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Interview: 'Dire' Situation To Worsen With Winter In East Ukraine, Says Rights Commissioner

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights (file photo)

Nils Muiznieks, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights (file photo)

The Council of Europe's human rights commissioner, Nils Muiznieks, says conditions are dire in the section of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists, with many people lacking water, food, or basic care and becoming increasingly isolated.

Muiznieks, who was allowed to travel to separatist-controlled areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for the first time this summer, discussed his findings with RFE/RL's Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels on November 3.

RFE/RL: Today, your office released a report on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine after a visit you made there this summer. How would you describe the humanitarian situation in both the eastern part of the country and in Ukraine in general?

Nils Muiznieks: In the east it is quite dire. There are many who are suffering from lack of access to water. There are many internally displaced persons both in the rebel-held areas as well as the government-controlled areas. There are many people in institutions in the east who are lacking basic care -- older people, persons with disabilities, children, prisoners.

The most vulnerable, that I heard from my interlocutors, were people living at or near the contact line (Editor's note: the military separation line between government-controlled areas and areas held by Russia-backed separatists) -- many older couples living very close to the conflict line who don't want to leave their homes, but do not have regular access to food, water, health care, and so on.

There are also people displaced within [the] Donetsk and Luhansk regions as well as 1.5 million displaced persons living in the rest of Ukraine. They are very vulnerable and especially [now that] winter is coming...the situation is quite difficult with them.

And the problem which I raised there was the access of international humanitarian organizations -- both nongovernmental and international organizations. The local authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk look upon them with great suspicion. Why are they collecting data? What do they want from us? Why are they not helping more? And I tried to explain to them how the humanitarian organizations work, to urge a one-stop shop, to urge the creation of humanitarian corridors, and to make access to help people easier than it is now.

RFE/RL: The report says that you want the Ukrainian government to create an action plan for internally displaced people (IDPs). What would that look like?

Muiznieks: Until now, most of the action to support IDPs has been done by local governments, civil society, and business. The government's coordinating role has not been as prominent as we would like to see it.

Together with the United Nations refugee agency we have been advocating for the creation of a detailed action plan. This is not a short term issue that will be resolved in the coming weeks or months. There needs to be -- pending the possibility of return for these people -- there needs to be thought [about] a durable housing solution; many of them are living in short-term housing. There needs to be thought given to livelihood opportunities -- not only employment, but apprenticeship, microcredits, and so on.

The government has a human rights action plan, which the international community, including my office, helped them to devise, but it needs a specific plan for internally displaced persons. The figures are huge, the needs are huge and there needs to be a coherent approach with the government taking a lead role, coordinating and showing the way forward.

RFE/RL: You have expressed fears that the separatist-controlled parts of Donetsk and Luhansk will be increasingly isolated, creating a sort of frozen conflict. What would be the implications of this?

Muiznieks: I think the key is that you make the permit system flexible so that people can move back and forth between the government-controlled areas and the nongovernment-controlled areas. That people have access to documents so they are not compelled to use some kind of locally [issued] unrecognized documents or Russian documents.

One thing you see now is that these regions are becoming more isolated. And that has a lot of very serious long-term implications -- that they will not have freedom of movement, they will not be able to access social rights, they will not be able to participate in national elections.

Of course, this is not the Ukrainian government's fault -- this is the fault of the separatists there -- but it is clear that the Ukrainian government can take steps to minimize the human rights implication of the conflict on these people and they should do everything within their power to maintain contact and to win the hearts and minds of these people, but also to make sure their rights are fulfilled.

RFE/RL: The actions of Russia are not mentioned in your report at all. Why is that, considering that they are playing such a huge role in the separatist-held areas?

Muiznieks: It is a bit beyond my mandate to look at political and military issues and the involvement or noninvolvement of Russia. I did hear stories of Russian soldiers staying in local hotels -- and that is why I was not staying in one hotel and was staying in another.

I was for a relatively short period of time in Donetsk. I saw what I was allowed to see by the local authorities there. So I was not given unfettered access so I could not say: "Oh, I went there, I saw these kinds of troops; I saw these kinds of people doing these kinds of things."

It was a first visit to, kind of, touch base with the local authorities and take stock of the humanitarian access. I hope to return to do additional human rights work and then I hope I will be able to provide a more balanced and full picture of the human rights situation. Here the focus was on the humanitarian situation.