Human rights situation in occupied Crimea is only worsening. What should be done about it
The problem of human rights violations in the illegally annexed Crimea remains on the agenda of international and Ukrainian venues even after almost six years of illegal occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia. However, despite numerous appeals, orders, and sanctions, the problem is not only unresolved, but is clearly exacerbating. QHA media figured out what to do about it.
Pressure from outside
A meeting to discuss the situation in the Russian-occupied peninsula called “Fighting for Human Rights in the Crimea” is scheduled for late January in Washington. It is cosponsored by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, PEN America, the US and Ukraine Foundation, as well as the Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies at Georgetown University. Speakers who will talk about the issue include former Crimean political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, PEN Ukraine President Andriy Kurkov and Maria Tomak from the Human Rights Media Initiative.
On January 16, at a meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna, the US mission again expressed its concern about the systematic violations of human rights in Crimea by the Russian authorities, and called on the occupiers to stop violating OSCE principles. In his speech, Ambassador James Gilmore referred to a report by the United Nations Monitoring Mission for Human Rights in Ukraine that included interviews with released political prisoners, who reported on torture, threats of sexual violence, asphyxiation and beatings.
“We fear that the dozens of remaining Ukrainian political prisoners that Russia holds may be experiencing the same severe mistreatment. We call on Russia to release them and return them to their homes and families,” the diplomat said.
Ukrainian Oleg Prikhodko, who is accused of terrorism by the Russian repressive machine in the Crimea for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression in protest against the occupation, was mentioned separately. The US reiterated its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity within recognized borders, including territorial waters, and emphasized the non-recognition of annexation of the peninsula by Russia, as well as the continued sanctions against the aggressor country.
Also recently, the human rights organization Human Right Watch mentioned the situation in the Crimea in its World Report 2020, which stated that dozens of Crimean Tatars, most of whom were activists of the Crimean Solidarity initiative, were imprisoned for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir, which Russia considers terrorist, although the organization is not banned in Ukraine, that is, in Crimea as well. Human rights defenders note that none of the detainees has been charged with any act of violence, but in addition, four people have been tortured. The report separately mentioned Crimean Tatar activist Edem Bekirov, who was released only as a result of the September exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia, that is, two months after the relevant order of the European Court of Human Rights (due to Bekirov’s grave illness), as well as lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who was expelled from the Crimean Bar Association for the protection of “extremists” and even imprisoned for several days for publication about “Hizb ut-Tahrir” of 2013.
A view from the inside
At one of the UN’s indigenous events, Crimean Tatar human rights defender Ridvan Bariyev suggested introducing some mechanisms at the UN to protect Crimean Tatars under Russian occupation, including:
- appointment of a Special Rapporteur on Crimean Tatars;
- a visit by the High Commissioner to Crimea, or at least an attempt to enter Crimea through Ukraine;
- establishment of a separate platform and annual hearings at the Human Rights Council on a permanent basis.
In an interview with QHA media, Bariyev said that the politically-motivated case Hizb ut-Tahrir is now mostly mentioned in the context of occupied Crimea, but many aspects and issues concerning the majority of people still need addressing, including the situation in the Crimea with infrastructure, schools, hospitals and other such things. A separate issue, according to the human rights activist, concerns the Russians who have moved to the peninsula since 2014, that is, after the Russian annexation.
It is worth noting, that one of the ways that could facilitate resolving the problem of human rights and the Crimean issue in general, was recently suggested by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people and implies raising the issue of the occupied Ukrainian peninsula and its indigenous people on all international platforms where Russia is present.
Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Crimean Human Rights Group
for QHA media
On international pressure on Russia to end human rights abuses in Crimea
It is obvious that statements by international organizations condemning human rights violations in the Crimea, which have been sounding is the sixth consecutive year, will sound again. However, Ukraine still needs to make efforts to prevent the Crimean issue from taking a back seat. For now, many want reconciliation and try to improve relations with Russia at the expense of Ukraine’s interests.
It is necessary to keep at least the situation we have now: when a Crimean resolution (at the UN General Assembly) is adopted at least every year, although gradually one or two votes in favor disappears. Let’s see how the issue of the Crimean resolution will be promoted this year, whether it gains enough votes for its adoption.
Of course, we would like to impose effective sanctions against Russia for human rights abuses in the Crimea. But as we can see, they are now unlikely to be imposed. We see a difference in sanctions, say, regarding Nord Stream 2: The United States can introduce effective sanctions when it comes to their interests. Unfortunately, there was no such level of sanctions for annexation of the Crimea, and I’m not sure it will. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Ukraine to demand that its partners strengthen their sanctions, because now we ourselves do not comply with the sanctions Ukraine imposed, continuing to cooperate with the Russian Federation on many issues. We must first set an example ourselves.
The importance of keeping the international community informed about the situation in Crimea
It is difficult to single out something that has proven effective in protecting human rights in the Crimea. This is, after all, a set of measures that the state must implement. Human rights defenders will continue to work, but it is important that the interest in the Crimean issue does not disappear so that the problems of human rights violations were covered by the media.
However, an information strategy on Crimea should emerge in Ukraine. There were some attempts to do it, but I didn’t see it going into force in any way.
At the same time, the UATV broadcasting channel, which paid a lot of attention to the issue of Crimea and where the Crimean Human Rights Group was constantly invited, ceased operations this year. And of course this will have an effect on informing people. From what I understand, Ukraine is now refusing such foreign broadcasting, and what will substitute it – I have not seen any strategy or plans on how to convey information about Crimea. There is no alternative to this channel.
Probably, it is only for us, human rights organizations, to cooperate with foreign media in order to somehow convey information through them. Increasing the interest of foreign media in Crimea can be facilitated by what we organize internationally if we go to countries with some advocacy visits. But, unfortunately, Ukrainian human rights defenders have no such continuous cooperation with foreign media. There are single appeals from foreign media, there is almost no permanent cooperation.
Creation of the international platform on Crimea
I am convinced that the creation of an international platform on the Crimea could improve the situation with the protection of human rights in the Crimea. But there is no solution yet to create this platform. And so far I have not heard that Ukraine has any strategy and that there are some negotiations with international partners, or that someone would agree to participate in the Crimean format already. It is clear that Russia is a separate issue. But until Ukraine initiates it itself and starts addressing other countries, this issue will not disappear. Nobody will propose to create this platform for us. In plain language, it is a superfluous concern for someone to create a negotiating platform, then negotiate with Putin, and press on him. No one would want to do it on their own initiative, unless we do it ourselves.
Options for effective support for Crimean political relations by the international community
The countries, which I think are most interested in the situation with Crimean political prisoners, are the United Kingdom and the United States. They do the most in promoting this topic.
How to help? Foreign partners, for example, have the opportunity to attend some court hearings that take place in the Russian Federation. And sometimes they do. Of course, they cannot go to Crimea, but we know that many Crimeans are taken to the Russian Federation and tried there.
They could also visit our political prisoners already in the colonies because the prisoners are there in horrible conditions, with little or no medical assistance. And I am sure that the attention of international partners, ambassadors or other representatives could help to ensure that prisoners are at least kept in more human conditions.
Moreover, foreign countries support our Crimean NGOs and help us work. It is also important because there is almost no state support.
Dismal perspectives on the human rights situation in Crimea
The human rights situation in the occupied Crimea is clearly not improving, it is worsening and one should not expect a breakthrough in the positive direction this year. Especially in the light of the incomprehensible innovations in Russia that will further aggravate the situation. We are talking about the Russian president’s constitutional initiatives announced this week. In particular, statements about the priority of Russian legislation over international law. How it will be implemented is unclear, but this message that they do not want to adhere to the decisions of any international courts means that it will become even more difficult to influence Russia to respect human rights in the Crimea. Let’s say the same UN tribunal has no mechanism to force Russia to comply with its decision.