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Fundamental freedoms squeezed in Ukraine, Human Rights Council hears

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Since the fighting began in early 2014 in eastern Ukraine, educational facilities on both sides of the contact line have been damaged or destroyed (file photo).

The UN Human Rights Council heard on Wednesday that fundamental freedoms in Ukraine have been squeezed in Government-controlled areas, as well as across the contact line in eastern territories, held by mainly pro-Russian separatists. 

Addressing the Council in Geneva amid steadily increasing international tensions over Ukraine, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, said that similar violations continued to be documented in the Crimea, which she described as having been “temporarily occupied by the Russian Federation” since 2014.   

Ms. Nashif noted that the UN rights office, OHCHR, had documented 29 incidents targeting journalists, media professionals, bloggers and individuals who had been critical of the Government “or mainstream narratives”, between November 2019 and October 2021. 

“Of particular concern is the lack of accountability for threats and violence targeting human rights defenders, media workers, and individuals who express opinions online or attempt to participate in policy-making,” said Ms. Nashif, who added that those targeted had covered topics such as corruption and the implementation of COVID-19 restrictions. 

“Impunity fuels further attacks, contributing to an environment of self-censorship, narrowing civic space and curtailing pluralism,” the Deputy High Commissioner said, adding that the situation tended to “discourage participation in public affairs and civic activism”. 

Eastern woes 

Turning to the east of the country and the self-proclaimed “republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk, Ms Al-Nashif said that similar rights and basic freedoms “have been severely restricted since the armed groups took control in 2014”. 

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This had led to “an erosion of space for free expression and independent activism”, the Deputy High Commissioner insisted, noting that the de facto authorities in each “republic” had amended legislation to curb criticism posted online “and to restrict participation in public affairs”. 

Luhansk and Donetsk authorities had also “arbitrarily detained, or threatened to detain, social media users for expressing their views online, and individuals who participated in peaceful assemblies critical of decision-making in the territory”, she continued. 

Those articulating “pro-Ukrainian views” or opinions have continued to be a target, the Deputy High Commissioner said. “In November 2019, an entrepreneur was detained in the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ for publicly expressing his pro-Ukrainian views. He was held incommunicado for three days, and later sentenced to 13.5 years in prison.” 

Other activists who face particular dangers include women human rights defenders who support domestic violence survivors, Ms. Al-Nashif continued. 

Crimea curbs 

Similar restrictions on freedom of expression have continued in the Crimea, the Deputy High Commissioner said, particularly those “targeting opinions critical of Russian Federation policies and practices on the peninsula. Journalists who expressed dissenting or critical views were subjected to surveillance, criminal prosecution, arrests, prohibition of entry into Crimea and deportation from Crimea.”  

Among Member States’ concerns at the Council, the European Union delegation called for access to the whole of Ukraine, while Belarus warned that between four and 10 million people had fled the country amid increasing poverty. 

The United Kingdom urged Russia to end its “threatening and destabilizing behaviour” amid a military build-up on Ukraine’s borders, while Russia noted with concern the closing down of Russian-language TV channels and the stigmatization of those working for Russian-speaking media. 

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