Thebiggest human-rights concern in Ukraine isn’t threats to ethnic Russians, but exaggeration, distortion of facts and widespread misuse of the media, theUnited Nations said in a report released today.
Contradicting Russian claims, the UN’s Geneva-based human rights office said it found no evidence of “widespread nor systemic” persecution of the nation’s ethnic Russian minority. The report is the first since Ukraine fell into unrest in November. Tensions continued to escalate after Russia annexed Crimea last month.
The 28-page report also undercuts the argument of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government that its military is needed to protect the Russian-speaking minorities in Crimea, the peninsula on the Black Sea, and other parts of Ukraine.
While the UN found some isolated anti-Semitic incidents and harassment and attacks against ethnic Russians, the violations were “neither widespread nor systemic” in Crimea, the report says. “Although there was no evidence of harassment or attacks on ethnic Russians ahead of the referendum, there was widespread fear for their physical security.”
“Photographs of the Maidan protests, greatly exaggerated stories of harassment of ethnic Russians by Ukrainian nationalist extremists, and misinformed reports of them coming armed to persecute ethnic Russians in Crimea, were systematically used to create a climate of fear and insecurity that reflected on support to integration of Crimea into the Russian Federation,” the UN said, without identifying who created the climate of fear.
The report doesn’t definitively identify whether camouflage-wearing armed groups or pro-Russian separatists were deployed or directed by Putin’s government. Instead, it characterizes them as “allegedly” and “widely believed to be from the Russian Federation.”
It also challenges Russian claims that the March 16 referendum in which Crimeans voted to reunite the region with Russia were free and fair. The presence of “paramilitary and so-called self-defense groups as well as soldiers in uniform without insignia, widely believed to be from the Russian Federation,” did not create “an environment in which voters could freely exercise their right to hold opinions and the right to freedom of expression” during the referendum, according to the report.
“There have also been credible allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and torture targeting activists and journalists who did not support the referendum,” the UN said.
On March 27, the UN General Assembly adopted a nonbinding resolution declaring the Crimea referendum invalid. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the next day that the international body is guided by the General Assembly’s verdict, and doesn’t consider Crimea part of Russia.
The report contains “preliminary findings” collected up to April 2 and are based on two trips to the region in March by UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic. Simonovic, a former Croatian diplomat, made a two-day visit to Crimea on March 21 to March 22.
It does acknowledge that the ethnic Russian minority in eastern Ukraine remains concerned that Ukrainian authorities in Kiev don’t represent their interests, and says this will be a key task for the interim government as part of its efforts to bolster stability.
“Recent developments in the eastern part of Ukraine and in Crimea are likely to have an impact on radical groups with possible signs of nationalistic sentiments and rhetoric, and therefore need to be closely monitored,” the UN said.
“It will be important, in particular in the preparation of the 25 May elections, to ensure free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives,” according to the report. “This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion.”