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(Berlin) – Ukraine’s authorities should review counterinsurgency operations in southeast Ukraine to ensure that government forces are complying with all of their obligations under international law, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President-Elect Petro Poroshenko.

Ukrainian operations have escalated in recent weeks in civilian areas, with both Ukrainian forces and antigovernment insurgents using mortars, and Ukrainian forces using a variety of other wide-surface weaponry. 

“Ukrainian forces and the antigovernment insurgents both have obligations under international law to avoid harm to local residents,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “In practical terms, that means insurgents should avoid operating in populated residential areas. But if they do, both sides have to take all feasible precautions to minimize the risk of harm to civilians.”

Human Rights Watch described damage to residents’ homes and a hospital that Human Rights Watch researchers documented in the Donetsk region between May 20 and 26, 2014, and outlined the obligations Ukrainian forces and insurgents in the southeast have under international law.

By operating in populated residential areas, insurgents may be endangering local residents because they may draw government fire. The Ukrainian government is entitled to carry out law enforcement and military operations to counter an armed insurrection. But criminal conduct by insurgents does not relieve the Ukrainian forces of their obligations to act in accordance with international law in their operations, particularly with respect to use of lethal force, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch said that in using lethal force against insurgents, Ukrainian forces must uphold obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) that protect the right to life, bodily integrity, liberty, and security, as well as the inviolability of the home. In practical terms, this means that any use of lethal force must be strictly proportionate to the operational need in countering insurgents and carried out with a view to avoiding or minimizing incidental loss of civilian life.

“As the operations in southeast Ukraine intensify, the threat to civilian lives is growing,” Williamson said. “Everyone needs to understand and act on their responsibilities to protect civilian life.”

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