Out of the shadows

The headlines were shocking, with “Xenophobia is the norm in Ukraine” just one.  In panic – what had I missed since morning? – I began reading.  It seemed I had missed a roundtable attended by a number of people who most laudably rejected xenophobia and intolerance. 

Well and good – so do I.  However, having scoured one of the articles for any examples, data, etc, and found only global horror stories, I think I would prefer to avoid the cut and paste syndrome which so many media outlets seem to suffer from.

I would stress at the outset that I am not disputing that a problem exists.  Quite the contrary, there are a number of problems which need to be addressed and soon, to ensure that Ukraine’s recent history which has in fact been relatively untainted by the xenophobic madness and ethnic conflicts of some of its neighbours is to be maintained.

I would suggest, however, that rather than making global statements which are too vague to be refuted, we begin actually addressing the issues, pooling our resources and ensuring that those problems that are emerging do not get out of hand.  Suggesting, as more than one article does, that there has been a rise in xenophobia since independence is at once stating the obvious, and creating an erroneous impression which helps none of those who need protection from intolerance and any forms of irrational hatred.  That, of course, is all of us.

If any readers of this have themselves been victims of attacks or have information about xenophobic treatment we would ask you to contact us.* 

It is imperative that civic society does not tolerate any encroachment upon people’s rights.  We need to ensure a network of civic organizations that can contact each other where necessary, check information and ensure follow-up action.

We must also closely examine all cases where legislation is failing to address the problem.  As explained very eloquently in an article by bar lawyer Viacheslav Yakubenko  ( it is virtually impossible under present legislation to obtain convictions for incitement to racial enmity.

It is time to stop bemoaning the lack of convictions and take measures to understand and change the root causes.

It is entirely true that the police are not always willing to take effective measures, and sometimes prefer to press charges for hooliganism, for example, rather than racially motivated attacks. 

Again, however, this situation requires proper investigation in each specific case and an understanding of many factors.  In Kharkiv, for example, the police are sometimes unable to follow up complaints because witnesses are only prepared to speak with KHPG if guaranteed anonymity.  While we understand the people’s hesitation, this keeps everyone in a never-never land where fears and rumour roam 

In all reports of the roundtable, there is mention of “killings”.  Which ones here are being counted, and who decides whether a person’s death was a racially motivated attack, or a brutal robbery, for example?  The horrific killing of Abdur Rab, a Bangladeshi national, on 16 October this year in Kyiv would seem to have been for gain.  He doubtless stood out from most other people, however, is it legitimate in such cases to call the killing racially-motivated? 

I am hesitant to write that this is only one of many concerns since this is precisely the phrase in so many media reports which worries me.  I would however mention one telling detail.  Earlier this year, rumours were rife among students in Kharkiv that two students had died from attacks upon them.  Yevhen Zakharov, KHPG Co-Chair investigated these stories very thoroughly, with the assistance of the regional department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  No student was found to have been killed. 

In the case of Kharkiv, those rumours clearly served the diseased interests of a certain contingent of activists who would appear to have been brought in from outside. This may not be the case in other parts of Ukraine however can we be sure if we speak in such dangerously loose terms? 

On a number of occasions recently, I have simply not translated texts I found in the media because some of the claims made were questionable and I lacked the resources to check myself.  This means that important information may not be provided. On the other hand, adding to the list of reports of “killings” and “flagrant and systemic violations by law enforcement agencies”, without any evidence provided would also be irresponsible.

To all those who are guests in Ukraine and have in any way suffered as a result of xenophobic attacks, please come forward – to KHPG, to the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, to other organizations. We all want to fight skinheads and sundry other individuals who in no way represent us or the vast majority of people in Ukraine.

To those civic organizations who on 9 November so categorically stated, for example, that over 90 percent of victims of attacks do not go to the police because they will become victims of police discrimination, I would ask if you are absolutely certain of your ground in stating this. Can you please provide us with evidence?  This needs to be combated, not simply bewailed in press interviews. At the same roundtable, incidentally, a representative of the IOM and another from the UNHCR, while mentioning many problems in Ukraine, spoke of cooperation with various bodies, including those of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.  This has also been KHPG’s experience in recent times. 

And to the media I would strongly ask that you take just a little bit more time and effort.  Check your facts, and your language, before reporting stories which either fuel intolerance or create an impression of a country gripped by hatred and lawlessness.  This claim is very serious and I would seriously question whether it helps promote tolerance and respect for others in the country.

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

*  Email:  [email protected]  (please write FAO Halya Coynash or Yevhen Zakharov)

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