(Berlin) – The war in eastern Ukraine has had a devastating impact on civilians, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2015. The armed conflict between Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian government forces broke out during the most turbulent year in Ukraine’s post-independence period, which also included mass protests, the overthrow of the government, and Russia’s occupation of Crimea.
Between April and October 2014, armed conflict in eastern Ukraine claimed the lives of over 4,000 people, about 1,000 of them civilians, and wounded over 9,000. Over 500,000 people are internally displaced in Ukraine; many others have fled to Russia. All sides to the conflict violated laws of war, including through indiscriminate attacks in populated areas. A ceasefire, announced following peace talks in Minsk in early September, did not stop the fighting.
“Civilians in Ukraine have borne the brunt of this conflict, with thousands of casualties and hundreds of thousands displaced in a matter of months,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “All sides of the conflict should be doing their utmost to protect civilians.”
In the 656-page world report, its 25th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth urges governments to recognize that human rights offer an effective moral guide in turbulent times, and that violating rights can spark or aggravate serious security challenges. The short-term gains of undermining core values of freedom and non-discrimination are rarely worth the long-term price.
Both government and rebel forces have launched unguided Grad rockets against targets in densely populated civilian areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, killing and injuring civilians. Both parties also fired artillery from populated areas without taking feasible precautions to protect civilians and endangering them by inviting return fire.
All sides appeared to have also used cluster munitions, a weapon with indiscriminate, wide-area effects that is banned under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions. All sides should stop using weapons such as Grad rockets in populated areas, as they have indiscriminate impact, and altogether stop using cluster munitions. Both Ukraine and Russia should join the Convention on Cluster Munitions, Human Rights Watch said.
Rebel takeovers led to the complete collapse of law and order in several areas of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, as Russia-backed rebels attacked, beat, and threatened hundreds of people they suspected of supporting Kiev, including journalists, media outlets, local officials, and political and religious activists. In at least several cases they also carried out summary executions. Rebels disrupted medical services, unlawfully detained people, ill-treated detainees and subjected them to forced labor, and kidnapped civilians for ransom and used them as hostages.
Ukrainian security services and pro-Kiev volunteer battalions detained over 1,000 people suspected of involvement in the insurgency, sometimes holding detainees for over 14 days without a court order and subjecting them to ill-treatment. In September, Ukrainian authorities opened a criminal investigation into alleged abuses by the pro-Kiev Aydar battalion, which have reportedly included arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and torture. Ukrainian forces disappeared and arbitrarily detained 13 journalists, often accusing them of assisting the insurgents.
“All sides of the conflict have committed grave violations of human rights,” Gorbunova said. “Russia should use its influence with the rebels to put an end to blatant abuses and press for those responsible to be brought to justice, and Ukraine’s international partners should urge the government to investigate abuses and ensure accountability.”
According to the United Nations, at least 500,000 people have been internally displaced as the result of the ongoing hostilities and Russia’s occupation of Crimea, with some rights groups’ estimates being twice as high. Ukrainian authorities have struggled to provide adequate protection and assistance to internally displaced people, including urgent housing and social assistance. Legislation adopted in November 2014 provided access to temporary accommodation for displaced people and simplified registration requirements, allowing easier access to employment and social benefits, including pensions. But rights groups have criticized the law for lack of clear implementation mechanisms.
“The November legislation was a step in the right direction, but the authorities can and should do more in practice to provide displaced people with the urgent assistance they need,” Gorbunova said.
Authorities opened criminal investigations into abuses committed between November 2013 and February 2014 during the Maidan protests, which took the lives of over 100 people and injured many more. Authorities also started criminal investigations into the May 2 violence in Odessa. The progress of these criminal proceedings has been slow.
In a positive development, Ukrainian authorities introduced reforms in the area of the rule of law, including for the prosecutor’s office and anti-corruption legislation.
Russian and local authorities have severely curtailed human rights protections in Crimea since Russia occupied the peninsula in February. Authorities have failed to rein in abuses by paramilitary groups against people perceived as critical of Russia and have harassed people who oppose Russia’s actions in Crimea, in particular Crimean Tatars, activists, and journalists.
The authorities have compelled Crimea residents who were Ukrainian citizens either to become Russian citizens or to be deemed foreigners in Crimea, removing any guarantee against potential expulsion.
“As the world’s attention has been on the hostilities in eastern Ukraine, rights abuses in Crimea have surged,” Gorbunova said. “Other countries and international organizations should not let human rights decline in Crimea fall off their agenda.”