German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s trip to Ukraine this coming Saturday will be seen as an important sign of support for President Petro Poroshenko. This will mark her first visit to Kiev since the outbreak of the numerous crises, including the Russian-supported armed insurgency in the east. As such, Ukrainian expectations are high.
It is crucially important for the German chancellor to condemn, loudly and clearly, the serial arrests of Russian journalists in Ukraine. She should urge the government to clarify the whereabouts of Andrei Stenin, a Russian photographer for Rossiya Segodnya who went missing in eastern Ukraine on August 5. She should also condemn the actions of extremists like parliamentarian Oleh Liashkho, who has repeatedly abducted and abused people accused of involvement with the insurgency.
Merkel’s visit is an opportunity for her to denounce violations of international humanitarian law by the Ukrainian military.
My colleagues have documented the extensive damage caused to civilian areas and loss of civilian life, including by use of unguided Grad rockets by the Ukrainian military. In many cases, pro-Russian insurgents are using dense residential areas as launching areas for artillery targeting the Ukrainian government positions, thereby endangering civilians in violation of the laws of war. But insurgent abuses against civilians are no defense or justification for government forces’ violations.
And it is the civilians who are trapped. Those who can may flee. Many of those who cannot leave tend to be the most vulnerable to being killed or injured in hostilities.
It is Merkel’s responsibility to remind Poroshenko of Ukraine’s obligations under international humanitarian law, which prohibits deliberate attacks on civilian objects, as well as indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks in civilian populated areas. Merkel should make clear that any reckless disregard for civilian life or blatant disregard for humanitarian law could jeopardize Germany’s support for the Ukrainian government, crisis situation notwithstanding.
This also applies to the Russian-backed separatists, who have failed to take the necessary precautions to avoid harm to civilians. As well as addressing the insurgents directly, this is something the chancellor should be ready to discuss with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Neither side in this conflict has behaved towards civilians as they should. Merkel should not lose the opportunity to drive the point home to Kiev.