Jan 08, 2016

Crimean Tatars: Event at the UN Discusses Human Rights Situation in Crimea

The deteriorating conditions of human rights in Crimea was in the spotlight of a series of programmes that took place at the UN in New York [December 2015]. Bringing together international human rights activists, diplomats and lawyers, the panellists discussed the unprecedented levels of intimidation of Crimean Tatars under Russian illegal occupation. Among the “dangerous trends”, the event highlighted that Crimean Tatars are being forced to accept Russian citizenship and denied the use of their own language.

Below is an article published by The Ukrainian Weekly

The human rights situation in Crimea is “dire” and will continue to deteriorate unless there is immediate action, was the urgent message of a series of programs in New York featuring international human rights activists, diplomats and lawyers, and the release of a new report on human rights violations in Crimea.

“The Occupation of Crimea: Human Rights, Global Security and International Order” on December 9, 2015, at the United Nations was a by-invitation-only event sponsored by the Ukrainian American organization Razom and the newly formed VOLYA Institute for Contemporary Law and Society.

Yuriy Sergeyev, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N., opened the event by citing “dangerous trends”: Crimean citizens being forced to accept Russian citizenship, the kidnapping of Crimean Tatars, and violation of the right to use one’s own language, among others.

He added that on December 4, 2015, the Russian Duma adopted a law allowing it to overrule judgments from the European Court of Human Rights. This law specifically aims to “protect the interests of Russia” in the face of decisions by international bodies responsible for ruling on human rights, according to the TASS news agency.

Ivanna Bilych, president of VOLYA Institute, presented the key findings of the report “Human Rights in Occupied Territory: Case of Crimea.” The comprehensive analysis provides background for the Crimea crisis, examines the violation of human rights within the current context of occupation and makes recommendations for action.  It was prepared by an international team of lawyers led by Ms. Bilych, with the support of New York University School of Law, under the guidance of Mary Holland, director of the NYU Graduate Legal Skills Program, who moderated the discussion.

As an annex to the report, the group also produced a “Human Rights Protection Guide,” a practical resource that will be useful to Crimean citizens, explaining their rights and how to seek redress. Known as “the manual,” it lists Ukrainian and international human rights protection organizations and advocacy groups where individuals can report violations and ask for advice. It is available in Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar, Russian and English, and can be downloaded at volyainstitute.org or razomforukraine.org/Crimeareport, along with the human rights report itself.

Olena Sharvan, one of the co-authors, highlighted several of the 61 recommendations for action in the report, including establishing a dedicated hotline for reporting human rights violations.  A lawyer and human rights advocate based in Ukraine, she described her own revealing experience of trying to report an abuse via telephone (as an experiment), only to receive an official letter stating it was not possible to make such a complaint.

The concern and support of the larger international community was represented by several speakers, including Gabrielius Landsbergis, a member of the European Parliament from Lithuania, who joined the meeting via Skype.  Mr. Landsbergis said that the European strategy of wanting to maintain good relations with Russia “no matter what” had paved the way to the current crisis.

His remarks were echoed by Georgian Permanent Representative to the U.N. Kaha Imnadze, who said, “What I’m hearing today is a deja vu. The inadequate response to Russian aggression in Georgia in 2008 paved the way to Crimea.”

Anna Fotyga, a member of the European Parliament from Poland, referenced the ethnic cleansing of Crimean Tatars by Stalin after World War II in her condemnation of the occupation.

João Vale de Almeida, permanent representative of European Union to the U.N., denounced the “unprecedented levels of intimidation” of Crimean Tatars.

Bohdan Yaremenko of Maidan of Foreign Affairs, a Ukrainian nonprofit organization, said the situation in Crimea is directly connected to that in eastern Ukraine.  The priority for Russia is the development of Crimea as a military base, which requires eliminating from the territory all “disloyal people,” a broad category that includes journalists, Crimean Tatars, activists and all religions except the Russian Orthodox Church. He said that the natural resources of Crimea are being destroyed, citing among others, the increased salinity of the soil.

Andriy Klymenko, chief editor of Black Sea News and an economist originally from Crimea, told the audience that a criminal case was opened against him in Russia three days after he presented a report on Crimea in Washington in March. He was fortunate to escape, and said that Russia considers Crimea a “war trophy” and treats everyone and everything there with contempt.

The panelist who spoke most personally was Yuriy Yatsenko, who related the story of his arrest, torture and imprisonment in Russia. Mr. Yatsenko was arrested in May 2014 in the Kursk region of Russia while traveling on business.  Russian police showed a photo taken of him during the Maidan protests and demanded that he falsely testify that he had been recruited to commit subversive acts in Russia. When he refused, he was brutally beaten and tortured, and imprisoned for a year.

Mr. Yatsenko attributed his release to a coordinated campaign of work by attorneys, human rights organizations and international pressure. He is the first person rescued from the list of Ukrainian nationals persecuted on political grounds in Russia, and he repeatedly mentioned those who remain behind bars:  Nadiya Savchenko, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Oleh Sentsov, Gennadiy Afanasiev, Olexii Chirnii, Sergiy Lytvynov, Mykola Karpiuk, Stanislav Klyh, Oleksandr Kostenko, Haiser Dzhemilev, Yurii Soloshenko, Valentyn Vyhyvskii and Viktor Shur.

“We also demand that Crimea be de-occupied and that everyone be released from the places of detention: Akhtem Chyihoz, Ali Asanov, Mustafa Dehermendzhy, Yuriy Ilchenko, Ruslan Zaytullaev, Nuri Primov, Rustam Vaytov, Ferat Sayfullaev,” he added. Mr. Yatsenko is part of the LetMyPeopleGo Campaign, formed in April to raise awareness of Ukrainian citizens illegally detained in Russia on political grounds.

The danger in Crimea was reflected in the production of the human rights report itself: in the acknowledgments, the authors thank by name all who contributed, along with “the very courageous translator from Crimea who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of persecution.”

The report was prepared under the auspices of Razom, a nonprofit organization that emerged in the U.S. during the Euro-Maidan movement and is engaged in humanitarian assistance, public education, community dialogue and civil society development.

In conjunction with the U.N. event, two programs were held in New York, both of which were open to the public. The Shevchenko Scientific Society hosted a roundtable on December 8 that included many of the same speakers and was moderated by Bohdan Pechenyak, VOLYA Institute board member.

VOLYA Institute, Razom and the Ukrainian Studies Program at Columbia University co-sponsored a December 9 roundtable at Columbia University, co-hosted by the Central Asian Students Association and the Ukrainian Students Society. The roundtable was moderated by Huseyin Oylupinar from Turkey, currently Mihaychuk Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. In addition to those mentioned above, speakers included Walter Zaryckyj, executive director of the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (CUSUR). Viktor Balashov, a Russian dissident, initiated the idea for the Columbia event, and Yelyzaveta Prysyazhnyuk, president of the Central Asian Students Association, took the lead in organizing it.

The speakers later traveled to Washington to present the findings on human rights abuses in Crimea at an official public hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on December 11, as well as at other meetings on Capitol Hill. The full official transcript of the briefing will be available soon, and details of the presentations and meetings will be reported in the near future.

Photo cortesy of The Ukrainian Weekly (Yuriy Lozitskiy)