced Armenia would sign a customs agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, effectively ruling out signing an Association Agreement. The EU had expected Armenia to initial the Association Agreement at the Partnership Summit. Instead, Armenia may sign a statement on cooperation with the EU in a variety of fields.

Negotiations between the EU and Azerbaijan over an Association Agreement have been stalled since early 2013.The EU had grown increasingly frustrated at the Azerbaijani government’s lack of progresson human rights and rule of law issues, while the Azerbaijani government made clear it was interested in a different framework for relations that would eschew human rights conditions and reflect what it sees as the country’s geostrategic importance. For the past year the Azerbaijani government has carried out a broad-ranging and unprecedented crackdown on political activists and other critics, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s not at all surprising that the Azerbaijani government wants to keep human rights out of its relationship with the EU,” said Williamson. “But the EU will need to stick to its principles.”

Although Belarus participates in the European Partnership, due to the government’s persistently abysmal human rights record, the EU has not sought to deepen ties with the country. Progress on EU visa facilitation and other agreements remains stalled over Belarus’ failure to release political prisoners or to improve its overall human rights situation. For much of the past decade, the EU has maintained economic sanctions, against Belarus, currently amounting to visa bans and asset freezes against 232 Belarusian officials and 25 entities with links to repression.

The EU suspended the visa ban on the Belarus foreign minister so that he could meet with EU officials in July. In October, following an annual review, the EU extended restrictive measures against Belarus until October 2014. 

The EU should maintain its sanctions on Belarus until all political prisoners are released and the rule of law has improved, Human Rights Watch said.

“It’s obvious that the leaders travel to Vilnius with varied agendas, ambitions, and objectives, but a shared commitment to human rights should not be negotiable, Williamson said.

Human Rights Watch Summary of Concerns in Select Eastern Partnership Countries

Armenia
National elections in recent years have been flawed, and the February 2013 presidential election, won by Sargsyan, the incumbent, was no exception. International observers said it was “generally well-administered,” but with “some serious violations.” These included political bias on the part of public officials, misuse of administrative resources, voter harassment, and interference by the incumbent’s proxies.

The failure to investigate violent attacks against peaceful protesters by unidentified assailants, and a number of noncombat deaths in the military are also troubling. In August and September there was a spate of attacks against peaceful protesters in the capital, Yerevan, apparently intended to discourage participation in protests.

Local human rights defenders say that torture and ill-treatment in police custody persist. Authorities often refuse to investigate allegations of ill treatment or pressure victims to retract complaints. Police use torture to coerce confessions and incriminating statements from suspects and witnesses. The definition of torture in Armenian law does not meet international standards.

Broadcast media lacks pluralism and there have been several instances of violence and harassment against journalists and media workers. Violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation is a serious problem.

Azerbaijan
The Azerbaijani government’s record on freedom of expression, assembly, and association, poor to begin with, has grown much worse in recent  years. The authorities have arrested dozens of political activists on bogus charges, imprisoned critical journalists, broken up peaceful public demonstrations, and adopted legislation that further restricts fundamental freedoms. This crackdown was the backdrop for the October 2013 presidential election, in which the incumbent, President Ilham Aliyev, was re-elected for a third term with 86 percent of votes. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which monitors elections in the region, harshly criticized the election for failing to meet international standards, although some international observers were less critical.

In 2013 alone, the authorities used a range of spurious charges, including narcotics and weapons possession, hooliganism, incitement, and even treason, to imprison political activists critical of the government. These included several high-ranking opposition political party members, such as Ilgar Mammadov, chair of the opposition group REAL, and Tofig Yagublu, Musavat party deputy chief, arrested in February on charges related to inciting violence. Others detained include seven members of the youth movement NIDA in March and April on spurious charges of drugs possession and inciting violence. All are on trial in Baku.

Despite Azerbaijan’s commitments to decriminalize defamation, in May the parliament amended a law expanding the definition of slander and insult to specifically include content on the Internet. At least five journalists have been arrested or convicted in 2013 on spurious criminal charges in apparent retaliation for critical and investigative journalism.

Belarus
Belarus remains a highly repressive country in which the authorities suppress virtually all forms of dissent and use restrictive legislation and abusive practices to impede freedoms of association and assembly.Involvement in an unregistered group constitutes a criminal offense, punishable by up to two years in prison. The country’s laws provide for a wide range of grounds to deny registration to nongovernmental organizations, effectively forcing these groups to function on the margins of the law. Unregistered groups are not able to rent office space officially and are frequently raided by the state security services.

Most media are state-controlled and the authorities harass the few independent journalists and outlets that remain. Journalists are routinely arrested and detained arbitrarily. Since the beginning of 2013, police have arrested 22 journalists who were covering public protests. One of the country’s top human rights leaders, Ales Bialiatsky, has been in prison since 2011, convicted of politically motivated charges of tax evasion. Nine additional political prisoners remain jailed.  Others who have been released continue to face restrictions ranging from travel limitations to being placed on law enforcement agencies’ “watch lists.”

The Belarusian government consistently refuses to cooperate with the special rapporteur on Belarus established by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2012. In 2011, following the highly criticized presidential elections of December 2010, Belarusian authorities refused to extend the mandate of the OSCE mission in Minsk.

Belarus remains the only country in Europe that still uses the death penalty.

Georgia
October 2013 presidential elections, positively assessed by international observers, completed a peaceful transition of power in Georgia. Investigations into torture and ill-treatment in custody are slow and lack transparency. In June courts convicted and sentenced to prison 14 former prison officials implicated in beatings and torture in prison revealed in videos that were published in 2012.

Investigations by the country’s current government into more than 20,000 complaints about alleged abuses under the previous administration of President Mikheil Saakashvili have raised some concerns of selective justice. The authorities have charged 35 former officials, 14 of whom are in custody, with abuse of office, embezzlement, false arrest, and other offences.

The authorities did not explain the criteria they used to determine which cases to investigate, and prosecutors questioned more than 6,000 people in investigating these cases, mostly activists with the United National Movement, Saakashvili’s political party.

Police have not adequately responded to several violent incidents against religious minorities and LGBT people. Since November 2012, Orthodox Christian communities in several villages in Georgia have prevented Muslims from holding religious services. Although the prime minister made several public statements condemning the violence, little action has been taken to hold the offenders accountable. 

On May 17, 2013, a peaceful gathering to mark International Day against Homophobia was violently disrupted by thousands of counter-demonstrators, including some clergy of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Police had to evacuate the LGBT activists to safety, but they failed to contain anti-LGBT protestors, who attacked a van carrying the activists, throwing stones and other objects.

Identoba, a Georgian LGBT rights group, reported 34 incidents of violence and intimidation against LGBT people during and after the May 17 incident. The group noted that many victims do not report homophobic violence due to fear of retribution and police failure to investigate adequately.

Ukraine
Ukraine’s human rights situation is marred by many concerns, including government restrictions on the media freedom,  discrimination against the LGBT community, lack of regulations ensuring effective provision of palliative care, and a deeply flawed asylum system.

Violence against journalists is on the rise. Thirty-five journalists were attacked in the first six months of 2013, more than twice as many as during the same period in 2012.

Two laws before the parliament aim to penalize “promoting” homosexuality to children with heavy fines or prison terms of up to six years.

Bill No. 0945 “On amendments to legislative acts concerning the protection of children’s rights to a safe information space” proposes to ban any production, printing, distribution, or publication of content “promoting” homosexuality; the use of any media to “promote” homosexuality; and the import, production, or distribution of creative writing, cinematography, or video materials “promoting” homosexuality.

Bill No. 1155 “On the prohibition of propaganda of homosexual relations aimed at children” defines “propaganda of homosexuality” as “intentional activity, which aims to and is expressed in dissemination of any positive information about same-sex sex relations that could negatively affect … the development of the child.”

Certain breaches of both draft laws constitute criminal offense and can lead to fines or prison sentences. If enacted, the laws would violate Ukraine’s international obligations to prohibit discrimination and protect the rights to expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

In February the Cabinet of Ministers proposed Labor Code amendments introducing sexual orientation as protected grounds against discrimination, but parliament twice postponed consideration of the amendments. Adoption of the labor code amendments are a requirement for EU visa liberalization.

A significant rise in attacks by nationalist groups on LGBT groups and individuals remains a serious concern. Police investigations into these attacks rarely yield results. 

Ukraine’s asylum system remains deeply flawed. Despite 2011 changes to the refugee law, asylum seekers often encounter barriers to accessing asylum procedures, face prolonged periods of administrative detention, and have difficulty challenging their detention or appealing court expulsion decisions. Ukraine’s refugee recognition rates have been declining. Because of flaws in the asylum system, there is no effective protection against refoulement, returning people to countries where they risk torture or other persecution, although there were no known new cases in 2013.

Every year, tens of thousands of people in Ukraine develop severe, chronic pain due to cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other health conditions. The government took important steps in May to improve care for these patients by approving local production of oral morphine and adopting new drug control regulations that significantly simplify prescription of strong pain medications.

As of September, however, the Health Ministry had not put the new norms into effect, limiting patients’ access to essential medications. The expansion of opioid drug dependence treatment has also slowed considerably. Just 7,500 patients were receiving opiate substitution treatment, far short of the 20,000 approved in the National HIV/AIDS Program. Opiate substitution treatment remains unavailable in prisons, which hold many injecting drug users.