Last month, a staggering 96.77 percent of Crimea's voters
reportedly chose to secede from Ukraine and join Russia,
sending what Moscow described as an unequivocal signal that the region wanted
nothing to do with its erstwhile leaders in Kiev.*
But supporters of secession weren't willing to take any chances,
flooding the airwaves with scare-mongering propaganda and violently repressing
virtually any show of dissent, according to the findings of a confidential U.N.
draft report on the human rights
situation throughout Ukraine in the run-up to the vote. A final version of the
report is expected to be presented to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday,
April 15, and then subsequently made public. It comes amid growing concerns in
Washington and other Western capitals that Russian strongman Vladimir Putin may
be preparing to invade eastern Ukraine as well.
The U.N. report represents the first independent assessment of
the human rights situation in Ukraine since a bloody crackdown on pro-Europe
protesters plunged the country into turmoil, leading to the ouster in February
of the country's former President Viktor Yanukovych, the unrest in Crimea, and
Russia's subsequent invasion and annexation of Crimea. The report notes that
Ukrainian political life has long been afflicted by endemic corruption and a
"culture of effective impunity" that subjected Ukrainians to the
whims of security forces that
systematically violated their human rights. But it focused most sharply on the
political upheaval that followed Yanukovych's decision in November not to sign
an association agreement with the European Union, a decision that brought tens
of thousands of protesters into the streets of Kiev and Ukraine's other major
Ten days before the March 16 referendum, Ukrainian television
broadcasts were "shut off" in Crimea, replaced by Russian TV channels
supporting secession, according to the report. (Ukrainian authorities
retaliated by blocking Russian broadcasts in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.)
Bloggers, activists and other critics of secession were threatened, detained,
and tortured. A delegation of human rights monitors, meanwhile, "received many reports of vote
rigging," according to the report.
"The delegation met with sources who claimed that there had
been alleged cases of non-Ukrainian citizens participating in the referendum as
well as individuals voting numerous times in different locations,"
according to the 38-page draft report, written by Ivan Simonovic, the U.N.
assistant secretary general for human rights. "Preliminary findings, based
on publicly available information as well as reports from civil society
representatives in Crimea, suggest that the referendum on March 16 raised a
number of concerns in terms of respect for human rights."
Last month, Simonovic made two trips to Ukraine, conducting
fact-finding missions to Kiev, Kharkiv, Lviv, and the Crimean cities of
Sevastapol and Simferopol. Initially refused entry into Crimea by local
authorities, Simonovic was ultimately allowed into the separatist peninsula.
The objective of the mission, according to the report, was to provide
"impartial reporting" that can "trigger accountability for human
rights violations" and prevent the "manipulation of information,
which serves to create a climate of and insecurity."
On the eve of Crimea's referendum, Ukraine emerged as a
propaganda battlefield, with Russia's state-owned broadcasters beaming news
reports with exaggerated portrayals of violent demonstrations in Kiev, ginning
up fears that Ukrainian nationalists were preparing a wave of violent
anti-Russian attacks. At the same time, extremist nationalists that served on
the front lines of the Ukrainian protest movement threatened violence against
Ukrainian broadcasters that they accused of failing to promote a sufficiently
patriotic view of events. "As a result, people both in Russia and Ukraine,
and notably in Crimea, are victims of propaganda and misinformation,"
according to the report.
The report skates delicately around allegations of Russia's role
in stage-managing the Crimean crisis, stopping short of directly assigning
Moscow blame for orchestrating the secessionist campaign. But it sprinkles the
report with circumstantial evidence of Moscow's influence, citing reports of
Russian military presence in Crimea and of "a significant raise of
propaganda on the Russian television" in the weeks leading up to the
There is little evidence in the report to suggest that Crimea's
Russian-speaking majority would have voted any differently if conditions were
less threatening to dissidents. But Simonovic's findings underscore the heavy-handed
efforts used to influence the outcome of the referendum, as well as the
personal risks faced by those making the case for remaining part of Ukraine.
Crimea's March 16 referendum was marred by "credible
allegations of harassment, arbitrary arrest, and torture targeting activists
and journalists who did not support the referendum," according to the
draft. Some activists were hauled into a
military compound called the Military Drafting Center in Simferopol. On March
9, the report said, Andrei Schekun and Anatoli Kovalski were allegedly
kidnapped and later released with signs of "ill treatment or
torture." Reshat Ametov, a Crimean Tatar who was reportedly abducted by
uniformed men, was found dead on the day of the referendum "with alleged
signs of torture, hand-cuffed and with adhesive tape over his mouth,"
according to Simonovic.
"The presence of paramilitary and so called self-defense
groups as well as soldiers in uniform with insignia, widely believed to be from
the Russian Federation, was not conducive to an environment in which voters
could freely exercise their right to hold opinions and the right to freedom of
expression," according to the draft's executive summary.
The report challenged the Russian Federation's contention that
ethnic Russians in Crimea had been threatened or mistreated, saying that
"it is widely assessed that Russian speakers have not been subject to
threats in Crimea." On the contrary, Russian and Crimean authorities have
contributed a climate of "uncertainty" for Crimean Tatars by
announcing plans to resettle Tatars who have illegally occupied land while the
await restitution for property seized during the mass deportation of the Tatars
by the Soviet Union. "The overall climate of uncertainty has led some
people, predominantly Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians to leave Crimea," the
While there was "no evidence of harassment or attacks on
ethnic Russians ahead of the referendum," Russian broadcasters ran
"greatly exaggerated stories" and misinformation suggesting that
nationalist Ukrainian extremists were heading to Crimea to persecute ethnic
Russians. Such scare tactics were "systematically used to create a climate
of fear and insecurity," according to the draft report.
"In eastern Ukraine, where a large ethnic Russian minority
resides, the situation remains particularly tense with ethnic Russians fearing
that the central government does not represent their interests," Simonovic
said. "Although there were some attacks against the ethnic Russian
community, these were neither systematic nor widespread."
The report provides sufficient material to bolster claims by the
United States and other Western powers that Russia has exaggerated the extent
to which Russian speakers have been threatened in Crimea. "The report
clearly refutes the entire justification for Russian activities on Crimea and
beyond," said one Western diplomat who had seen the report. "We have
always been saying that the Russian narrative of a 'preventative responsibility
to protect' is a sham. Now we also have certainly from the U.N. that there were
no widespread, systematic violations of the rights of Russian speakers on
Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine."
But the report also provides evidence to support Russian claims
that extremist Ukrainian nationalists pose a threat to the country's stability.
Simonovic is sharply critical of the Ukrainian security forces that initially
participated in the crackdown on pro-Europe protesters, as well as hardline
elements in the protest coalition that have stirred up Ukraine's nationalist
The emergence of hardline nationalists and pro-Russian extremists
has contributed to a dangerous rift between the country's Ukrainian and Russian
speakers and radicalized the political landscape from Kiev to the Crimean
capitol of Sevastapol, according to the draft.
Simonovic said that "tensions have decreased, along with
allegations of human rights violations," since a transitional government
took power. But he faulted Ukraine's ruling parliamentary coalition for
promoting a motion on Feb. 23 to repeal a law that makes Russian an
official language. (The motion was never signed by Ukraine's transitional
president.) He also raised concern about a potential purge of Ukrainian
officials that worked closely with the Yanukovych administration, once served
in the KGB, or held government position in the former Soviet Union or Communist
Simonovic also expressed concern that the upcoming May 25
presidential election in Ukraine could be marred by a surge of anti-Russian fervor.
"The advocacy of national, racial or religious hated that constitutes
incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence and nationalistic rhetoric
witnessed during the Maidan protests may have an adverse impact on the
situation in Ukraine."
The report provides no answer to one of the most lingering human
rights questions from the crisis: the identity of the snipers responsible for
opening fire during the February 18-20 clashes with demonstrators attending the
so-called Maidan protests. The violence
left 121 people dead, including 101 pro-Europe protesters and 11 policemen.
Hundreds more were hospitalized, including some who remain in critical
condition, while as many as 150 have disappeared.
Simonovic claimed security forces from Ukraine's Berkut riot
police tortured and beat protesters, forcing one demonstrator to strip naked in
the freezing snow as one officer filmed him on his cell phone. "The new
minister of Health Mr. Oleg Musii, indicated ... that he saw law enforcement
officers removing the bodies of individuals who are still unaccounted
for," Simonovic wrote. "He noted the snipers were aiming to kill
(targeting the head and vital organs of the victims) and also depicted case of
police brutality, including beatings of medical staff and preventing medical
personnel from attending to the wounded," according to the report.
But Simonovic also cited concerns about hardline members of the
protest coalition. Among those is the rising influence of right-wing extremists
groups, who served on the "front lines" of the Maidan protest
movement. November's bloody crackdown on "largely peaceful"
protesters by Yanukovych's security forces, especially the Berkut special
police, "led to a significant radicalization" of the protest movement.
Some hardline Ukrainian nationalists forced regional governors to
sign resignation letters. Alexander Muzyehko, a member of the radical Right
Sector, "filmed himself
intimidating and physically assaulting" a government prosecutor. In one
widely publicized incident in March, a representative of the right wing
Ukrainian Svoboda party assaulted the head of National Television Company of
Ukraine and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. "The departure of
President Yanukovych put an end to the bloody confrontations, but daunting new
challenges emerged," the report concluded.
*Correction (April 10, 2014): An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 96.77 percent of Crimean residents reportedly voted in favor of secession. It was 96.77 percent of Crimean voters who reportedly chose secession. (Return to reading.)
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