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Human Rights Watch Letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Office of the Prime Minister

80 Wellington Street Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2

 

                                                                                                    July 9, 2016

Dear Prime Minister,

We are writing to you regarding your July 11-12 visit to Ukraine. We trust that you see the visit as an important opportunity for Canada to raise human rights concerns with President Petro Poroshenko and other senior officials. We write to outline a few key concerns regarding Ukraine that we hope you will discuss during your trip.

As Ukraine’s close ally, Canada can use its friendship and support to promote and strengthen respect for human rights in the country. It is our experience that Ukraine’s leaders and allies have been reluctant to discuss and address human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine, out of concern that such discussion will be misappropriated by Russia for its anti-Ukraine propaganda. We believe that you are in a powerful position to convince Ukraine’s leadership that on the contrary, remaining silent on abuses, feeds into such propaganda and, more importantly, undermines the rule of law and facilitates continuing human rights abuses. We urge you to encourage Ukraine’s leadership to respect its human rights obligations and prevent further violations.

Use of Schools in Armed Conflict: Since the beginning of the armed conflict in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch has been extensively documenting human rights violations by all parties to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Hostilities have subsided since the September 2015 ceasefire, but the conflict has not ended and many concerns remain.

Both sides of the conflict in eastern Ukraine have used schools for military purposes, deploying forces in and near schools, which has turned schools into legitimate military targets. Intensive fighting and shelling between April 2014 and September 2015 damaged or destroyed hundreds of schools.

The resulting destruction has forced many children out of school and hundreds of schools to stop operating or to operate under overcrowded and difficult conditions. Targeted attacks on educational institutions that do not constitute military objectives are a war crime under international criminal law and the laws of war. Occupying a school can turn it into a legitimate military target and can put students at risk in violation of the laws of war. We hope you will urge the Ukrainian government to take concrete measures to deter the military use of schools, in line with United Nations Security Council 2225 (2015), for example by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.

Victim-activated Landmines and Booby-traps.  There have been consistent reports of continued use of victim-activated landmines and booby-traps, the September 15 ceasefire notwithstanding. These weapons are banned by most countries around the world, including Ukraine which is a party to the Ottawa Convention (Mine Ban Treaty).  They are banned because of the unacceptable harm they cause to civilians and in Ukraine hundreds of people—most of them civilians—have been reported killed and injured as a result of victim-activated landmines. We hope you will call on Ukraine’s leadership to ensure Ukrainian forces do not use victim-activated landmines in any circumstances and to boost their demining efforts and efforts at educating the public about the danger of preexisting mines.  Ukraine has the right under the Mine Ban Treaty to request and receive international cooperation and assistance in these matters.

Cluster Munitions. In 2014 and early 2015, Human Rights Watch gathered evidence of the use of cluster munitions, banned by most countries around the world for causing unacceptable harm to civilians, by pro-government forces and Russia-backed rebels during the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s military prosecutor launched an investigation, but it was incomplete. We hope you will urge the Ukrainian authorities to carry out a full investigation into the use of such weapons over the course of the conflict, and commit to prevent them being deployed in the future. Ukraine should join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions prohibiting the use of cluster munitions in any circumstance.

Cruel and degrading treatment during unlawful detention. During a May 2016 trip to eastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous victims of unlawful detention and torture by Azov battalion servicemen at Mariupol’s airport in the autumn of 2014. The victims told Human Rights Watch that when they were finally transferred from the airport to an official remand prison, Ukrainian investigation officials strongly discouraged them from filing torture complaints. Those who are now in rebel- controlled territories, but have relatives in government controlled territories, including in Mariupol, are hesitant to file complaints of unlawful arrest and ill-treatment by Azov battalion servicemen due to fear of retaliation against family members. Human Rights Watch has also received compelling information that Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) have been carrying out enforced disappearances and that their buildings in Kramatorsk, Kharkiv, and Mariupol have been–and are possibly still being—used for holding the victims unlawfully, in unacknowledged detention. Notably, a delegation from the UN Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture, which began an official visit in May 2016, announced that they had to cut the visit short because the authorities failed to grant them access to some of the sites they wanted to visit. The delegation chief, Malcolm Evans, stressed that the team was prevented from visiting "some places where we have heard numerous and serious allegations that people have been detained and where torture or ill-treatment may have occurred." It is only the second time the subcommittee has had to suspend a visit mid-mission since the committee’s creation in 2007.

According to a June 2016 report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remain deeply entrenched practices” in eastern Ukraine, including by Ukrainian law-enforcement and security agencies. The report states that cases of incommunicado detention and torture brought to their attention in late 2015 and early 2016 involved Ukraine’s State Security Service (SBU) and allegedly occurred on the premises of the SBU compound in Kharkiv and several other SBU buildings being unlawfully used for detention. SBU denies these allegations, but based on its research findings, Human Rights Watch has been able to corroborate them and urges you to raise the issue of enforced disappearances, unofficial prisons and torture by SBU with the Ukrainian leadership.

We hope you will call on the Ukrainian authorities to take urgent steps to launch swift and effective investigations into allegations of unlawful detention and torture by Ukrainian forces, and to end impunity for these grave human rights violations.

Travel restrictions/access to humanitarian assistance. Many civilians remain stuck in conflict-affected zones, subject to an extremely bureaucratic permit system that governs civilians seeking to leave to other parts of Ukraine, whether to access security or live-saving services, such as medical treatment. This system impedes prompt delivery of humanitarian aid, causes unnecessary delays and places unjustified and disproportionately restrictions on the freedom of movement of citizens. The de-facto authorities in some rebel areas have expelled organizations that provide needed humanitarian assistance. We hope you will urge the government of Ukraine to reform the system regulating travel between government-controlled and rebel-held areas, to remove unjustified barriers to the enjoyment of several rights.

LGBT rights. In November, the parliament passed an amendment to the labor code that banned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, a precondition for instituting visa-free regime with the European Union. Police ensured that the 2016 Kyiv Pride took place without violence from right wing counter-protestors, a commendable progress since last year when LGBT activists marching in Pride were attacked. However, anti-LGBT sentiment remains strong in Ukraine, including among high-level government officials. In March 2016, about 200 anti-gay far-right supporters attacked a venue in Lviv, western Ukraine, where an LGBT equality festival was taking place. The festival was eventually cancelled as a result of death threats against the organizers and activists and the unwillingness of the local police and administration to provide adequate protection. LGBT activists have also voiced concerns that a newer version of the amended labor code that is being prepared for adoption does not include the same anti-discrimination provision. We hope you will urge Ukraine’s leadership to take urgent steps to ensure that LGBT people and activists are protected from homophobic and transphobic violence and harassment.

Freedom of expression and association. In June 2015, a package of laws dubbed “anti-communist legislation” entered into force that ban Nazi and communist symbols and criminalize denial of the “criminal nature of the communist totalitarian regime,” punishable by up to five years in prison. “Propaganda” for either is punishable by up to 10 years in jail. Another law recognizes as “fighters for independence” nationalist groups that fought Germany during World War II but also collaborated with the Nazis, and criminalizes questioning the legitimacy of their actions. The scope of this kind of legislation is incompatible with respect for freedom of expression, and at the very least creates negative implications for freedom of expression and association in Ukraine that may lead to increased tensions between far-right and far-left groups in Ukraine. We hope you will urge Ukraine to repeal this legislation.

Authorities should also investigate and hold accountable those responsible for the spate of at least five attacks on journalists in April and May 2015.

In early May 2016, a website called Myrotvorets published the names, emails, and telephone numbers, and in some cases home addresses of hundreds of journalists, human rights defenders, and others who had been accredited by the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. The publication stated, “it is necessary to publish [this] because these journalists cooperate with militants of the terrorist organization.” Two weeks later, Myrotvorets published an update to the original lists, exposing more individuals and their personal data. The publication of this information jeopardizes the safety of journalists and human rights defenders and violates their right to privacy. Several reporters stated on social media that they have received threats since the release of their personal information.

The government has launched an investigation into the website, and President Poroshenko eventually condemned it, but top government officials, including Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs, applauded the publication. The Secretary General of the Council of Europe and European Union ambassadors to Ukraine have already expressed their concern about the release of journalists' personal data by this website. We hope you will also urge Ukraine’s leadership to ensure a thorough investigation, hold to account those responsible for the publication, publicly condemn the release of data as an unacceptable attempt to intimidate journalists, and foster a favorable working climate for domestic and international journalists in Ukraine.

Also in May, On May 27, 2016, President Poroshenko signed a decree to implement a May 20 National Security and Defense Council resolution barring 17 Russian reporters, editors, and media executives from entering Ukraine through December 31, 2017. Ukraine is legitimately concerned about the effects of Russian propaganda, but cracking down on media freedom is a misguided, inappropriate response to whatever disagreement the Ukrainian government may have with Russia’s media coverage about Ukraine. We hope that you will urge Ukraine’s leadership to respect and refrain from restricting media freedom.

International Criminal Court (ICC). Finally, we hope you will urge Ukraine’s leadership to cooperate fully with the ICC in its prosecutor’s preliminary examination.  While yet not a member of the ICC, Ukraine has accepted the Court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its territory since November 21, 2013. This time period includes the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine. We note that parliament recently adopted a constitutional amendment package that would permit ratification of the ICC treaty, the Rome Statute, but includes a transitional provision that delays the relevant amendment from taking effect for three years. We would encourage you to express your regret at the prospect of delaying Ukraine’s ratification of the Rome Statute. Becoming an ICC member state will contribute to the universality of the ICC treaty, an essential goal, and permit Ukraine to exercise the full rights of membership, including the nomination of candidates in elections for ICC officials.  We ask you to engage with President Poroshenko as to the prospect of expediting consideration of Rome Statute ratification in a manner compatible with Ukraine’s domestic legal framework. 

We thank you for your attention to these concerns and wish you a productive visit.

 

Sincerely,

Hugh Williamson

Director, Europe and Central Asia Division

 

Jasmine Herlt

Canada Director

 

cc.        Michael Wernick, Clerk of the Privy Council

            Katie Telford, Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister

 

            The Honourable Stefane Dion, Minister of Foreign Affairs

            Julian Ovens, Chief of Staff to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

            Ian Shugart, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs

 

            The Honourable Harjit S. Saggan, Minister of National Defence

            Brian Bohunicky, Chief of Staff to Minister of National Defence

            John Forster, Deputy Minister of National Defence

 

 

 

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