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Orest Deychakiwsky

The appalling state of human rights and democracy in Russia-occupied Ukraine

 

Soon after Russia’s initial invasion back in 2014, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), which comprises 56 member countries, overwhelmingly passed a resolution initiated by Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin. The resolution – which was bitterly opposed by Russian parliamentarians – called upon Russia to cease its “clear, gross and uncorrected” violations of all 10 founding principles enshrined in the seminal 1975 Helsinki Final Act. These principles include territorial integrity, sovereignty and inviolability of borders – the notion that borders cannot be changed by force.

Ukrainian authorities, backed unequivocally by the Ukrainian people, are laser-focused on regaining control over all of Ukraine’s internationally recognized territory – lands that clearly and rightfully belong to Ukraine. But it’s not just about some esoteric talk regarding territory, or national security, or the rules based international order – it’s about real human beings. It’s about the millions of people inhabiting these lands who are systematically and egregiously denied their basic rights by Russian occupying forces. This is something that needs to be borne in mind by anyone who might advocate for any “land for peace” deals with Russia.

So, it’s not only the geopolitical imperatives that necessitate Ukraine winning this war – meaning the withdrawal of Russian troops from every inch of Ukrainian territory. It’s also about the human imperative, the human dimension. It’s about human rights and democracy and human dignity. Indeed, the 10 Helsinki Final Act principles also famously include respect for human rights. It was this focus that contributed to the demise of the Soviet empire more than three decades ago.

Of course, all these principles are deeply intertwined. The prospects for human rights and democracy are nil as long as Russia occupies any Ukrainian territory. That includes Crimea and the parts of the Donbas they have brutally occupied since 2014.

In February, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres asserted that Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has triggered “the most massive violations of human rights” in the world today. The State Department Human Rights Country Report for Ukraine (and an array of other governments, international organizations and NGOs) lists mass and unlawful killings, including summary executions, forced disappearances, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, interrogations with no due process, arbitrary detention, and sexual violence, among other violations. Large numbers of political prisoners and detainees languish in appalling detention centers. There are severe restrictions on political rights and civil liberties, such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, religion, movement and, of course, the denial of the right of citizens to vote in free and fair elections.

Behind these recitations of violations lie a myriad of gut-wrenching stories of unspeakable suffering and loss inflicted on individual human beings not seen in Europe since the deadliest war in human history – World War II.

Most of these rampant human rights abuses and democracy violations have been inflicted on Ukrainian citizens by the Russian occupiers since 2014, but they have greatly expanded, intensified and acquired new features and even more terrifying practices since February 2022. Think of the crimes against humanity, war crimes and atrocities that occurred in places like Bucha, Irpin, Izyum, Mariupol, Kherson and elsewhere. Add to that the indiscriminate, relentless drone and missile attacks against innocent civilians and the forcible transfer of Ukrainians including the abduction of Ukrainian children to Russia.

And then there is the notorious filtration process – the dehumanizing compulsory security screenings where citizens are often violently interrogated and detained in concentration camps known as filtration camps. There they are subject to killings, torture, rape, starvation, forcible transfers, and other abuses – all part of a centralized plan to break the will of Ukrainian citizens and have them submit to Russia’s authority.

In a recent speech to the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. Ambassador Michael Carpenter asserted: “Ukraine’s civilians in Russia-occupied territories have been unjustly detained under the flimsiest of justifications – if any at all – and under appalling conditions. These detained civilians have been sent to penal colonies or detention facilities in occupied territories or deep within Russia, many without charge, leaving their families no ability to track their whereabouts or to appeal their detention.”

Indeed, this effort aimed at creating a climate of fear and complete subjugation is part and parcel of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s genocidal attempt to erase the Ukrainian nation, starting with the most vulnerable – the children of Ukraine.

In the words of Mr. Carpenter, who was reacting to a recent OSCE report exposing Russia’s war crimes against Ukraine’s children: “It is heart wrenching to think of Ukrainian children being stolen from their families and uprooted from their homes, and then subjected to systematic efforts to erase their Ukrainian identity and replace it with a Russian one. … As the report makes clear, ‘Not only has the Russian Federation manifestly violated the best interests of these children repeatedly, it has also denied their right to identity, their right to family, … as well as their right to thought, conscience and religion, right to health, and right to liberty and security.”

These children have been forced to sing the Russian national anthem and, at least in one instance, threatened to have their “lips sewn shut” if they uttered support for Ukraine. Or, as the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG) put it: “In January, young people in the devastated city of Mariupol were forced to dance and entertain the invading forces – they were made ‘to thank the killers of their parents, relatives and their childhood [friends], to thank them and entertain them with shows. Parents were warned that anyone who was against, or who filmed it, faced [being imprisoned in]basements for the dissatisfied.’”

In addition to the ongoing egregious abuses, including harsh prison sentences that continue to be meted out to Crimean Tatars and other pro-Ukrainian activists on specious charges, below are just a few recent examples of the sad state of democracy and human rights in Russia-occupied Ukraine.

In the ongoing efforts to force Russian citizenship on Ukrainians in the newly “annexed” territories, on April 27, Putin issued a decree designating those who do not accept Russian citizenship as “foreigners.” Among other things, this “passportization” makes men eligible for mobilization into the Russian military. Those without Russian documents will not have access to social services or medical help (including insulin). They will not be able to retain property rights, hold certain jobs, or even leave the occupied territories. In Melitopol, starting June 1, you reportedly cannot see a doctor without a Russian passport. In Luhansk oblast, youth are threatened that they will not be permitted to graduate without a Russian passport. And, not surprisingly, Russia is only evacuating Russian passport-holders from the occupied areas that were flooded in southern Kherson following the breaching of the Kakhovka dam on June 6. Furthermore, Russian occupiers evict families from apartment buildings in Mariupol and steal their boats in Kherson Oblast. They relocate Russian families to inhabit deserted Ukrainian homes. In Crimea, thousands of Ukrainians without Russian passports have already lost their plots of land.

On May 29, Putin signed another law allowing “regional” elections in a pathetic attempt to legitimize the occupation. It will supposedly take place on September 1. I say “supposedly” because some of these places may very well be liberated by then. Should they take place, they will be neither free nor fair. In short, they will be a farce just as all previous elections and referenda held in occupied Ukraine since 2014 have been – that list includes, most recently, the sham September 2022 annexation referenda in Kherson, Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The law also allows the possibility of “forced and controlled movement of citizens from the territory where martial law is imposed to territories where martial law is not imposed.”

All this, and much, much more, reflects the harsh reality of Russian occupation in Ukraine. Of course, any places liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the counteroffensive will see dramatic improvements with respect to rights and freedoms, not to speak of an immediate cessation of Russian attempts to erase Ukrainian identity.

Some international politicians and analysts believe that negotiations between Ukraine and Russia are inevitable, although it seems highly unlikely in the near term. In the event of such a deal, the genocide and gross human rights violations would not magically disappear in any lands that remain under the Russian boot. Political freedoms and civil liberties would still be crushed. In any “land for peace” deal, there would be no peace – certainly not for those Ukrainians living under Russian subjugation.

The future of democracy and human rights in Ukraine depends on the outcome of the war and the response of the international community, led by the United States. The Ukrainian people, especially those under occupation, have already endured tremendous suffering. They deserve freedom, peace, security, justice and dignity – which only a decisive Ukrainian military victory can provide.


Orest Deychakiwsky may be reached at orestdeychak@gmail.com.