Freedom and human rights have long been on Washington’s radar screen. During the late 1970s and through the 1980s, U.S. governmental agencies such as the Helsinki Commission, where I worked for many years, the Congress, the White House and the State Department raised the plight of imprisoned Ukrainian Helsinki monitors, the then-banned Ukrainian Catholic Church and other human rights issues. Washington’s official interest has continued since independence, albeit with more of an emphasis on democracy and the rule of law given the considerable improvements with respect to human rights and freedoms in the last three decades. The stark exception, of course, is Russian-occupied Crimea and the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.”
In my May [Ukrainian Weekly] column, I addressed the appalling situation of human rights and the rule of law in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia or its proxies. They are black holes as far as fundamental freedoms, human rights, democracy and rule of law are concerned.
The situation for the vast majority of Ukrainians living under Kyiv’s rule is a relative paradise in comparison. Basic freedoms of expression, media, assembly, association, religion are generally respected. Ukrainians have enjoyed greater rights and freedoms in independent Ukraine than at any time in history.
This is not to say Ukraine’s democracy is without shortcomings, but there is real political competition and political pluralism, even if tainted by oligarchic influence and other deficiencies. And there is room for improvement in the human rights arena.
The recent presidential elections were judged positively by both domestic and international observer missions, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). They were competitive, held with respect for fundamental freedoms and reflected the will of the electorate – although there are steps that can be taken to improve their quality.
According to the authoritative Freedom House “Freedom in the World” rankings – which categorizes countries as “free,” “partly free” and “not free,” Ukraine remains only “partly free.” How does this compare with Ukraine’s neighborhood? Not surprisingly, Russia and Belarus are in the decidedly “not free” category. Poland, despite some slippage in recent years, remains “free,” as does Slovakia. Romania and Bulgaria, the two poorest and most corrupt European Union countries, are in the “free” category. And then there is EU neighbor Hungary, which under that great friend of Ukraine Victor Orban (yes, I am being sarcastic) in recent years has deservedly lost its “free” rating, and is now the only “partly free” EU country. Neighbor Moldova, similar to Ukraine in so many respects, including suffering from the curse of corruption, earns almost exactly the same grades within the “partly free” category.
Let me touch upon just some of the areas that Ukraine needs to work on.
According to the U.S. State Department Annual Human Rights Country Report for Ukraine, human rights violations in government-controlled Ukraine included: incommunicado detention, arbitrary arrest, torture, ill treatment of civilians and other abuses committed “in the context of the Russia-induced and -fueled conflict in the Donbas region.” [Mind you, these kinds of abuses and abductions and torture are much more prevalent and systemic in the so-called “people’s republics” and Crimea, as the assessment of the State Department indicates].
There are also problems that preceded the war, whether it be ill-treatment of suspects by law enforcement, or harsh conditions in prisons and detention centers, or, for that matter, the discrimination against the Roma people.
A notable deficit has been the government’s failure to take adequate steps to prosecute or punish most officials who committed abuses, resulting in a climate of impunity – whether it be alleged human rights abuses committed by government security forces, such as the SBU, or by the perpetrators of the 2014 Euro-Maidan shootings in Kyiv. Attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists – sometimes resulting in deaths such as in the case of renowned activist Katya Handziuk – remain a serious problem, with more than 50 attacks in the last year. Justice in most of these cases has been wanting, or inadequate.
Other problems that affect human rights and democracy include widespread government corruption, lack of an independent judiciary, government failure to hold accountable perpetrators of violence against journalists and anti-corruption activists – essentially, weaknesses in the rule of law. There have also been some problems with respect to media freedoms, including censorship and blocking of Russian websites – although this is by no means a black-and-white issue given the onslaught of Russian disinformation – a key component of Moscow’s hell-bent efforts to destabilize Ukraine.
Ukraine was actually in the “free” category during much of Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, but lost that status after Viktor Yanukovych came to power. I believe that Ukraine would be further along, possibly even back in the “free” category, if it were not for ongoing Russian aggression. But that does not mean that Ukraine should not strive to do better – it has done it before and can do it again.
At the recent Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations conference held in Washington, where speakers were asked to grade Ukraine on its progress in various areas, I gave Ukraine a B minus on democratic progress, including on human rights. (When speaking about Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas, I gave a resounding failing grade).
One can point to positives such as freedoms being generally respected, democratic elections and areas of small progress in the rule of law area, such as the establishment of an anti-corruption court, or, the recent Constitutional Court ruling stipulating that forcing anti-corruption activists to provide their declarations of income is unconstitutional. At the same time, there was lack of progress and even some backsliding in other areas, such as the removal of criminal liability for illicit enrichment. And just last month, unfortunately, the Verkhovna Rada voted down President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s anti-illicit enrichment bill.
If we would have seen passage and implementation of laws that had been introduced back in 2017 but have gone nowhere since then, such as electoral reform (with an open party list system that serves to reduce corruption), or lifting parliamentary immunity, or more efforts to strengthen the anti-corruption architecture by stopping political interference, or greater independence of the judiciary, or comprehensive reform of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), or fewer attacks on anti-corruption activists and journalists, then I would have gladly given a higher grade. Let us hope that with a new president, government and Rada this year, Ukraine will be able to move from the B to the A range of grades; from the “partly free” into the “free” category. All its friends and supporters should continue to encourage Ukraine in this direction.
Orest Deychakiwsky is Vice Chair of the Board of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation. This opinion essay first appeared in The Ukrainian Weekly.
Photo at top of page: Orest Deychakiwsky (L) speaking at the German Marshall Fund.