FM official: UN says 100k refugees from Ukraine - in fact, 5 times more
The fight in the east of Ukraine is claiming lives each and every day. Soldiers, self-defence members, and civilians. The reports of the human rights abuses coming are horrifying. How can the violence be stopped? Is there a way to get both sides at a negotiating table? Who is to blame for the lost lives of innocents? We ask the Russian foreign ministry’s commissioner of human rights, Konstantin Dolgov.
Sophie Shevardnadze: We’re going to start from the latest news: the killings of the Russian journalists. It’s a horrible tragedy, obviously, but there’s a full-fledged war going on in Ukraine. Is that really possible to find who’s to blame and who’s responsible for the killings?
Konstantin Dolgov: Well, obviously, it is possible. What it takes, it takes first of all, political will and above all on the part of Kiev authorities, Ukrainian authorities. Definitely, we think that it is horrible…it is absolutely impermissible to shoot at journalists, anywhere, because they are performing their professional duties, they are not taking sides. They are not combatants and they are not the participants in the conflict, but they are civilians and what we witness in eastern Ukraine right now is a military operation which is being waged against, not just people with arms, but against civilians, and civilian causalities are huge in Ukraine.
SS: Yes, but the Russian side, regarding journalists, is convinced that these killings are deliberate. But there was an Italian journalist with his translator who were also killed. Why does the Russian side believe that these killings are deliberate?
KD: First of all, all journalists – they have markings on their clothes, they have “TV” or “PRESS” markings on their vehicles, and there are numerous witness reports, and we have, obviously, information, which is in the open today, that they are being persecuted, that the Russian journalists have been persecuted by…
SS: Russian journalists, or journalists in general?
KD: Not only Russian, because attacks on journalists have continued for a while, and let’s remember British journalists who worked actually for Russia Today, if I’m not mistaken, and he was also apprehended. Several Russian journalists have been killed – three Russian journalists have been killed in fact and an Italian journalist as well. It is impossible not to see that you are shooting at journalists, because they are clearly marked.
Given that information we have all reasons to believe that these are deliberate actions, and let’s not forget that what is happening in other parts of Ukraine vis-à-vis journalists: it’s basically witch-hunting. Kiev authorities are hunting down Ukrainian journalists, not Russian, who allow themselves to speak against the official line or at least to try portray more or less objectively the picture of what is happening inside Ukraine today. It is a full-fledged attack on the freedom of the media, on the freedom of speech.
SS: I want to touch upon the refugees’ situation as well: there’s evidence thousands are fleeing the conflict zone in astern Ukraine. By the UN estimates the number is 110,000 – are those numbers accurate?
KD: Obviously, it is difficult to count, but this number is closer to the real picture, and you know that the respective Russian authorities, they have estimated that almost half a million people have fled to Russia, but the initial UN figures were much lower than 100,000. The UN presence in eastern Ukraine obviously is not significant. They don’t have many monitors, and so I do think that their figures are obviously not accurate, they are much, much higher.
SS:Now the [US] State Department says that there’s no evidence to back the UN figures regarding the refugee flow from eastern Ukraine. Could US monitors be invited to Ukraine, to monitor, maybe to clarify this situation?
KD: Well, I believe that there are some US monitors, as far as the OSCE mission is concerned. Let’s not forget that the main monitoring presence is not the UN presence there, it’s the OSCE presence. They have several hundred monitors, unlike the UN. I think it’s not the matter of involving US representatives in the monitoring activities as such. I think it’s a political line that Washington has been taking. They do everything possible not to see the facts or to misinterpret the facts. I understand that this is, unfortunately, the part of the political game, this is part of the information war, and we take it as it is. Obviously what we hear from the Department of State on the situation with the refugees is unthinkable. It’s difficult even to comment on this, so it is a far cry from the real situation.
SS: Ukraine prevents many to cross the border from Ukraine to Russia. Do you know what happens to these people; do you know their fate, what becomes of them?
KD: Well, the fate… it’s not difficult to foretell the fate: when I was on my way to you today, I heard just another report from the Russian media that the Ukrainian Security forces, and the National Guard - which involves basically neo-Nazi elements and the extremist elements, ultranationalists - they restarted shooting at the refugee convoys, or just the civilian cars in which people are trying to flee the hostilities and to cross the Ukrainian-Russian border. Casualties unfortunately are being numbered in hundreds – I mean, civilian casualties – over the past several days only, after [Ukraine President Petro] Poroshenko restarted the military campaign.
SS:Now, you’ve compiled the report, the ‘White Book’ that details human rights violations in Ukraine. Why do you think anyone outside Russia will actually take this report seriously, because from what we know everything that comes out of Moscow, or is Moscow-affiliated, is dismissed in the West as non-credible?
KD: You’re saying “in the West” – I think we have to differentiate a little bit, who is in the West. If you speak about the official quarters and the official circles – yes. In Washington, in some of the European capitals, obviously, they will not be happy with our new book, they haven’t been happy with the first one. As far as human rights defenders are concerned, that we have received positive reports from many of them, positive signals, that they have read our first book, they have found our first book, the first White Book by the Russian Foreign Ministry useful in their activities. And we’re pretty much optimistic that the second White Book will not be condoned by those in the West who seriously and practically about the human rights situation in the Ukraine.
SS:Right, but I mean the main goal of this report is to start an investigation. What happened with the first book?
KD: It’s to encourage the investigation.
SS: But what are the chances that the investigation will be started, and even if it is started, what is your end goal? What do you want to achieve?
KD: Well, the Ukrainian authorities have reported several times that they had started investigations: the so-called ‘sniper case’, even the huge massacre in Odessa, in Mariupol on some other tragedies, you know, tragic attacks on civilians. But, those investigations are neither objective, nor professional, so definitely what is needed is a significant international participation in those investigations, not in those, but in the investigation – we have OSCE, we have Council of Europe, which has established the respective group aimed at helping and facilitating the investigation, we have UN, other international instruments. It is not an easy path, but I’m personally - not just as a diplomat and special representative, as a human being, as an interested observer - I am absolutely confident that quite a number of people will be brought to justice in Ukraine. It will happen, in this way or that.
SS:Now, you’ve mentioned the ‘sniper case’… Why do you think the issue of snipers on Maidan hasn’t been resolved? Why hasn’t it been investigated properly?
KD: Because they have been used by certain political groupings, forces for specific political purposes: to rock the boat, and they’ve rocked the boat, and they’ve helped the anti-constitutional change of power, or coup d’etat, it was part of the machinery. That’s why people who are now in power in Kiev, they are perhaps not so much interested – at least not yet – in disclosing the truth. But once again, ultimately, I’m sure, it will come to the surface, sooner or later, and we, I mean the international community, will discover very interesting facts.
SS: The violations go on both sides. Human Rights Watch, for example, says that the self-defence forces who are also in eastern Ukraine, are abducting people, attacking them, in some cases even torturing them. Have you looked in these reports as well?
KD: Well, our report is focused on the most heinous crimes, and most significant, I should say, violations of human rights and the principle of the rule of law, and those violations have been committed so far primarily by the government forces, by the extremists, all those battalions that were created by Kolomoisky, by the Right Sector.
We do not deny that certain violations also might have been carried out by the opposition forces, by people who took up arms in the south-east, but this is war, this is armed conflict. By the way, Human Rights Watch, I think for the first time, openly qualified the situation in Ukraine as an ‘internal armed conflict’, and it is important because we have been saying this for a long time. Not all our international partners and colleagues have the courage to admit this. It means that the Geneva Conventions are applicable. It means that also international humanitarian law is applicable. But the short-cut to stopping the violations is to cease violence, is to stop military operation, which is being waged – and this is what the Berlin declaration and Geneva agreements are about, Provision №1.
SS: But you’ve said in your answer that those responsible for these hideous crimes are mostly the Right Sector groups, the ones who are in volunteer battalions from the West – but these groups, or these people aren’t necessarily under the official Kiev’s control. So how fair is it to blame the official Kiev for what these people are doing in eastern Ukraine?
KD: The officials, as you say, the Ukrainian authorities are still under the obligation to disarm and disband the illegal armed forces, armed formations, and the Right Sector is one of them – and now it’s part of the National Guard of Ukraine, you know. The planes which are bombing the administrative buildings and the residential quarters, they are under Kiev’s control, and there’s evidence: there have been interceptions of the conversations of the pilots and the operators. The tanks which are there, and they are with the Ukrainian army, they are pretty much under Kiev’s control, and they are executing orders which are given by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry officials and officers.
It means that large portion of responsibility rests with Kiev authorities, and if the extremists and neo-Nazis are operating in some cases outside of the Kiev’s control – it’s just another factor which necessitates their disarming, disbanding and bringing to justice the members of those formations. I mean, those who fight the civilians, who kills the civilians.
SS:Then, you know, the next question from the West to you would be “who would be the authority responsible to disarm the self-defence squads in eastern Ukraine?”
KD: Well, the self-defence forces in Ukraine definitely are…
SS:…Because all eyes are looking at Russia.
KD: Well, first of all our president has said more than once that we do not have control over those forces. We are not there, you know. They are fighting in the Ukrainian territory, firstly. I’m speaking about effective control. Secondly, definitely, it is to be part of the solution. If you read the Berlin declaration, it speaks about stopping all violence and, definitely, laying down arms on both sides.
SS: Will that ever be respected by both sides, the ceasefire?
KD: It is up to them. If it is not respected, then the only alternative is the aggravation of the conflict. What we see now as we speak is the aggravation of the conflict and huge increase in the number of civilian casualties, so as minister Lavrov said, each and every day without ceasefire brings more and more casualties among the civilians, because the most vulnerable people in the zone of conflict are the civilians.
SS:The US State Department spokesperson says that the reason the ceasefire in Ukraine didn’t really work out is because Russians haven’t taken the steps needed to implement this ceasefire. They were backed by President Poroshenko, who also said that Russia is not fulfilling its promises. What exactly is expected from Russia?
KD: Russia is not a participant of this conflict. We have said, and we are doing what we have pledged, we are definitely calling on the self-defence forces…we have actually called on them to respect the first ceasefire, and definitely there have been violations on both sides, but you cannot compare the scale of those violations.
It is when artillery and military aircraft are being used and they shoot indiscriminately – this is a huge violation, you cannot compare it to Kalashnikov fire, although any violation is bad. But, now it was the Poroshenko’s government and President Poroshenko himself who actually took huge critical responsibility not to continue the ceasefire and resume the military operation. So basically this is what happened, and this is fact which is difficult to deny. What we hear from the Department of State… let me put this in this way: we are no longer surprised, pretty much, by what we hear from the Department of State, and this is very unfortunate.
We still hope that the US government will start looking at the situation in a more realistic and constructive way. Once again, whatever we can do, we are doing, but the ultimate responsibility for reaching the ceasefire, for stopping the hostilities rests with the Kiev authorities and obviously, if it is done, then definitely, we are confident that the self-defence forces will follow suit, but it should be steady, it should be on both sides. It takes two to tango.
SS:Just a follow up – the US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has said that it’s Russia that is to blame for the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine.
KD: She also said at one point that she was distributing those cakes not to everybody, not to just to Euromaidan activists, but also to the militia personnel, officers, ‘Berkut’ officers. She definitely knows better. But, seriously speaking, I think that it is crucial time for all concerned parties, globally, to start serious effort to influence both sides of the conflict to lay down arms, to stop hostilities and to start a full-fledged political dialogue aimed at constitutional reforms and aimed at finding compromises which will cater to everybody’s interests, and to the interests of the entire population of Ukraine, including the south-east. I think this is all political games. The price for political games is dramatic, and when small children are being killed on a daily basis, I don’t think anyone in the US - anyone, irrespective of political orientation or political views - nobody wants this to happen, I’m sure.
SS:You say that the observers who were based there aren’t objective – the OSCE and the UN observers. Why wouldn’t they be? What’s in it for them? They also see little children dying in there.
KD: We have supported OSCE mission wholeheartedly, and we continue to do so. There are, I think, roughly at this point, 15 Russian officers, Russian monitors in that mission. We think that they have critically important mandate, and if, hopefully, Berlin declaration is implemented, OSCE will have under this declaration even greater role to play. But, their reports – right you are – as well as the UN observer mission reports, they have not been objective enough. Over months, they have become a bit more complete, but not completely complete – I’m sorry for tautology - they still condone a lot of facts of violations of human rights by the extremists, by the ultranationalists and by Kiev authorities, by the Ukrainian army. And they still disperse their attention to the issues which have nothing to do with the human rights situation in Ukraine.
So we have our problems, we continue to have problems with their reports, but I think that hopefully they will also be more instrumental in pushing the situation, in encouraging the parties to a ceasefire. I think that this very important political role, which OSCE is to play on the UN monitors and their activities.