Human rights in Ukraine

Updated July 2017

Human rights in Ukraine


The human rights situation in Ukraine deteriorated significantly under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, who was in power from 2010 until 2014. Corruption, injustice, and impunity were rife. His efforts to strengthen control over the judiciary, concentrate power in the office of the presidency, and exert his influence over the media raised international concerns. In November 2013, protesters took to streets of central Kyiv in opposition to Yanukovych’s sudden decision to abandon an association agreement with the European Union and instead seek greater economic integration with Russia, in a movement that became known as ‘Euromaidan.’ Violent interventions from police and security services eventually escalated into armed clashes between police and protesters, culminating in three violent days in February 2014 when over 100 were killed and hundreds more injured, with grave human rights violations also reported. Following the clashes, Yanukovych signed a deal with opposition leaders to share power and hold early elections, but then secretly fled to Russia the following day.

On 25 May 2014, in what were widely considered to be free and fair elections, Petro Poroshenko was elected the next president of Ukraine. However, political instability has continued in Ukraine despite the new presidency; both parliament and the executive have remained riddled with corruption and corruption allegations and the little has been done to curb the power of local oligarchs. The political crisis in the government further led to the resignation of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk on 12 April 2016, and Volodymyr Groysman was appointed prime minister in his place.

Following the arrival of ununiformed Russian troops and an internationally unrecognised referendum held on 16 March 2014, the Crimean Peninsula declared independence and requested to join Russia. This led to the annexation of Crimea into Russia proper, a move that has been widely condemned by the international community and led to Western sanctions against Russian officials and businesses. Following the annexation, protests in eastern Ukraine, again reportedly involving covert Russian involvement, escalated into an armed conflict between governmental forces and armed separatist groups. Both sides of the conflict have repeatedly violated international humanitarian law and caused extreme hardship for the civilian population. Even though the warring sides have sporadically agreed to several ceasefires since the conflict began, none have lasted. Independent observers estimate that over 9,000 have died, an additional 2,5 million people have been displaced in and outside of Ukraine.

Those that have been internally displaced have received little or no state support for resettlement, and have mainly relied on their own means and assistance from volunteer organisations for their basic needs. Even though the law on the rights and freedoms of internally displaced people was adopted, no significant changes have taken place to alleviate their current situation.

The Situation for Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine

In light of the current crisis, human rights defenders face difficulties in Ukraine, especially when working in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Civil society activists and journalists often encounter intimidation, threats to their lives, unlawful detentions, torture, and sometimes extrajudicial killings. Objective observers stress the difficulties in tracking human rights violations, as the current unstable legal situation in both regions has led to difficulties in recording accurate statistics and reliable first-hand documentation.

Human rights defenders, journalists, civilians, and refugee convoys constantly risk being caught in the crossfire from both warring factions. In the two years since the conflict began, the majority of human rights defenders have left the occupied territories to continue their work in areas under Ukrainian government control. There have been numerous reports of abduction of human rights activists and journalists in Crimea as a consequence of expressing pro-Ukrainian views. Crimean Tatars – a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to the peninsula which comprises about 10 percent of the population – have been especially subjected to arrests, abductions, beatings, and other threats as a result of their opposition to the annexation.

Ten Rights in Focus

The right to life and physical integrity

During the armed clashes major violations of the right to life and physical integrity have been recorded. The arbitrary use of “grad” rockets, which disperse shells indiscriminately over a wide area, in populated areas has caused numerous civilian casualties and violates international humanitarian law. Refugee convoys have also been targeted in the absence of safe corridors for the evacuation of civilians.

In total, from mid-April 2014 to 15 August 2016, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine recorded 9,517 people killed in the conflict area in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine. This estimate includes Ukrainian armed forces, civilians and members of armed groups. According to eyewitnesses, any person caught in the conflict zone faces the constant threat of being unlawfully detained, tortured and murdered.

Although Ukrainian legislation prohibits torture and other degrading forms of treatment, torture by the authorities in penal institutions, pre-trial detention, the armed forces, public hospitals, and other state institutions still remains a reality.

In the east, evidence of torture and abuse by both sides of the conflict is a major concern for activists. A 2016 OHCHR report covering January 2014 to May 2016 reported over 60 cases and 115 victims of arbitrary deprivation of life, summary- and extrajudicial executions and deaths in detention. Cases of sexual violence of conflict-related detainees, both men and women, were also reported.

Despite the duty of the State to conduct formal investigations into allegations of torture, such measures are often not undertaken by either the Ukrainian government or self-declared separatist authorities. The public and interested parties are unable to access information on investigations, which leads to mistrust of the legal system and the police.

The right to liberty and security of person

There are persistent violations of the right to liberty and security of person, as acts of arbitrary detention are commonplace, especially in Eastern Ukraine. International monitoring missions continue to receive information about cases of secret detentions by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) in the east. Governmental forces reportedly detain civilians living near the administrative border line. The victims are usually apprehended and held for some time by unidentified armed men who, after extracting confessions given under duress, bring them to local law enforcement or security forces.

Numerous cases of detentions and disappearances have been documented at checkpoints controlled by the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Members of the ‘Ministry of State Security’ of the DNR continue to deprive individuals of their liberty and hold them incommunicado without filing formal charges. International missions have reported difficulties in evacuating civilians, as well as reported cases of abduction of orphaned children, allegations of sexual violence, and attacks while working in the field.

According to the Ukrainian Code of Criminal Procedure, as amended in October 2014, pre-trial detention is mandatory for all conflict-related or national security and ‘terrorism’-related cases. This provision contradicts international human rights standards and results in excessive and at times arbitrary detentions.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

The judicial system in Ukraine is heavily influenced by the executive and legislature and corruption is widespread. Pressure on judges to hand down spurious verdicts is pervasive, according to independent lawyers and human rights activists. A positive development, however, was the Ukrainian parliament’s adoption of the law “On Restoring confidence in the judicial system of Ukraine” in April 2014. The bill provides for a new legal and organisational framework for auditing the work of the courts of general jurisdiction.

In June 2016, parliament adopted amendments to the Constitution regarding the judiciary. The amendments give a central role and new powers to the High Council of Justice and guarantee its independence. The law “On the judicial system and the status of judges” was passed the same day in order to facilitate the implementation of the amendments and regulate the structure of the judicial system.

Conflict-related criminal investigations and prosecutions are characterized by an abuse of process. Despite efforts by the Ukrainian authorities to bring perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses in the east to account, impunity prevails. Particularly, human rights monitoring missions have documented a lack of accountability for Ukrainian soldiers carrying out extrajudicial executions. There also are patterns of pressure on the judiciary by ‘pro-unity’ activists and the authorities in such cases.

Parallel structures, including ‘courts’, continued to develop and operate in the DPR and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). These structures have no legal status under Ukrainian legislation and contradict the spirit of Minsk Agreements, accords signed between Ukraine, Russia, and international partners that aimed to bring about a resolution to the conflict. Furthermore, such structures affect the inalienable rights of people living in territories controlled by armed groups, function in an arbitrary manner and present no mechanism for victims of this system to get protection or redress.

Little progress has been made regarding the violations and abuses by law enforcement officials at the Euromaidan protests between November 2013 and February 2014. In all, there have been approximately 2000 investigations, with criminal proceedings instigated against 270 individuals. In 2015, an international advisory panel set up by the Council of Europe in order to monitor the investigations published two reports that concluded the investigations had failed to satisfy the requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

The Ukrainian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is generally respected. However, there are still problems with legislation surrounding the registration of religious organisations. Religious organisations must undergo double registration procedures; first with the authorities and then as an entity with the judiciary. Observers stress that there are no clear legal guarantees of religious freedom and that the situation is dependent on administrative practices and vague.

Pressures on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion increased as a result of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Armed groups have declared the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate as the main religion in the Donetsk region and have prohibited other religious “sects”. The number of threats directed towards religious leaders and attacks against the Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Protestant, Mormon, Jewish and Roman Catholic churches in the areas controlled by the armed groups have also been reported.

The right to freedom of expression

Although some amendments were made in 2013 to the legislation guaranteeing freedom of speech, journalists in Ukraine are still very much the target of violence, intimidation and spurious legal procedures designed to impede and disrupt their work. Direct cases of governmental censorship have occurred.

Ukrainian media professionals continue to experience pressure from Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) or the Armed Forces when reporting on sensitive matters, such as military losses or unlawful conduct of Ukrainian soldiers. Journalists who have reported on the conflict or from armed group-controlled areas have found themselves as targets of online attacks carried out with the tacit consent and at times declared support of high-ranking Government officials.

Freedom of expression has become a political issue, with the Deputy Information Policy Minister resigning in August 2016 over the unwillingness of government authorities to investigate abuses against journalists.

Journalists and investigators are also unable or have been prevented from reaching the occupied territories to document events due to the prevalence of physical threats and harassments. Armed groups have held at least 78 journalists since the conflict began, and over 60 attacks have been reported on various media offices. Some major TV channels, both Russian and Ukrainian, have been banned from broadcasting in different regions. These practices have raised concerns that people, both in Russia and in Ukraine, and especially in Crimea, are subject to propaganda and misinformation and blocked from accessing independent and unbiased media.

The hostile media environment since the flare-up of the conflict has included the weekly newspaper of the Mejlis, a representative body of the Crimean Tatar people. Intimidation by the de facto authorities of the newspaper has been severe and ongoing. The Crimean Tatar-language TV channel, ATR, was also forced to stop broadcasting in April 2015 after its registration expired and it was arbitrarily not allowed to re-register. It has since relocated to Kyiv and broadcasts online.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

Despite that the legislation on public meetings follows European standards, many violations to the right to freedom of assembly have been reported. During the Euromaidan protests, the state law enforcement agency was accused of kidnappings, murders, and general violence against protestors. In the DNR and LNR, Ukrainian political parties have been banned for not supporting the separatist movement, while the Ukrainian government has banned “Russian Bloc,“ a minor political party that had never secured a seat in parliament. The much larger Communist Party of Ukraine also experienced increased pressure as a result of their political agenda, and was banned as well on 9 April 2015 under the law “On the Condemnation of Communist and the National Socialist (Nazi) Regime Totalitarian Propaganda and Ban of their Symbols,” which also prohibits the production, public usage, or dissemination of such symbols, and allows for a prison sentence of up to five years. Several human rights lawyers view this law violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

The rights to freedom of association and freedom of assembly in Crimea have also deteriorated significantly. After annexation by Russia, many NGOs and human rights activists left the Crimean Peninsula fearing prosecution, detentions and ill treatment under the new administration. The rights of indigenous peoples, such as the Crimean Tatars, are severely restricted, and they have faced increasing violence and discrimination. In April 2016 the Mejlis were outlawed as an extremist group by the Supreme Court of the Crimean Republic. The move that has been widely condemned by the international community.

Restrictions on civil society in the areas controlled by armed groups are continuing, limiting their ability to operate and deliver humanitarian aid. According to reports, due to the absence of a DNR law governing nongovernmental organization registration, the local Ministry of Justice informs NGOs operating in armed group-controlled areas that they cannot be registered.

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

Negative trends in all parts of the country have been reported regarding hate speech and propaganda since the beginning of the conflict. With strong emotions and rhetoric coming from both sides, hate speech has escalated on social media, in demonstrations, protests and parliamentary sessions. Both sides have banned the broadcasting of different TV channels on the grounds that they are protecting the population against hate speech and war propaganda. Individuals with opposing views all over Ukraine have become the targets of hate speech and harassment. Hate speech against LGBT persons and national minorities remains a prevalent problem in Ukraine. Remedies for victims of hate crimes are rarely provided by law enforcement officials’ or the judiciary. Since the outbreak of the conflict intolerance against LGBT people has increased.

The right to political rights

The presidential elections held on 25 May 2014 were reported to be free and fair by most international observers and considered to have complied with international standards. In the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, the elections were not held due to the separatist insurgency. In Crimea, no elections took place as a result of the territory’s annexation by Russia. Crimean residents that possessed the right to vote in other regions in Ukraine, did not travel to vote out of concerns over crossing the administrative border, and fear of possible recrimination from the self-appointed Crimean authorities. The aforementioned regions also were unable to participate in snap parliamentary election was held in October 2014. Although gender discrimination is prohibited under the constitution, there is a glaring gender imbalance when it comes to political participation in Ukraine. Only 12% of parliamentary seats are held by women, which still represent the largest share in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. The attempts to introduce gender quotas, in order to increase the political participation of women, have so far been unsuccessful.

The right to protection against discrimination

Ukraine lacks a systematic approach when it comes eliminating discrimination, with the absence of clear legal definition cited as one of the reasons. In society intolerance and extremism remains evident and no systematic attempts have been taken to prevent national, racial or religious hatred or incitement to hatred. There is widespread discrimination against LGBT people in all regions of Ukraine. Intolerance and discriminations takes the form of bullying at schools and universities, difficulties in finding and maintaining employment, access to health services, particularly for transgender people, and physical attacks.

After four unsuccessful attempts by human rights activists to hold an Equality March, they finally succeeded in May 2013, June 2015, July 2016 and again in June 2017. The second March for Equality in Ukraine’s history was well guarded by the police, but still attacked by far right groups, which resulted in several injuries to activists as well as the police. During 2016 Equality March, the significant progress has been made by the National Police of Ukraine in securing peaceful assemblies. While no major incidents occurred, police effectively responded to several threats. The reaction from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church improved, compared to 2013, as they made an official statement not to use force against the protesters, even though it was clear that they did not support the march.

Also the 2017 Equality March could go on without major incidents despite some setbacks. The route of the march had to be changed due to threats from antigay protesters and national activists, and ultranationalists had gathered to arrange a counterdemonstration at the same day. When searched by the police, items such as balaclavas, gas canisters, eggs and green paint were found. However, through the heavy police presence of more than 5.000 police officers who responded to the threats, around 2.500 LGBT activists were able to gather in central Kyiv for the march.

Ethnic and racial intolerance still remains prevalent in much of Ukrainian society. Crimean Tatars in Crimea have been subjected to discrimination, persecution, and mistreatment since the annexation by Russia. Discrimination and stigmatisation of people with disabilities is still a major issue as it is in other post-Soviet countries. People with disabilities face limited access to employment and social services.

With the prolongation of the conflict and resulting displacement, women are increasingly vulnerable to human rights violations and abuses, which include sexual, domestic violence and exposure to human trafficking.

The Role of Civil Rights Defenders

Civil Rights Defenders has been monitoring the situation in Ukraine ever since the outbreak of the conflict. We are especially concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation of the Crimean Tatar minority.

Download the full report here: Human Rights in Ukraine.

Categories: Country Reports.
Regions: Eastern Europe and Ukraine.