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Ukraine: Human Rights Ombudsman In Tough Spot

Ukraine has had a functioning human rights ombudsman for more than a year now. But correspondent Lily Hyde reports from Kyiv that lingering public uncertainty about the position and an unclear legal mandate has left the post less effective than it could be.

Kyiv, 7 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- When Ukraine last year established the post of an ombudsman charged with monitoring, protecting and upholding the rights of individuals, it was conforming with human rights practices in more than 70 countries.

Hopes were high when the post was included as part of Ukraine's Constitution and later last year, when Nina Karpachova was elected by parliament to head the office.

But the reality has not lived up to expectations. Some citizens who feel their human rights have been violated say that the office seems remote and unhelpful. And employees of the office say they lack the resources to provide much help.

The problems come at a critical stage for Ukraine's international relations. The Council of Europe is threatening to annul Ukraine's credentials this month if the country does not introduce better human rights legislation. While the ombudsman's office is only a small part of Ukraine's human rights picture, improvements to the office's functioning would clearly help its image abroad.

Under existing laws, the post's powers are fairly clear. Any citizen or resident can address complaints to the ombudsman, who can then present their case to authorities or to the Constitutional Court.

The ombudsman also has the right to unrestricted access to any public official, from the president on down, and is free to inspect any government institution, such as prisons.

The problem is that the law does not provide the ombudsman with much enforcement authority or penalize those who obstruct human rights inquiries. Although the law states the executive branch should work out and submit all necessary amendments to Ukrainian legislation to comply with the mandate of the ombudsman, this has not been done.

According to Karpachova, her office has done the job instead, and has come up with amendments to some 70 laws to allow her to operate as the law on the ombudsman stipulates. However, these amendments have not been enacted.

One of her aides, Vasily Radko, tells RFE/RL that the failure to enact the amendments means that the office can do little to address the concerns of those who petition it.

"There's no commentary on the law for the plenipotentiary for human rights. We made our changes to 70 laws because the rights of the plenipotentiary secretariat aren't written [in legislation]. Until that's done it's difficult for people and for us. We need such an institution with plenipotentiary power. You see that people appeal to us, with their misfortunes, as a last resort. Of course we want our help to be more functional but at this stage we can only talk to people and help if we can."

There are other shortcomings. Last year, the office was not included in the budget, so the staff depended solely on contributions from the foreign diplomatic community. The staff of 30 are squeezed into a few small rooms, with little space to meet those who turn up to explain their pleas or get help in formulating their appeals.

Radko says part of the problem is that a large percentage of those who come to the office have complaints that aren't within its competence. He said that is what he had to tell half the people he had talked with on the day RFE/RL visited.

Radko has an unenviable task. He must greet and listen to dozens of people with seemingly hopeless and difficult problems every day.

In a typical visit, Ivan Lukashak, a former collective farm head from Khmelnitsky region, claims he was unfairly convicted of alleged abuse of his position because he installed a telephone at work and tried to privatize the farmland. The story is immensely complicated, and he has brought it all before the ombudsman before.

"Where can I go? If this is a committee for the protection of human rights, I think if they won't protect me here, it means that I'm not human and this isn't a committee. It's just for form's sake. Nina Karpachova came on TV and said there were lots of illegal court cases. I came here with much hope."

He doesn't leave with much hope. Radko tells him the ombudsman has already applied to the regional prosecutor, who eventually gave a negative answer, and that the ombudsman then applied to the general prosecutor to get the case reviewed. Radko can only explain to the outraged farmer that the process takes a very long time and the ombudsman can't do anything else.

In another typical visit, factory worker Maria Kuzik clutches a tattered bag and moans about her bad knees, the joints bandaged with old handkerchiefs.

Kuzik has come from Lviv with her tale of eviction from a factory-owned hostel where she has lived for 38 years. It is her second day waiting in the hallway of the ombudsman's office and she has the hopeless look of citizens all over the world faced with a bureaucracy.

She says the ombudsman is her last resort:

"No one has decided anything. We've written letters to Kyiv, to ministers, to President Leonid Kuchma, now I've come to Karpachova. I wanted a flat since 1963, I want to help my children, I want to leave my children something ...We thought, Kyiv, we'll come and they will listen to us. And now they say, Kyiv can't solve anything, it needs to be solved in the place where it happened. In the place they don't solve it, and we are still poor."

Radko copies Kuzik's collected documents and letters, telling her the ombudsman might have some small influence in her case, although it still has to be decided in Lviv and not in Kyiv.

Ukrainians can take their pleas a step further than the ombudsman. Last year, 13,000 Ukrainians applied to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, according to Petro Rabinovich, a human rights expert from Lviv University. Only 200 cases were accepted. The problem, said Rabinovich, is that people do not know how to formulate their complaints or indeed what their rights are under the European Convention of Human Rights. In theory, they should be the same as they are at home, as Ukraine ratified the convention in 1997. One of the jobs of the ombudsman is to oversee Ukraine's adherence to that. But in the year Karpachova has been working, Ukraine's human rights record has been criticized by a report by Council of Europe rapporteurs released at the end of 1998, and a second report released by the U.S. State Department in February of this year.

The reports heavily criticized the country for what they said are an unreformed prison system and corrupt judiciary, and repression of the free press. The Council of Europe report also cited Kyiv's failure to abolish the death penalty. President Kuchma in May was named the world's sixth worst enemy of a free press by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Official response to the criticism so far has been angry and defiant. Kuchma has threatened to sue the authors of the journalism report. Some parliamentarians have said Ukraine cannot impose Western standards of human rights because of its impoverished economy and have argued that international bodies have no right to criticize the country.