Ukraine’s government puts on a bad show ahead of OSCE summit

Already devalued by its members’ current records on rights issues from surveillance to homophobia, the principles of the Organisation for Security & Cooperation in Europe will be further tested at its summit in Kiev this week, as demonstrators pack its streets and its Ukrainian hosts violently flout the body’s own guidelines on rights to peaceful protest and media freedom.

Late Saturday, riot police swept across the Maidan, Kiev’s iconic Independence Square, randomly attacking demonstrators protesting government backtracking on closer relations with the European Union. More protests and occupations followed Sunday and into the week.

International civil society groups meeting in Kiev ahead of the OSCE’s annual Ministerial Council (5-6 December) called Ukraine to account.

Ukrainian human rights groups have named 14 protestors, some badly injured, who ‘disappeared’ after arrest on Saturday, but who have not appeared on the charge lists. More arrests and charges are expected. The country’s journalists’ union said 40 journalists were injured covering the protests.

A widely shared video purports to show an agent provocateur moving freely behind police lines before entering the crowd to urge demonstrators to attack. Other protestors used an earth mover to smash barricades around the presidential offices at one point, before being repulsed with tear gas.

With thousands of protesters still converging on the Maidan all this week and thousands of police prepared to confront them, the danger of a repeat of the weekend’s violence in the city is high.

On Tuesday night the square, in the heart of the city’s affluent shopping area, was barricaded off with bins, scrap and bits of Christmas decorations brought in behind the police after the square was cleared, ostensibly to make way for the erection of a giant artificial Christmas tree.

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The shell of the tree is now garlanded with banners, EU flags and obscene advice for President Viktor Yanukovych. The nearby Kiev City Hall is under occupation by protesters, with supporters queuing patiently to come in and explore the building.

The government strategy seems to be to ride out the crisis at least until the OSCE’s foreign ministers come and go. Yanukovych himself is currently on a state visit to China. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov apologised to parliament Tuesday for the actions of police. Later a parliamentary motion of no-confidence in his government drew 186 opposition MP votes, well short of the 226 required.

The brewing crisis has literally brought home Ukraine and the OSCE’s failure to keep its own commitments to ‘good practice’ in freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

The OSCE ‘troika’ of foreign ministers of past, present and upcoming council chairs – Ireland, Ukraine and Switzerland, with Serbia to succeed Ireland in 2014 – is under pressure to respond. They have been urged to ask Ukraine, as chairman, to report to the Ministerial Council on recent events. The troika is also facing calls to establish an observation group, headed by a senior official to act as council chair’s ‘special representative’.

The troika should test the performance of member states against its own ‘good practice’ and rights the OSCE says are “enshrined in a number of international human rights instruments and guaranteed in the OSCE’s Copenhagen Document of 1990.“

The disproportionate response, the violence and the reported misuse of the courts to block protestors breach good practice outlined in the OSCE’s own Guidelines on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly (2007) which are aimed at both lawmakers and those who implement the law.

The number of journalists injured while reporting the protests also raised fears of targeted attacks on media workers by the security forces. Again the OSCE’s own Safety of Journalists Guidebook (2011) urges against the police detaining, arresting or using violence against media “that perform their proper role by covering protests or other events in public places”.

The security body faced similar calls to respond in the face of another violently suppressed protest in an OSCE member state this year, in Turkey’s Gezi Park. In response to the Gezi violence, the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly urged the Turkish government to respect peaceful protests as part of the process of democracy and called for proportionate police responses when protecting public order and the right to freedom of assembly.

“Mass arrests and the use of force to disrupt demonstrations are not emblematic of a democracy,” said Assembly President Wolfgang Grossruck in June. “Nor are such actions in line with Turkey’s commitments as an OSCE participating state.”

Civil society groups urge the OSCE’s Ministerial Council to make an equally clear response to the Maidan violence and call Ukraine, current holder of the council’s rotating chairmanship, to similar account for the worsening human rights situation in the country.

Several international NGOs have added their weight to calls to protect Ukrainian demonstrators. The Human Rights House Network wrote to Yanukovych to condemn the excessive use of force by Ukrainian authorities to disperse peaceful demonstrations.

Rights groups urged Ukraine to take concrete measures to limit the use of force by police to disperse demonstrators, even if occupying state buildings, to publicly acknowledge the right to protest and the state’s duty to protect peaceful demonstrators.

They also call for a full independent investigation into the incidents of 29-30 November 2013, and the dropping all charges against peaceful protestors and journalists. Human rights NGOs and journalists should be free to report protest and report police violence without fearing retaliation, and that human rights defenders should not be arrested or charged for participating in peaceful protests.

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