Hopes are high that Ukraine finally has a government that can learn from the past to foster needed reforms. But some of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s comments last week during a visit to Berlin raise questions about whether the government is willing to admit its own errors.
The topic was Human Rights Watch’s finding that Ukrainian government troops fighting Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine had indiscriminately fired Grad rockets and cluster munitions into populated areas. “There is no evidence! No evidence,” Yatsenyuk said in an interview with FAZ.
He explained Ukraine had investigated the allegations but couldn’t gain access to the relevant sites because rebels controlled them. And he urged us to focus on Crimea instead. Ukrainian President Petro Poroschenko offered a similar rejection of our findings in November.
In fact, Human Rights Watch has produced considerable evidence of Ukraine’s failure to always distinguish between military targets and civilians, as the laws of war require.
Our researchers determined the party responsible for the attacks by establishing their incoming direction and examining which forces were located in that direction within the range of the weapon. In meetings with Ukrainian officials in November and December, we provided details including dates, times, and locations. Germany, among others, has called on Ukraine – as well as Russia – to investigate the evidence of this misconduct.
Typically what happened is that Russia-backed forces, would fire at Ukrainian forces from populated areas. That often unnecessarily endangered the civilian population—itself a violation of the laws of war. But Ukrainian forces also violated those laws when they fired back using weapons that could not be directed at particular military targets, but rained indiscriminately over a populated area.
The Ukrainian military prosecutor made some effort to investigate this, but incompletely. As became clear during my meeting with him in Kiev in decemeber, his team seemed only to consult with government commanders and examine government records without conducting on-site investigations, even though, in at least the case of a July 12 attack that killed six civilians in a Donetsk suburb, government forces control both the impact and launch sites.
Moreover, apparently misunderstanding our evidence, the prosecutor told us government records showed that landmines had not been used—an allegation that we never made—without checking records on the cluster munition that we found had been used.
Defense officials told us of new instructions sent to Ukrainian troops to refrain from indiscriminate attacks—a positive step. However, it remains unclear whether troops were told to refrain from directing indiscriminate weapons toward populated areas even if Russia-backed forces have fired from there first. That is needed because violation of the laws of war by one side never justifies violation by the other.
Yatsenyuk’s suggestion that we instead focus on Crimea reflects a disturbing assumption I found in both Kiev and Moscow—that all reporting on the conflict is partisan. He and many others seemingly dismiss the possibility that anyone would objectively apply the laws of war to both sides.
In fact, we have reported regularly on both sidesincluding a major report on Russian abuse in Crimea and 23 publications on abuses by Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Rather than reflexively denying reports of abuse by their forces, Kiev should confront the evidence and move to end the indiscriminate warfare. As it courts international support as a reformist alternative to the corrupt and abusive past, the new government should remember that while anyone can make a mistake, the first test of a genuine commitment to reform is acknowledging error.
Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch.