European Council President Donald Tusk gives a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Brussels, Belgium, June 22, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

(Brussels) – European Union leaders should press Ukraine at their July 12-13, 2017 summit meeting to fulfill its human rights obligations, Human Rights Watch said today. The meeting in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, comes several weeks after Ukraine secured visa-free travel for Ukrainians to EU states, which the Ukrainian government had sought for years. At the same time, the Ukrainian government has adopted new measures that threaten freedom of expression and access to information. The summit’s agenda includes such issues as the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and the need for Ukraine to reform.

“Despite recent progress on important political issues between the EU and Ukraine, Kyiv has been backtracking on some human rights pledges, without much reaction from its European partners,” said Lotte Leicht, EU director at Human Rights Watch. “As one of Ukraine’s key international allies, the EU can and should insist on respect for human rights, including free speech and a free media.”

EU leaders should press Ukraine for concrete actions such as repealing restrictions on free speech, Human Rights Watch said. Ukraine should guarantee that grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law will be effectively investigated and those responsible held accountable.

In March, the EU pledged to support the Ukrainian government in ensuring a stable, prosperous and democratic future for all its citizens. The EU has indicated that the top priorities are concerns over the situation in Crimea, including the situation of Crimean Tatars, the grave abuses related to the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and the impact of the conflict on people’s everyday life.

The EU raised most of these issues during an EU-Ukraine human rights dialogue on June 12. But the dialogue should not be the only forum where human rights are discussed, Human Rights Watch said. Concerns about unjustified restrictions on human rights should also be aired privately and publicly at the highest level, so that EU officials can convey the serious role human rights and the rule of law play in its partnership with Ukraine.

In recent months, Ukraine’s government has taken several steps to restrict freedom of expression and media freedom, justifying them by the need to counter Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and anti-Ukraine propaganda.

In June, the High Specialized Court in Kyiv annulled the 2016 acquittal of Ruslan Kotsaba, a journalist and blogger, who had been previously convicted on treason charges for calling for boycotting conscription.

On May 16, President Petro Poroshenko signed a decree banning major Russian internet companies and their websites from operating in Ukraine, citing national security and the need to counter Russian propaganda. The ban targeted such major Russian social networks as VKontakte (also known as VK) and Odnoklassniki, used by millions of Ukrainians daily; language and accounting software; the websites of many Russian television stations and other media; and Yandex, an internet browser, and its many affiliates.

Thorbjørn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary general, expressed concern over Ukraine’s blanket ban on Russian websites, saying that it “goes against our common understanding of freedom of expression and freedom of the media” and that it is “out of line with the principle of proportionality.”

A number of other issues in Ukraine affect media freedom and the safety of journalists.

In April, Poroshenko signed a law that requires activists and journalists investigating corruption issues to declare their personal assets in online annual declarations open to anyone, much like publicly funded government officials. On July 10, the president introduced amendments that would annul the online declarations requirement but instead introduce excessive reporting requirements for all nonprofit organizations and individuals working for them.

In May 2016, a pro-government website, Myrotvorets, leaked the names and personal data of hundreds of journalists and others who had been accredited by the press center of the separatist-held self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, accusing them of “cooperat[ing] with terrorists.” Ukrainian authorities opened an investigation, but top government officials applauded the publication of the data. Several reporters received threats.

A renowned journalist, Pavel Sheremet, was murdered in July 2016. The murder remains unsolved a year later, despite declarations by Poroshenko and other high-level officials that the investigation would be a priority.

Poroshenko made several declarations about the need to improve the climate for press freedom in the country. But the EU should publicly insist that Ukraine needs to take immediate and concrete steps to do so, including revoking the decree banning Russian internet companies, revising the anti-corruption law, and withdrawing the charges against Ruslan Kotsaba.

The Ukrainian government should also do more to hold accountable those responsible for serious violations in the context of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, Human Rights Watch said.

In 2016, Human Rights Watch, working jointly with Amnesty International, found that dozens of people had been forcibly disappeared and held in secret detention on the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) premises in Kharkiv. While all were later released, the SBU denied allegations that the men had been forcibly disappeared and held in secret detention. The military prosecutor’s office pledged to investigate, but a year later, there are no tangible results from the investigation and victims have not obtained an effective remedy for the violations of their rights and the abuses they endured.

Other conflict-related abuses remain unaddressed, such as unlawful attacks on schools and health facilities in eastern Ukraine.

Although some progress has been made toward accountability for serious violations by government forces against protesters during the 2014 Maidan protests, more than three years later many abuses remain unaddressed. Criminal cases were also opened against members of Ukraine’s military battalions, such as Aidar, and the former police battalion Tornado, but these investigations and trials have been marred with disruptions and intimidation by nationalist groups. The authorities often do not hold accountable people responsible for disrupting court proceedings, and in one case, some were invited to testify against a defendant.

“Ukraine’s relations with the EU will to a large extent be defined by how Kyiv deals with abuses of the past and its respect for human rights in the present,” Leicht said. “The EU needs to demonstrate full political commitment in pushing the Ukrainian government to uphold human rights commitments and the rule of law.”