Human Rights Watch and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights have both issued reports detailing numerous human rights abuses by Russian-backed militants. The war in Eastern Ukraine has already claimed the lives of more than 2000 combatants and civilians, and has displaced more than a million people from the combat zones, according to United Nations estimates. Human rights organizations have already criticized Russian-backed militants for abuses in the past, and recent reports continue to point to serious abuses as NATO and the Ukrainian government both accuse Russia of directly intervening in the conflict.
On Friday, August 28, 2014 Human Rights Watch issued an article titled Ukraine: Rebel Forces Detain, Torture Civilians. The article, posted on the Human Rights Watch website, details the treatment that prisoners captured by pro-Russian groups are subjected to. “Russian-backed insurgent forces in Eastern Ukraine are arbitrarily detaining civilians and subjecting them to torture, degrading treatment, and forced labor,” reports Human Rights Watch. The human rights organization documented 20 cases of civilian detainments by pro-Russian militants, and interviewed 12 former detainees who claim to have endured beatings, stabbings, mock executions, and other abuses. The report further noted that parties to a conflict are allowed to detain opposing soldiers on security grounds, subject to due process, but added that pro-Russian militants have instead detained civilians critical of their politics and used them as hostages to exchange in return for militants captured by the Ukrainian government.
The posting goes on to detail specific “ongoing detentions.” Serhiy Zakharov, a Donetsk artist whose critical and humorous caricatures of militant leaders brought him temporary fame on social media platforms, was forcibly detained on August 6, 2014. Zakharov’s family has stated that local militants have confirmed that Zakharov remains in custody. In another example, the parents of a woman who works for a Ukrainian-language media platform outside of militant-controlled territory were detained by local militants in Donetsk. The woman, Viktoria Ischenko, later received a phone call from a militant representative, who threatened to harm her parents unless she returned to Donetsk. The report goes on to note the detention of pro-Ukrainian activists, as well as the abuse, torture, and forced labor of journalists in militant-controlled territory.
The Human Rights Watch statements largely corroborate past reports made by the organization, as well as the most recent report on the human rights situation in Ukraine from the office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The latest UN report, released on August 17, 2014 noted that the pro-Russian militants continue to prevent access to the MH17 crash site despite promises to the contrary, as well as “continued to commit killings, abductions, physical and psychological torture, ill treatment, and other serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law.” Civilians are often detained and abused without explanation, or for expressing pro-Ukrainian attitudes. One victim of illegal detention was arrested by the militants because of a picture in his possession in which he wore a vyshyvanka, a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt.
In addition to these serious charges of human rights violations, the UN report again notes that militants often place military equipment and fighters besides highly-populated civilian residences, a practice known as using “human shields.” This tactic is illegal and has contributed to mounting civilian casualties in Eastern Ukraine. Even so, the UN commission warns the Ukrainian government that its military is ultimately responsible for minimizing civilian casualties, even when the militants use them as human shields.
The UN report continued to note other abuses and allegations. The report noted allegations that Russian-backed militants have prevented the evacuation of children to other areas of Ukraine, instead preferring their evacuation to Russia for political purposes. Freedom of assembly, speech, and religion are restricted in militant-controlled territory. In just one example, according to the report, organizers of a “Prayer Marathon” in Donetsk were detained because it was done without approval from the armed groups in the city. The organizers’ Protestant faith aggravated their treatment, as in the “so-called constitution of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the Orthodox Christianity of the Moscow Patriarchate is the only recognized religion, and all other ‘sects’ are prohibited.”
These human rights reports continue to reflect the nature of the pro-Russian militants in the Donbas. Despite the messages from the Kremlin, which seek to portray the fighters as legitimate resisters to the Ukrainian authorities, the militants have used violence as a political tool since the beginning of the conflict. Notwithstanding criticisms of the Ukrainian military’s approach to the conflict, including the shelling of areas populated by militants and civilians and the proliferation of volunteer brigades only under lose control by the government, pro-Russian militants have every desire to implement an authoritarian and brutal rump state in their territory. If Putin succeeds in creating a “frozen conflict” in Eastern Ukraine, if indeed that is his objective, civilians will continue to be subject to the harsh and arbitrary dictates of armed groups that openly celebrate the memory of the Soviet Union and state violence.
Chris Dunnett, Ukraine Crisis Media Center