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This week, the EU should press Ukraine on fundamental rights

As European and Ukrainian leaders gather in Brussels, it's time to highlight the need for further protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in Ukraine.

Published in: openDemocracy

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk arrive for a joint news conference following the EU-Ukraine summit in Kiev, Ukraine, July 13, 2017. © 2017 REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

On 9 July, Brussels will host the 20th EU-Ukraine Summit, the annual exercise when Kyiv and the European block highlight their strong bilateral relations. No doubt, the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and European Union leaders will follow the usual united front.

But they will also most likely have in mind that this summit is special. There might be some new faces in the family picture next year, as both parties will face tough elections by then, with the presidential election in Ukraine next March and the election of a new European Parliament less than two months later.

In this context, next week’s meeting will be a test of the EU’s will and capacity to promote a truly democratic Ukraine. But it will require EU leaders to go beyond business as usual and get honest with Kyiv. So far, the EU rhetoric has been supportive: Kyiv must continue reforms, which would bring it closer to the EU politically and economically, as Federica Mogherini said just a week ago in Copenhagen. But when it comes to respect for the rule of law and human rights, the EU finds it a lot easier to address violations in the conflict-affected eastern Ukraine and Russia-occupied Crimea than to call out Ukrainian authorities on human rights abuses in the rest of the country. 

To be clear, Ukraine has been devastated by Russia’s military incursions in Donbas and occupation of Crimea. Despite that, the country has made profound strides in transforming some of its political institutions and practices. However, in the past two years, Ukraine has taken several steps backward on media freedom and free association, and it has done little in the face of rising hate violence, without drawing much alarm or protest from the EU. The government’s backtracking might worsen if it chooses nationalist expediency in next year’s elections. The EU should take these disturbing actions seriously.

These are three things Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk should stress to Petro Poroshenko.

First, there should be no restrictions on media freedom in Ukraine. 

The Ukrainian government tries to justify these restrictions by pointing to the need to counter Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and anti-Ukraine propaganda. The EU needs to be absolutely clear that this is not an acceptable reason to curtail free speech and intimidate journalists. At least two journalists are in prison on treason charges for comments critical of government policies on eastern Ukraine. 

Several foreign journalists, mostly Russian citizens, have been banned or expelled from Ukraine. Most of Russian media’s coverage of events in Ukraine is hard to stomach. But banning journalists for anti-Ukraine coverage should not be Kyiv’s preferred way to combat Russia’s formidable propaganda machine. Fighting fakes with facts and transparency is what will help Kyiv to keep its integrity and avoid using the same methods as the Kremlin. 

Which is why protecting free speech and the work of journalists should be a priority. Yet, the killers of Oles Buzina and Pavel Sheremet, Ukrainian journalists killed in 2015 and 2016 respectively, are still at large years later, despite numerous public pledges by Poroshenko himself to bring Sheremet’s killers to justice. 

Second, the EU should be genuinely concerned by the authorities’ attempts to curb independent watchdogs

When President Poroshenko signed a March 2017 law to force activists and journalists investigating corruption to publicly declare their personal assets or face prison if they refuse to comply – an intrusive and unnecessary measure that would largely deter any anti-corruption work in the country – Ukraine’s international partners rightly stood up and told Poroshenko that it was a terrible idea. Over a year later the law is now in full effect, despite the president’s promises to get rid of it. 

Worse, two presidential draft proposals before parliament would impose new public reporting obligations on all nonprofit organisations. These proposals are shockingly out of line with principles Ukraine subscribed to when joining the Council of Europe and would jeopardise Ukrainian nongovernmental groups’ security and capacity to operate. European Union officials frequently voice their support for Ukraine’s civil society. Now they need to remind Ukrainian authorities that strangling independent groups with unnecessary and onerous measures is not the right thing to do to get closer to Europe.

Finally, European Union leaders should condemn the government’s inaction over growing attacks by violent radical groups.

On 23 June, a group of ultranationalists attacked a Roma settlement near Lviv, killing one person and injuring several more, including a child. This was the sixth recent anti-Roma attack. On 8 March, International Women’s Day, radical groups attacked the Women’s March in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine, physically assaulting participants. On 10 May, threats of violence by radical groups disrupted an LGBTI rights event hosted by Amnesty International. Ukrainian authorities rarely investigate such attacks, and more often than not, police stand by and do nothing, despite resources and police training provided by the EU.

Ukraine is at a pivotal moment. If the EU truly wants to see a reliable and confident partner in Ukraine, it needs to consistently encourage President Poroshenko to foster genuinely democratic reform, rather than turning a blind eye to radical violence in the name of political expedience. The EU cannot say it fully supports Ukraine’s future if it’s looking the other way when Ukrainian authorities waver on core European values.

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