Claire Aubin's Blog

Losing sight of human rights in Ukraine

April 7, 2015

The dangers of choosing politics over people

In the wake of February’s UN Resolution #2202 (alternately called the Minsk Agreements), there have been numerous threats from both the East and the West of what will come to pass if its contents are not fully and rapidly implemented. While nuclear saber rattling and theoretically indefinite sanctions are certainly nothing to blink at, they may also represent simple political posturing, as well as logical continuations of the East-West stare down that has gripped global politics over the course of the Ukrainian conflict. However, such political and economic power plays often overshadow important on-the-ground outcomes that depend on the aforementioned resolution’s implementation.


A holistic, human rights-centered perspective on the Ukrainian conflict has too often gone ignored in favor of reductive (and frequently repetitive) declarations that assume a singular positive outcome with regards to humanitarian causes. The issue at hand? This assumed outcome is highly improbable if political negotiations fail to properly ensure it. The conflict is obviously important to political bodies as it relates to issues of territorial integrity and sovereignty writ large, but it is also imperative that policymakers are taking into account the conflict’s specific impact on individuals living within affected areas. Military concerns seem to be repeatedly taking precedence over pervasive cultural and economic inequalities exacerbated by the conflict. If left ignored, these inequalities will most certainly outlive the conflict itself.


One such dilemma currently facing civilians in rebel-held regions of southeastern Ukraine is that of economic insecurity via diminished access to financial resources. Pensions, ATM operations, and credit card usage in rebel-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk have been suspended since early December as part of an economic blockade organized by the Kyiv government. The reasoning offered in this situation – an assertion that all money passing through banking services and social security in Donbas is going towards supporting rebel causes and “direct[ly] financing Russian terrorism” – proves shaky at best, given the lack of evidence supporting it. Rather than encouraging the newly pension- and cash-less to back Kyiv against the rebels, the economic blockade compels them to cooperate with rebel forces, lest they be left entirely economically vulnerable in addition to all of the other concerns they face. Reduced economic rights have certainly decreased Donbas residents’ trust for the Kyiv government, doing little to help repair a relationship vital to the success of any conflict resolution efforts.


It should not be forgotten that social security is a right detailed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and ending access to pensions and banking systems constitutes a very clear violation of this right. Herein lies one of the issue’s most important humanitarian dimensions: the weight bearers in any given conflict are more frequently than not those who already carry heavy economic or social loads. It is the obligation of policymakers on any side of the crisis to lighten these loads whenever possible, rather than to add to them for the sake of political affectation. In the case of the Ukraine crisis, those elderly who depend almost entirely on pensions (not to mention a functional banking system) are being asked to carry an incredibly large share of an unnecessary weight.


Fortunately, the Minsk Agreements include a number of provisions aimed at remedying human rights concerns in the conflict zone. Among the resolution’s many military-focused items there are sections addressing local election modalities, amnesty for involved parties, hostage releases, constitutional reforms, and full resumption of socioeconomic ties, including pension payments and banking services. That being said, the implementation gap in relation to items addressing humanitarian issues in the region remains as wide as ever. Ceasefire agreements have reportedly been violated by both sides since the adoption of the resolution, boding ill for the realization of non-military obligations. And, unfortunately, until human rights take full priority over political pomp and circumstance, they are unlikely to ever be realized.


Additionally, the conflict’s effects on human rights in the region are likely to continue long past its end. The number of states which have experienced extreme internal conflict and emerged without deep scarring on their humanitarian reputation is few, if any even exist at all. Curtailing and properly addressing human rights abuses while they are still occurring is both an exceedingly necessary and highly logical course to follow. Regardless of strained political relations between the Eastern and Western worlds, if differences cannot be set aside to agree on approaches beneficial to civilians, the conflict itself will only be prolonged, both militarily and psychologically. Should the Minsk signatories choose to honor their humanitarian commitments in spite of continued military actions, a vital precedent would be established in regards to the Ukrainian crisis; all-or-nothing approaches to policy composition and implementation are unacceptable when human rights hang in the balance.

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