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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Volodymyr VASYLENKO: “Ukraine’s participation in the UN Human Rights Council confirms our country’s civilizational orientation”

25 March, 2008 - 00:00
Photo by Borys KORPUSENKO

Between March 3 and 28 Geneva is hosting the 7th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Last Tuesday the council’s plenary meeting heard a report by the special rapporteur Ambei Ligabo on freedom of expression in Ukraine. Last May Ligabo paid a three-day visit to Ukraine, when he met a number of officials, heads of national institutions, newspapers and magazine editors, representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and private individuals. The collected information formed the nucleus of the report that was submitted to the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. In a short summary of this report, Ligabo pointed out that “the current situation in Ukraine is marked by extraordinarily great polarization and political instability, and this is hindering the development of a full-fledged democratic system based on a rule-of-law state, adequate public administration, and respect for human rights.”

The Ukrainian delegation to the council session is headed by Volodymyr VASYLENKO, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Ukraine’s representative to the UN Human Rights Council. Mr. Vasylenko kindly agreed to answer some of The Day’s questions at the end of a session day.

My first question is of a general nature: what benefit is Ukraine deriving from its participation in the work of the UN Human Rights Council?

“The UN Human Rights Council is the main body that exercises control over human rights observance. It was founded on April 3, 2006, to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights that had functioned since 1946. The council comprises 47 UN member states. The council’s mechanism includes a universal periodic review, during which all UN members without exception report on their human rights situation.

“Ukraine was invited to join the council in May 2006. Confirming compliance with its international human rights obligations, Ukraine extended an open invitation to all the council’s special rapporteurs to visit our country to study human rights issues, as they do throughout the world.

“The UN’s overall activity is based on three pillars: security, economic development, and worldwide protection and promotion of human rights. Ukraine has always taken an active part in the work of UN bodies. The Human Rights Commission, now called the Council, holds a continuous dialogue that makes it possible, on the basis of international experience, to introduce international human rights standards into our domestic legislation. This is necessary for democratizing and developing a civil society in Ukraine and for introducing legal norms without which a modern society cannot function. In addition, participation in the work of the Human Rights Council and active cooperation with UN member states only confirms Ukraine’s civilizational orientation.”

The report of the council’s special rapporteur on freedom of expression in Ukraine points out that, in spite of important progress in the democratic development of Ukrainian society from 2004 onwards, the overall state of affairs as far as freedom of expression is concerned does not always meet international standards and the spirit of the Human Rights Covenant. In particular, a number of Ukrainian journalists have fallen victim to violence on the part of organized gangs and informal groupings that are linked to state security bodies. Journalists in the regions often face pressure from local authorities. Ukrainian courts tend to drop cases opened in this connection and guilty parties are not being brought to justice. How did the Ukrainian side respond to these claims?

“To be honest, I am not a specialist in journalism, but the state of the informational sphere in Ukraine is not as dismal as the respected Mr. Ligabo is trying to show. First of all, in many instances he has used ‘pre-Orange’ information, extrapolating it onto the current situation. I mentioned this in my response speech during the session. As for the harassment of journalists by criminal elements that are in cahoots with law-enforcement bodies, that is sheer fantasy.

“But Mr. Ligabo is correct in saying that owners of private TV channels and newspapers sometimes try to exert pressure on the journalists who are working for their publications. He is also right to mention some instances of substandard and low-quality journalism. This is why his advice is to improve the professional training of journalists and to respect the norms of professional ethics.”

Another thing that the special rapporteur spotlights is growing racial and ethnic hatred, beatings, physical aggression, and murders of foreigners living in Ukraine (specifically, diplomats and foreign students). According to him, these facts adversely affect the image of Ukraine as a tolerant and friendly county.

“First, the report does not include even one fact to corroborate these allegations or at the very least some references to the sources of this information. Read his report. There are no names of victims, no indication of the time or place of the alleged events - only groundless accusations.

“I know there were isolated incidents of foreign students being mugged, and once the wife of an international civil servant was insulted in a shop. That’s all. These isolated facts cannot be grounds for accusing the entire country of racism and physical violence. As for the murders of diplomats, that is nonsense pure and simple. Second, Mr. Ligabo overstepped his mandate. He came to Ukraine to study the situation surrounding freedom of expression. Everything that concerns other problems, such as xenophobia and racial or ethnic relations, is a different subject that is out of his competence.”

I have seen the report. You can find the English version on the Web site of the UN Human Rights Council: document A/HRC/7/14/Add.2 (Mission to Ukraine). The report ends with a list of the individuals with whom the special rapporteur met during his visit to Ukraine in order to obtain the information that later formed the nucleus of his report.

“The report was submitted already last August, but its final version was not distributed to the session participants until Feb. 28, 2008. The representatives of official Ukrainian bodies with whom Mr. Ligabo met in May gave him detailed explanations of many provisions. But he failed to take them into account. Unfortunately, these things happen in the work of international organizations.”

The council’s plenary meeting on March 5 was addressed by Valery Loshchynin, the head of the Russian delegation and permanent representative of the Russian Federation at the UN office in Geneva. The Russian envoy believes that the events that took place in 1932-33 in Ukraine cannot be classified as genocide in terms of the 1948 Convention on Genocide. With his cynical phrase “the so-called Holodomor,” he is publicly denying the very fact of the Holodomor. What did the Ukrainian side say in reply?

“Ukraine categorically opposes the arbitrary attitude of the Russian delegation’s head to our country’s position on the Holodomor of 1932-33. By denying the existence of the Holodomor, Loshchynin is not only contradicting history but also calling into question the assessment of the events that took place in Ukraine in 1932-33, which appears in the joint statement on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor, released as a UN General Assembly official document in 2003 and co- authored by the Russian Federation. It is unfortunate that the Russian diplomat refuses to take into account the tremendous number of documents and research publications, including those by Russian historians, which have been published in the last while. Genuine information on the Holodomor can be found in the many volumes of secret archival documents of Soviet Ukraine’s security service.

“Russia’s official position is well known: there was famine everywhere in the early 1930s - in Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan alike. But we have ample evidence to claim that the Holodomor in Ukraine was a premeditated action aimed at using famine as a weapon for the moral enslavement and physical extermination of the Ukrainian people. Political statements on such sensitive issues as the Holodomor should be well balanced and based exclusively on reliable knowledge and facts. It is outrageous that even today attempts are being made on the lofty UN podium to rob humanity of its elementary right to know the truth, which is supposed to save it from totalitarian regimes that give rise to such things as the Holodomor.”

Interviewed by Emilia NAZARENKO in Geneva