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Defending Human Rights in Ukraine: Activism Report July – September 2020

28 October 2020

The Netherlands Helsinki Committee is pleased to highlight the third monitoring report, “Activism 2020: A Monitoring Report on Persecution of Activists and Human Rights Defenders,” prepared by the ZMINA Human Rights Center. The report, which covers the period of July – September 2020, is part of a joint project of the NHC and ZMINA Human Rights Center on, “Increasing the Role and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine” supported by the European Union.

Over the third quarter of 2020, ZMINA Human Rights Center recorded 24 new cases of physical attacks and intimidations attempts against activists, most of which took place in the Kyiv region. The most high-risk civil society activities continued to be in the fields of opposing corruption and defending LGBTQI+ rights. According to the report, a sharp increase in aggression by right-wing radicals against LGBTQI+ activists was witnessed in this period, particularly in Odesa, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhia where opponents attacked community centres for LGBTQI+, damaged property, and tried to disrupt pride events. The report does highlight a positive development where a number of human rights activists, including Oleksandr Kolchenko, were acquitted of misdemeanour charges brought against them due to attendance, for example, of demonstrations in front of the Embassy of Belarus in Kyiv.

Photo c/o: Human Rights Centre ZMINA

According to the report, a number of phenomena continued to negatively affect civil society in Ukraine at large. As has been observed in many countries, measures imposed to counter the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the work of civil society organisations and individual activists. Between July and September 2020, most measures which had been introduced in the second quarter of the year were lifted or eased significantly, allowing NGOs and activists to return to their previous activities. However, as witnessed in previous reporting periods, Ukrainian Parliamentarians continued registering controversial bills in Parliament, which risk undemocratic restrictions on fundamental freedoms. For example, new legislative initiatives proposed to remove the term “gender” from Ukrainian legislation, ban “propaganda of homosexuality and transgenderism,” and introduce excessive requirements for disclosing financial information of civil society organisations.

A trend unique to the period of the third monitoring report related to local elections, which took place on 25 October 2020. Some activists who had been previously attacked, pressured or persecuted, presented themselves as candidates in the elections. By doing so, they showed the public that they are not intimidated by threats, surveillance, attacks, or smear campaigns, but indeed are prepared to run for office and actively participate in solving problems in their communities and regions.

Press Conference

ZMINA presented this third monitoring report at a press conference in Kyiv on 22 October 2020. Entitled, “Who Persecutes Activists in 2020 and for What,” the press conference addressed 74 instances of attack or pressure against human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists reported in the government-controlled territory of Ukraine since the beginning of the year. At the conference, Vitaliy Shabunin, the Chair of the board of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre, recounted his experience: his parents were victim of an arson attack against his home on 23 July 2020. According to Shabunin, “It has been three months since the premeditated arson of my house, which has already been confirmed by forensic experts. Employees of the powerful Minister Avakov have still not named either those who ordered it or those who committed it. The night-time arson was conducted in a way that left a minimal chance to save my parents who were inside. Despite the presence of people in the house, the police registered proceedings on intentional damage of property by arson. I disagree with this categorization, because it was a direct attempt on my family members’ lives.” This case is just one example of the overall culture of impunity in Ukraine, where attacks against human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists are rarely properly investigated and prosecuted. (Read the press release in English here).

The NHC-ZMINA Human Rights Center project, “Increasing the Role and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine,” aims to stimulate public demand for the defence of human rights in Ukraine, which will help to remove obstacles for independent civil society and the Ukrainian society as a whole. One of the ways of doing so is by publishing quarterly and annual reports that provide full and up-to-date information about the pressure and risks human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists face. These reports are created to inform representatives of the government, media, international missions, partner organizations, and the general public. (Read the first and second reports here).