Ukraine does not have a coordinated policy on preventing torture

Ukraine’s Fifth Periodic Report to the UN Committee against Torture was presented at a UN Session on 8 – 9 May. As reported here, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group was also present, having submitted an Alternative Report. 

The Group was represented by lawyer Arkady Bushchenko who explained to a  Prava Ludyny [Human Rights] correspondent what took place during the presentation in Geneva.

The day before the Periodic Report is to be heard, a briefing takes place between members of the Committee against Torture and representatives of nongovernmental organizations from the particular country in order to hear their view of the document to be presented.  This year Ukraine’s NGOs were represented by Arkady Bushchenko and Roman Romanov from the International Renaissance Foundation.

Felice Gaer, Rapporteur for the Committee on Ukraine’s report, praised the Alternative Report highly for its legal argumentation, description of the situation backed by specific examples of violations and its constructive recommendations.

During this opportunity to express human rights concerns, the following aspects were focused upon:

The position of people deprived of their liberty: the fact that the prosecutor’s office as a rule fails to take any action and does not concern itself with the security of prisoners who have lodged complaints about torture.

There is, furthermore, evidence that the prosecutor’s office and the Secretariat of the Human Rights Ombudsperson have actually sent complaints they received from prisoners to the State Department for the Execution of Sentences [hereafter the Department]. Given that the people’s names are revealed, this borders on betrayal of those whose rights have been violated. It does not bear thinking about how the colony administration may then go about “dealing with” those who had the temerity to complain against their unlawful actions.

The issue was also raised of so-called “swift response” special units within the Department, supposedly formed as “anti-terrorist units”. These units are widely being used to “maintain discipline as understood by the Department”, i.e. intimidating prisoners, carrying out searches, etc. These units have even become known as “mask shows” since the officers, armed and wearing masks, burst into cells and beat prisoners en masse.  Such units are entirely unacceptable.

As already reported here, KHPG believes that the Government’s Report provides a very inadequate picture of the situation in Ukraine. Given that it was prepared in 2004, it actually fails to mention improvements which the KHPG gives due acknowledgement to in its report.

It is not untypical that none of the Government representatives felt the need to hear the concerns of human rights groups. This lack of interest was somewhat startling to the members of the Committee as well.

Another possible source of surprise was the arrival among the Government delegation of three representatives of the Human Rights Ombudsperson. Given the nature of this office, it would be logical to assume that they would be together with human rights organizations monitoring the authorities, and not among the Government officials.

The Ukrainian Government received questions from the Committee regarding the Periodic Report back last year, yet managed to send their replies only on 5 May and only in Russian.

The replies in fact elicit mixed feelings, since they had clearly been compiled from different ministries and departments, some of whom, for example, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Ministry of Defence answered very well, while the Prosecutor General’s Office confined itself largely to fine phrases with little substance. According to Arkady Bushchenko, the behaviour of the Prosecutor General’s Office was similar during the Committee session, with relevant argumentation not provided, seemingly expecting to be believed at their word.

During the Government presentation, certain moments were especially staggering.

1.  Asked about the illegal deportation in February 2006 of 11 Uzbek asylum seekers, the Government response was as distressingly inadequate as it has been over more than a year.  The report on the CAT website speaks for itself:

Responding to additional questions raised, Ms. Lutkovska said, with regard to the 11 Uzbeks who had been expelled, first, no extradition requests had been received from Uzbekistan. Those individuals had been living illegally on the territory of the Ukraine. The Security Service had informed the authorities that they were not to be given refugee status because of information uncovered about their connection to terrorist groups. Those individuals were aware from the moment that their asylum requests had been turned down that they were in Ukraine illegally. After a review by the General Prosecutor, it was found that the procedure carried out had not violated any domestic legislation.
However, Ms. Lutkovska said that probably said something about the quality of domestic legislation, and did not mean that the actions had not violated international norms. Two conclusions should be drawn from the case of the Uzbeks: the same mistake should not be repeated, and Ukraine should amend its domestic legislation so that it came in line with international standards.

2. The Government presented the latest (third) version of the events in the Izyaslav Penal Colony. This time they claimed that the notorious special unit had been used against a riot by prisoners. According to human rights groups, there are no grounds for treating the peaceful hunger strike by prisoners as a riot.

3.  In September 2007, the period expires in which Ukraine, in accordance with the Optional Protocol to the Committee against Torture (OPCAT), must have prepared national preventive measures against torture, and have prepared the relevant bodies. It would appear that the Government delegation considers the Prosecutor to be such a body, and no steps for creating institutions independent of the authorities are planned.

Summarizing his impressions of the Ukrainian Report to the Committee, Arkady Bushchenko pointed tout that there remains no agreed policy on preventing torture.

There is also no strategy for relations with international human rights bodies. The purpose of the Committee is not to punish governments for their failings but to help them formulate a national policy on preventing torture. However our officials lack real concern and a sense that they bear responsibility for State interests. There is no transparency in the activities of those bodies who should be implementing international commitments on human rights. Such international commitments need to be treated more seriously and responsibly.

In democratic countries there is a long established practice of entrusting the preparation of such government reports to independent specialists who are able to provide a more object assessment of the human rights situation.

Arkady Bushchenko is convinced that it is high time that Ukrainian officials review their position on this issue and move towards positive cooperation with representatives of independent human rights NGOs. Instead of seeing them as opponents or competitors, officials need to learn to accept human rights defenders as partners.

The reports from the proceedings in Geneva can be found at:

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