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Defending Human Rights in Ukraine: First Annual Monitoring Report 2020

25 March 2021

As part of a joint project aiming to increase the role and protection of human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists in Ukraine, the ZMINA Human Rights Centre (Ukraine), in partnership the Netherlands Helsinki Committee (Netherlands) and with the financial support of the European Union, has published its first annual monitoring report on the pressure and persecution faced by human rights defenders (HRDs) and anti-corruption activists in Ukraine. Following the last quarterly report, this annual report provides detailed information on the remainder of the year, namely October- December 2020, while also summarising and reflecting on the overall trends and statistics covering the entire year (Read the first, second and third quarterly reports).

As the report notes, 2020 was characterized by numerous attacks against Ukranian civil society and activists. These attacks were multi-faceted, with one layer being the government’s attempt to undermine the trust in civil society organisations which receive financial support from abroad. Another layer of attacks manifested in the form of legislation proposed in the Verkhovna Rada, the parliament of Ukraine which pose threats to the legal and peaceful operations of civil society. Ranging from libellous designations of civil society organisations as “foreign agents” to the introduction of a requirement for activists to undergo polygraph tests, and a proposed ban on so-called “propaganda of homosexualism,” these bills risked limiting the ability of civil society to engage in civic life as well as endangering their lives.

The report also assessed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and related measures on the human rights situation in Ukraine throughout 2020. Contrary to expectations, the COVID-related restrictions did not greatly reduce the scope and intensity of persecution against HRDs and anti-corruption activists. Throughout 2020, ZMINA recorded 101 cases of persecution against HRDs and anti-corruption activists, including destruction or damage of property, physical aggression, threats and other forms of pressure, judicial proceedings, and privacy violations. Many of the incidents went unreported or were not effectively investigated, leaving the perpetrators free from accountability. The resulting impunity creates an increasingly difficult and perilous working climate for activists where attackers remain undeterred if not encouraged by the absence of repercussions. The case of Kateryna Handziuk is an example where an investigation was officially launched, but was insufficient and possibly disingenuine, in that it was limited in scope to finding the person who murdered her, but did not investigate who was behind the order to assassinate the activist. The report concludes that the most high-risk activities continue to be in the important fields of exposing and opposing corruption; environmental activism; and defending LGBTQI+ rights—areas which play a pivotal role in improving the lives of the people in Ukraine. However, with the overall climate for defending human rights becoming increasingly hostile, the peaceful work of the country’s HRDs and anti-corruption activists is in turn facing increasing challenge and danger.

In line with developments that occurred throughout 2020, the report concludes by calling on international organisations and diplomatic missions to:

I. Publicly recognize the importance of the work of human rights defenders and civil activists by using traditional and new communication methods;
II. Organize regular meetings between human rights defenders and civil activists who are victims of attacks or other types of persecution and representatives of international organizations and diplomats;
III. Maintain contact with human rights defenders and civil activists by organizing events and attending events organized by the latter;
IV. Attend court hearings related to the persecution of human rights defenders and civil activists;
V. Provide financial support to the activities of human rights defenders and civil activists where necessary, including to programs for the monitoring of the status of civil society in Ukraine and for aid to human rights defenders and civil activists who have suffered due to their activities;
VI. Draw the attention of law enforcement agencies to the need to take all possible measures in order to prevent and respond to illegal actions aimed at disrupting peaceful gatherings and other events organized by civil initiatives; and
VII. Highlight the ineffectiveness of investigations into cases of violation of the rights of civil activists as a real threat to the development of civil society and the democratic transformation in Ukraine; and make the resolution of this problem an indicator of the quality of the reform process initiated by the government, and a topic of discussion in international platforms where Ukraine is present.

ZMINA and NHC’s Role

This is the first annual report produced by the ZMINA Human Rights Centre in partnership with the NHC. The report follows upon three quarterly reports researched and published under the “Increasing the Role and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine” project. These reports serve to inform representatives of the Ukrainian government, the media, other states and international organisations, civil society, and the general public. By bringing the human rights situation in Ukraine to the forefront, they contribute to increasing awareness and support for the work of HRDs and anti-corruption activists in the country. The contents of these publication are the sole responsibility of ZMINA Human Rights Centre and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Union.