Yesterday Russia’s ambassador to the UN asked the UN to issue as a UN document the Russian Foreign Ministry’s “White Book” of allegations of human rights violations committed by the Ukrainian government, which it published last week.
To be sure, there is a critical need for human rights violations in Ukraine to be rigorously documented and effectively addressed. Although the book is deficient in its methodology and rigor, Moscow is trying to give it the prestige of a being a UN document.
In my 23 years documenting human rights violations for Human Rights Watch, I have learned the importance of methodological rigor to ensure the credibility of the allegations we make. Without that rigor, claims of abuse are too easily dismissed as “politicized,” the responsible party won’t take you seriously, and the abuses won’t be addressed.
The bulk of Foreign Ministry’s volume is a listing of genuinely frightening incidents —violent attacks, threats, and the like--but which for the most part provide no information about their source. The White Book’s introduction says that it is based on “media reports as well as records based on observations and interviews with people on the scene, and records collected by the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights and the Foundation for Researching Problems in Democracy.”
Fair enough. But for the report to be taken seriously, it needs to be much more transparent about if and when these organizations were on the ground, how many people were deployed and where, how many interviews they conducted and with whom (taking care, of course, not to compromise the safety of interviewees), whether anyone tried to get responses from the interim authorities regarding the status of investigations, and the like. There should also be some indication about which of the incidents listed are unquestioned reprints from sources such as news articles or social media and which were subjected to scrutiny, or confirmation; and which are based on first-or second-person interviews.
A few of the incidents have been documented by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch—for example the promulgation of unjust laws banning certain individuals from holding public office the very public and violent threats against the head of Ukraine’s Channel 1 broadcaster. Others have been highlighted by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, such as the summary deportation of Russian journalists, shuttering of broadcasts of some Russian Federation television stations, and threats against journalists.
Some of the incidents in the compendium may indeed be crimes, including serious crimes, but are wrongly categorized as human rights violations—these include the seizure of buildings by Maidan activists and street fighters from December through February, the violent ousting of Viktor Yanukovich; the defacing of public statues. Several pages are devoted to descriptions of the kinds of weapons street fighters used to fight riot police during the January and February battles in Kiev—not at all a human rights issue, but interesting reading, especially because this was the only section that was clearly based on interviews. It is not clear whether other parts of the report were also based on these interviews.
It is one thing to produce a compendium of press clippings or allegations. But is another to, without supporting documentation, claim, as the volume’s conclusion does, that the compendium “clearly demonstrates… widespread and gross violations of human rights and freedoms on the part of the self-proclaimed [Kiev] government and its supporters.”
The volume is intentionally one sided, because in the Foreign Ministry’s view, the world is ignoring this side of the story. It is one thing to be honest about one’s intentions. But it is quite another to claim the incidents compiled in the volume, even if they all turn out to be documented and true, would be solely responsible for a “situation that may erupt into a serious threat to regional peace and security and lead to further escalation.” Any compendium that seeks to identify and address threats to regional peace and security would need to establish the credibility of its sources and look at both sides.