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Ukraine’s Biggest Human Rights Victories in 2020

Human rights Ukraine

Pandemic 2020 was a year of radical changes, and for many they were not for the better. However, there have been many positive developments in the field of human rights in Ukraine.

 Release of ‘LPR’ and ‘DPR’ Prisoners

Cuptives UkraineDespite the quarantine restrictions, which significantly slowed down all social processes, another release of Ukrainians detained in the territory of the so-called “LPR” and “DPR” took place on 16 April 2020.

Twenty people, including two soldiers, one law enforcement officer and 17 civilians, returned from captivity to government-controlled territory. Nine of our compatriots were illegally detained in the Donetsk region, and eleven others in the Luhansk region.

Fourteen detainees accused of various crimes in Ukraine were transferred to the occupied territories. Initially, Ukraine submitted the exchange list consisting of 18 people, but four of them refused to return to the occupiers.

However, according to the Security Service of Ukraine, at least 251 Ukrainians are being held captive in the occupied Donbas. Another 102 prisoners of the Kremlin are being held in Russia and in the occupied Crimea, according to human rights organisations. And the release in the 100 for 100 format, which was announced by Head of the President’s Office Andriy Yermak in the autumn, did not take place in 2020.

In fact, five Ukrainian prisoners were released in the past year. Four of them (Rustem Vaitov, Nuri Primov, Nariman Memedeminov and Oleksandr Shumkov) were released because they had served their terms, and another one (Ernest Ametov) was released after being acquitted. Instead, several dozen new political prisoners have been imprisoned in Russia for politically motivated reasons; therefore, their total number has increased.

Vitaliy Markivs Acquittal and Release

Vitaliy Markiv in armyThe deputy troop commander of the Kulchytsky Battalion, National Guard serviceman Vitaliy Markiv was detained by the Italian authorities at the Bologna airport in the summer of 2017, when he came to visit his mother.

Markiv has dual citizenship – Ukrainian and Italian – which allowed the Italian side to freely detain and try him according to the laws of their country.

Two years after his arrest, on 12 July 2019, a Pavia court sentenced Markiv to 24 years in prison, having found him guilty of the deaths of Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli and Russian interpreter and human rights activist Andrei Mironov during the hostilities in Donbas in 2014.

Ukraine immediately stated that the deaths of foreign nationals were the result of an armed clash between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces and that it was the separatist bullets that killed both the journalist and the interpreter. But during two years of investigation, Ukraine did not name specific suspects.

Meanwhile, the family of the killed journalist Rocchelli, dissatisfied with the Ukrainian investigation, initiated a case in Italy. The Prosecutor’s Office of Pavia, after examining the facts, said it had found a suspect who had given the command to open aimed mortar fire on the photojournalist.

The jury, which heard the case and rendered a verdict, ignored the arguments of the defence, and the testimony of eyewitnesses from Ukraine that Markiv had not been able to do this because his unit did not have mortar weapons at the time and was 1,700 meters away from the place where the journalists died, from where he could neither see them nor fire from the Kalashnikov rifle.

Ukrainians and independent observers present at the hearings noted that the case was considered as a presumption of guilt, which was broadcast and supported by the Italian media outlets. And the prosecution, arguing its position, showed videos of Russian propaganda channels during court hearings. The court’s verdict was unprecedentedly harsh as Markiv was charged with a crime against freedom of speech.

To change the situation in the media space, Ukrainian journalist Olha Tokariuk and her Italian colleagues made an investigative documentary The Wrong Place. In the film, the journalists clearly demonstrated the evidence that Markiv, from his position on Mount Karachun, was not able to see people at all, let alone determine that they were journalists. The documentary was presented during the consideration of appeal against the verdict which began in September 2020.

During the appeal, the Ukrainian authorities also intensified their actions, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs and diplomatic missions.

And on 3 November 2020, the Milan Court of Appeals acquitted Markiv. He returned to Ukraine, where, after vacation, he plans to continue serving in Kyiv-based Kulchytsky Battalion of the National Guard of Ukraine.

Opportunity to Vote in Local Elections without ‘Registration’

Election UkraineAccording to the ZMINA Human Rights Centre, about 7 million people in Ukraine do not reside permanently at their place of registration, almost 1.5 million of them are internally displaced persons from the occupied territories, and the rest are labour migrants and other mobile groups, as well as their children.

Before 2019, the electoral roll address in local elections was strictly tied to the residency registration, that is, these people were not able to participate in the elections where they actually lived. After all, it was possible to change the electoral address only by changing the “registration.”

For several years, human rights activists have sought to make an opportunity to influence the life of the community in which a person resides permanently available regardless of the place of registration. This is especially true for IDPs who have left their homes in the occupied territories and have been living in new communities for a long time. But not only for them.

The Electoral Code of Ukraine, adopted at the end of 2019, amended the legislation that allowed citizens to vote at their place of actual residence. On 18 May 2020, the Central Election Commission approved the procedure for changing the election roll address without changing the residency registration, which allowed all IDPs to vote in elections of all levels at their place of actual residence.

According to the State Voter Register, more than 100,000 citizens have changed their address for voting this year. However, there was little time left for an information campaign, clarification of the new rules and voters’ submission of an application for a change of address.

“As for the procedure, which began to operate for the first time in the history of Ukraine, and even amid the pandemic, 100,000 appeals is a very significant indicator. Voters began to use the new opportunities, but not too quickly and actively. This indicator shows that it is necessary to continue informational and educational work about both the procedure itself, in particular about submitting an application online, and the responsibility for violating the election law,” Tetiana Durneva, the executive director of the Public Holding “Group of Influence,” who took an active part in promoting the mentioned changes, commented on the application of the new norm.

Introduction of Gender Quotas in Local Elections and Increase in Women’s Representation

In 2019, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a new Electoral Code, which for the first time introduced 40% gender quotas during the formation of national and regional lists of candidates for election.

In 2020, more than 100,000 female candidates were registered in the lists of political parties and participated in local elections. That is, there were 43% women at the nomination stage. However, not everyone reached the finish line.

According to the gender monitoring conducted by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund in partnership with the National Democratic Institute, Ukrainians elected 28% of women to regional councils and 30% to city councils in 20 large cities. At the same time, the tendency has been preserved: the lower the level of the council is, the more women it has. For example, in Ukraine, 32 women headed town communities; 70 women: settlement communities; and 130: village communities, but not a single woman headed the regional council.

Given these results, experts summarise that the quotas worked, although not as effectively as possible.

In addition to competition, women had to deal with gender stereotypes during elections, and political parties sometimes perceived women as a boring formality and did not see their candidates at senior positions.

However, despite this, reality has shown that changes are possible. Therefore, the introduction of quotas was an important step of society towards increasing the political activity of women and equal representation of men and women in decision-making.

Expanding Opportunities for Children from Crimea and Donbas to Enter Ukrainian Universities

Students UkraineIn 2020, the Parliament passed amendments to the law on education, which allowed high school graduates from the temporarily occupied territories to enter any university without passing an external independent testing (EIT) and within certain quotas.

Previously, they were forced to enroll in a very limited number of higher education institutions determined by the Ministry of Education and Science.

Enrollees were allowed to enter a university without passing an EIT and within the quotas because schools in the occupied territories do not teach the Ukrainian language, literature and history of Ukraine, and the Ministry of Education, during the years of Russian aggression, failed to create quality distance courses that would be available to all interested students from Crimea and Donbas.

The public was ambivalent about such a simplified admission procedure. However, human rights activists called this move by the authorities long-awaited and one that provides access to education for children living in conditions of aggressive propaganda and militarisation.

As a result, more than 2,000 school graduates from the occupied Crimea and the temporarily uncontrolled territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions enrolled in Ukrainian universities in 2020.

 Adoption of Procedure for Paying Compensation for Destroyed Housing in Donbas

Donbass UkraineIn September 2020, the Cabinet of Ministers amended the procedure for paying compensation for housing destroyed during the Russian-Ukrainian war, which was insisted on by human rights organisations.

Victims can now receive up to UAH 300,000 in compensation if they own housing in Kyiv-controlled territory that was destroyed after 14 April 2014. Data on such housing will be collected by regional social protection bodies, local governments or civil-military administrations.

The state budget of Ukraine for 2021 envisages UAH 114 million for the payment of compensation for destroyed housing.

Now, experts are advocating the adoption of a separate law that will fully regulate the issue of compensation for destroyed property in general, including non-residential real estate. They also call on the authorities to increase the amount of compensation in the budget and urge the government commission, which forms a consolidated claim against Russia, to demand in international courts that the aggressor country must compensate for budget expenditures.

As a reminder, at least 13,030 residential buildings of all forms of ownership have been destroyed or damaged in the government-controlled territory of the Donetsk region. Among them are 1,129 apartment buildings and 11,901 private houses. In the territory of the Luhansk region, there are 7,468 destroyed houses.

In 2020, 74 people received compensation for destroyed housing in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

 Decision of Prosecutor of International Criminal Court to Investigate Ukraine’s Case

It took six years for the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to determine whether the most serious international crimes falling within the jurisdiction of this court in The Hague have actually taken place in Ukraine.

In December 2020, at the end of her term, Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda concluded that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed during the armed conflict in Ukraine. These crimes include killings, enforced disappearances, torture, persecution for political and religious reasons, forced deportation of the Crimean population, and the colonisation of the peninsula by Russian citizens.

In the future, the prosecutor must apply to the judges of the ICC with a request to initiate a criminal case entitled “Situation in Ukraine.” If the relevant decision is made by the judges, then within the framework of this case, the court will identify, in particular, the top officials responsible for these international crimes committed in Ukraine.

But this victory has a bitter taste. Experts point out that if Ukraine had previously ratified the Rome Statute and thus become a member of the International Criminal Court, the Prosecutor’s Office would have decided to launch an investigation earlier. After all, Ukraine has not yet ratified the Rome Statute, despite its obligations under the Association Agreement with the EU.

Ratification of the Rome Statute allows the state to make proposals and vote on changes to the rules governing the court, including elements of crimes and rules of procedure for proving crimes.

In addition, member countries of the International Criminal Court have the right to initiate various proceedings, to appoint and elect a prosecutor and judges, and to consider and determine the budget and future of the ICC.

However, even despite Ukraine’s inability to become a full member of the International Criminal Court this year, the ICC prosecutor’s decision is an important marker bringing closer responsibility for the most serious international crimes committed during the Russian aggression.

Olha Padiriakova, Yelyzaveta Sokurenko, Mykola Myrnyi, Tetiana Pechonchyk

Zmina Human Rights Centre

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