UN rights chief warns escalation in Ukraine fighting ‘catastrophic’ for country’s civilians

Damage caused by shelling in eastern Ukraine. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Damage caused by shelling in eastern Ukraine. Photo: UNDP Ukraine

Geneva, 3 February 2015 – The ongoing conflict in Ukraine is proving “catastrophic” for the country’s civilians amid escalating violence, indiscriminate shelling, and harsh winter conditions which have made life increasingly precarious for millions of civilians, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, warned today.

A recent uptick in fighting in eastern Ukraine between Government and anti-Government forces has seen casualty figures spike with 224 civilians killed and 545 wounded in the three weeks leading up to 1 February. According to the UN Office for the High Commissioner (OHCHR), the overall death toll now exceeds 5,358 people, with another 12,235 wounded since mid-April last year.

“Bus stops and public transport, marketplaces, schools and kindergartens, hospitals and residential areas have become battlegrounds in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine – in clear breach of international humanitarian law which governs the conduct of armed conflicts,” Mr. Zeid announced in a press release.

“Any further escalation will prove catastrophic for the 5.2 million people living in the midst of conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

In late February 2014, the situation in Ukraine transcended what was initially seen as an internal Ukrainian political crisis into violent clashes in parts of the country, later reaching full- scale conflict in the east. Despite the Minsk cease-fire, the situation in Ukraine has since continuously deteriorated, with serious consequences for the country’s unity, territorial integrity and stability. Recent media reports have suggested a potential worsening of the situation amid claims of a massive recruitment campaign by anti-Government groups.

Mr. Zeid voiced concern about the armed groups’ declarations, overtly rejecting the Minsk ceasefire agreement and vowing to scale up their offensive against Government installations, and stated that such affirmations were “extremely dangerous and deeply worrying.”

Against that backdrop, the civilian death toll from the fighting has been particularly high in the residential areas of both Government-controlled territory, such as the towns of Avdiivka, Debaltseve, Popasna and Shchastia and the settlement of Stanytsia Luhanska, as well as the cities of Donetsk and Horlivka controlled by the armed groups. In the single most deadly incident involving civilians, at least 31 people were killed and 112 wounded in Mariupol, following two attacks by multiple launch rocket systems, the OHCHR press release added.

“The protection of civilians by all parties to the conflict must be of the utmost priority,” continued the High Commissioner. “All violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law must be thoroughly investigated and perpetrators must be promptly brought to justice.”

The High Commissioner also lamented the “worrying developments” in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, where “multiple violations” of the rights of Crimean Tatars were being documented.

Last week, the premises of ATR, the only television channel broadcasting in the Crimean Tatar language, were raided by armed, masked men in unmarked military clothing, and the Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, Ahtem Ciygoz, was detained, the OHCHR reported. He faces up to 10 years in prison for creating “mass disturbances.”