Yevhen Zakharov is quest of the BBC Ukrainian Service’s
On Friday 29 December the BBC Ukrainian Service’s guest was human rights defender Yevhen Zakharov, Head of the Board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and candidate for the post of Human Rights Ombudsperson. [Biographical information about Yevhen Zakharov can be found below the interview]
This was how he assessed the changes and trends in the human rights situation in Ukraine during 2006.
Yevhen Zakharov: This year can be divided into two parts. Unfortunately since the new government, took office in August 2006, the situation as far as human rights are concerned has deteriorated.
I have in mind first and foremost the issue of housing and communal charges which have hit the poorest people in Ukraine hardest. It is not even that the tariffs are high, since they do actually need to be increased. The state cannot indefinitely subsidize this area.
The state has the obligation nonetheless to protect the poorest, and according to official statistics, 28% of the population lives below the official poverty line. A huge number of people are not living, but merely
trying to make ends meet and are simply not able to pay.
– Yet the state is promising subsidies.
Yevhen Zakharov: This is the point that the state immediately tells poor people: take subsidies and there’ll be no problem! But it’s not like that. The subsidies are regulated by dozens of normative acts, there are 77 in total. This is a difficult and humiliating procedure when people have to prove that they really are poor and then this is checked by various commissions.
And if, God forbid, they see that a person has a computer at home, they can decide that s/he doesn’t deserve subsidies – I know of such cases. The same applies if the family has an old car or an allotment, or if one member of the family is working, and another isn’t, again the subsidy won’t be allocated.
This is really dishonest. The state should provide simplified procedure and an appropriate law yet there is no law on subsidies. Therefore a large percentage of people will suffer from high tariffs, meaning that their right to a decent standard of living will be flagrantly violated.
With this there will be a threat to property rights since people will not be able to pay and the monopolist communal services will begin talking of eviction with the accommodation used to pay their debts. I would call this violation of human rights the most widespread and flagrant.
– If this is the main violation, what others arouse particular concern?
Yevhen Zakharov: We are again seeing checks by tax inspection officials based on externally imposed schedules of income, [i.e. with the plans dictating fines imposed, rather than actual tax infringements – translator], and against letters about such checks which are unlawful.
Once again there is heightened administrative pressure from the state, with infringements to freedom of business enterprise. This particularly applies to the East and the South of Ukraine. It is impossible not to notice it.
The situation with freedom of speech has also deteriorated. Whereas in the first year and a half after the Orange Revolution we could say that there was real pluralism of opinions in the mass media, this is now being eroded. This is particularly evident at the regional level.
Owners of various regional publications are again beginning to dictate their wishes to their staff. For example, in Kharkiv all employees of the media group “Objektiv” whom the owner had effectively ordered to write positive things about the local authorities were dismissed. 52 people who refused to accept the political pressure lost their jobs.
How typical is such a situation for Ukraine? Maybe, Kharkiv is an exception?
Yevhen Zakharov: I don’t think that it’s an exception. Try to write anything critical in Donetsk about the Party of the Regions. It’s simply impossible. Of course you can say that the entire population of the Donbas area is simply fully in support of the Party of the Regions however I would have difficulty believing that it is all so unanimous.
Yet there is another side of the coin. Where there is no overt administrative pressure on the media’s work, and journalists criticize the authorities, the latter do not react in any way to such criticism and quite simply ignore it. Does this worry you?
Yevhen Zakharov: There is such a problem with total disregard by those in power of what journalists write. They have simply stopped paying attention to such publications. It’s a clear violation.
One can also mention overt violations of the right to freedom of conscience. Once again in Kharkiv I could cite the example of how so-called “Orthodox patriots” obstructed Patriarch Filaret from visiting churches of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Kyiv Patriarchate, declaring that Orthodox believers should be united under the umbrella of the Moscow Patriarchate.
It is also worth mentioning how the issue of the status of the Russian language has been artificially blown up, as well as the increase in violence on racial and ethnic grounds, especially in the Crimea.
And in Kharkiv there have been several protest actions by students supposedly protesting against the better living and studying conditions for foreign students where the protesters chant slogans like “Ukraine for Ukrainians”. This is very disturbing. I am afraid that the wave of xenophobia which has rocked Russia is moving to us.
How, in your opinion, has the legal consciousness of Ukrainian citizens been influenced by the fact that the rallying cry “Bandits to prison” has remained an empty threat and the lack of convictions by the Orange authorities over the high-profile crimes committee?
Yevhen Zakharov: It is very bad that nobody has been punished for specifically named crimes, for example for organizing the vote-rigging acknowledged by the Supreme Court. Nor have the cases over the transit server, over the beating up of people near the Central Election Commission and over the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko.
Such impunity can only fuel new crimes. This kind of indulgence which leads to repeats in the future has had an extremely negative impact on people’s legal consciousness. People are losing faith in politicians and the regime and there is growing apathy.
There is also another important detail. All these crimes if they took place were committed out of political motives. Under such circumstances the need for honest and impartial court review becomes extremely important, as does proper defence for those who stand accused.
It is vital that the law is always observed, and that the practice does not develop where the victors dictate their conditions.
I for example always considered that the detention of Boris Kolesnykov and Yevhen Kushnaryov were procedurally unlawful since there were no court warrants. The Constitution expressly prohibits such things. Such notorious cases only provide grounds for accusations of political persecution, and in general this develops legal nihilism.
– We would particularly like to focus on the rights of the child in Ukraine, since children are surely the least protected part of society
Yevhen Zakharov: We have a Committee for the Protection of Children and there are human rights organizations dealing with the rights of children, for example, in orphanages and family-type children’s homes or in psychiatric institutions.
However overall this is not enough and I for example consider that there should be a separate position of Ombudsperson for the rights of the child who would carry out the relevant parliamentary monitoring over observance of these rights.
In general, Ukraine should have several Ombudspersons as in other countries. I think that there should be three: one on children’s rights, on issues of access to information and personal data protection, as well as an Ombudsperson on minority rights – ethnic, language, religious etc.
Perhaps Ukraine cannot afford to maintain three separate structures but it would be sensible to have departments within the office of the Human Rights Ombudsperson and delegate specific duties, and also provide them with procedural independence.
Unfortunately, as Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova has not considered it necessary to have a separate Ombudsperson for the rights of the child, nor has she ever supported the idea of introducing regional Ombudspersons. In their work the latter could rely on a network of nongovernmental human rights organizations.
You are a world-recognized human rights defender and are presently a candidate for the post of Human Rights Ombudsperson. Are you not worried that you will get roped into the present power system and that you’ll begin to look at the problems with human rights in Ukraine through different eyes?
Yevhen Zakharov: I don’t think so. I have worked in this field for a long time and have a lot of life experience. I don’t envisage such a danger. I know the system and have been a city council deputy. Incidentally, people have tried to get me into politics on many occasions. I have always refused since I wanted to retain my independence and not become a public servant. This was a principled position since we are dealing with the protection of people from the state.
The post of Human Rights Ombudsperson is the single state post which I would find acceptable since it is effectively the same work that I am presently involved in.
Yes, there is a potential risk inherent in such a post of being dragged into the state machine, but not for me personally. I have always been and remain apolitical in the sense that I have neither been nor am at present a member of any party. The desire for power which politics gives is not something I’ve ever suffered from, nor will.
How were you put forward as candidate for this post? After all there is no procedure in law for putting oneself forward, or was it an initiative from below?
Yevhen Zakharov As soon as it became known that Nina Karpachova had asked to be released due to her election as State Deputy to parliament a number of human rights organizations approached me and suggested putting me forward as candidate.
However no such procedure is allowed for by the law. Only the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada or at least 25% of the overall number of State Deputies can put forward candidates. Human rights or other organizations can only ask parliament to consider such a candidacy. I agreed since I consider this office the only one which belongs to civic society in the state.
Although I was extremely sceptical of my chances, I perhaps underestimated the energy and commitment of those who supported my candidacy. Overall there have been over 250 organizations so far and this has indeed been a pleasant surprise.
How did it come about that from a technical education and problems of non-synchronised motors which you even wrote your thesis on, you moved to issues of human rights defence?
Yevhen Zakharov There were many victims of political repression in my family – 14 people. One of my most vivid childhood memories is when my grandfather returned from the labour camps – I was 4 at the time.
As well as that, my father was always close to dissident circles. My mother studied in Kharkiv together with well-known dissidents, for example, Yuli Daniel and Larisa Bogoraz. All of that had a direct influence on my public views. I read a lot and circulated samizdat publications from my school days.
And when under Gorbachev perestroika began and it became legal to talk about things which dissidents had already criticized twenty years earlier, it was like balm to sooth live wounds and I began openly engaging in human rights activities. It became possible to do much more and to devote more energy to this. Then a large number of human rights activists in Ukraine simply entered politics.
Why do you think that was?
Yevhen Zakharov It was connected with the lack of Ukrainian statehood. For those people it was important to devote their energies to creating the Ukrainian state, however for the human rights movement it was an unquestionable loss. I decided that politics was not for me and that my calling was in human rights work. For some that may seem like a shortcoming, but it was my own principled stand.
BBC – We have been unable to receive Nina Karpachova’s commentary, however hope to be able to speak with her in the near future
Yevhen Zakharov was born on 12 November 1952 in Kharkiv. In 1975 he graduated in Applied Mathematics (with distinction) from the Kharkiv State University and gained his PhD from the Rostov Institute for Railway Engineers.
He began his human rights work by participating in the human rights movement of the 1970s and 80s, and was soon to become a correspondent for the Moscow human rights newspaper “Express-Khronika”.
In 1989 he became co-Chair of the Kharkiv Human Rights Society “Memorial”, then a year later was elected to the Kharkiv City Council and from 1990 was the deputy head of the Kharkiv city commission on restoring the rights of the rehabilitated [i.e. victims of political repression]. In 1991 he founded the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and since that time he has been co-Chair of the KHPG and also Chief Editor of the journal “Prava ludyny” [“Human Rights”] and other publications.
In 1988 the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group received the EU/USA Award “For democracy and civic society” in recognition of its active work in rights awareness-raising, analysis of the human rights situation in Ukraine and legal aid to hundreds of Ukrainian citizens whose rights have been violated. Since 2004 Yevhen Zakharov has also been Head of the Board of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. He is a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the International Society for Human Rights Ukrainian Section and the Ukrainian Internet Community.
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