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Human Rights Watch Rare Visit to Annexed Crimea, Explained
9 May, 2017
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What you need to know:

✅ Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation in March 2014 following an illegal referendum.

✅ Since its annexation, a number of human rights violations have been reported in the peninsula against Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and those who have peacefully opposed Russia’s actions in the region.

✅ The reason behind many of the cases of human rights violation is the enforcement of Russian citizenship on Crimean residents. As Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at the Human Rights Watch noted: “[The human rights violations] were produced by this very fast, very swift, forcible requirement for Crimean residents to apply and to have Russian passports. That led to discrimination of those who didn’t want to do that in spheres of employment, medical care, education”.

Human Rights Watch, an NGO dedicated to researching and advocating human rights issues worldwide, recently visited the peninsula for the first time in two years. According to Tanya Cooper, gaining access to the annexed territory is increasingly difficult for international organisations such as HRW: “Russia and Russia’s policies in Crimea created serious restrictions for effective, constructive human rights monitoring in the peninsula and this must be addressed”.

In addition to the high-profile arrests, such as that of Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov, Tanya Cooper also highlighted the fact that these human rights abuses are taking place on an everyday level. She described some of the cases she encountered: “We talked to people who had a family member dying in a hospital as a result of the fact that she was refused hospitalisation because she wasn’t a Russian citizen. We talked to a father who had two children who could not continue their education in Ukrainian language because the class that they used to go to became Russian language classes”.

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Looking towards the future, Cooper also outlined what needs to happen in Crimea in order to improve the situation. In her opinion, the Russian and Crimean authorities should “stop harassing and prosecuting Crimean Tatar community members for their peaceful but insistent criticism of Russia’s policies in the peninsula, to really take a look and start protecting the population and their access to fundamental freedoms”.

Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch, spoke to Hromadske live on the Sunday Show, 7th May 2017.

Considering the fact that you rarely get to work in Crimea, what were your findings following your recent visit?

It’s true. Human Rights Watch hasn’t been to Crimea since 2015, it was time for us to go back there. We monitored the situation, we documented what was happening there throughout the year, but yes, we have not been to Crimea in a while. Of course, what we found wasn’t surprising. Since the occupation in 2014, we have been talking about massive human rights violations in Crimea, and the human rights crisis that was provoked by Russia’s occupation of the peninsula and continues for many people.

We know what it’s like for international organisations working in the annexed territory, and what it’s like in comparison to occupied Donbas where the UN has been working. What are the major points that need addressing?

Russia is an occupying power and the de facto Crimean authorities should really address the existing human rights violations. They were produced by this very fast, very swift, forcible requirement for Crimean residents to apply and to have Russian passports. That led to discrimination of those who didn’t want to do that in spheres of employment, medical care, education. Of course, when we talk about the Crimean Tatar community, who were very outspoken in their opposition to the policies of the Russian government in Crimea, they continue to suffer marginalisation, isolation, but also legal harassment of many of their leaders, and, for that matter, any critical voice that peacefully opposes what’s happening in Crimea.

Hromadske regularly reports on the Hizb ut-Tahrir cases, the allegations of so-called terrorism, in which many people have been detained and now their families are suffering as a result. However, these accusations of extremism and terrorism are only one part of the story. What are the major issues for the Crimean Tatar community?

The community lost its representative body, the Mejlis, which is now [considered to be an] extremist organisation in Russia and Crimea and what this means practically, is that the community, that fought for their rights for so long with a lot of determination, with a lot courage, lost a voice - the leaders of the Mejlis are now effectively outside the law. They are effectively all extremists, criminals in the eyes of the legal system of Russia just because they want to preserve their involvement with the Mejlis.

A rally to support of the Crimean Tatar activists jailed by Russia in annexed Crimea. 26.08.2016. Photo: EPA, Sergey Dolzhenko

Obviously there are some people in Crimea who voted for this, they supported Russia, and this is what foreign journalists and Russian state journalists always report on. They say that there is no real conflict and that the people are satisfied. What would you say about this?

I can accept that a lot of people actually wanted some of the changes that happened in the occupation. For example, some of them wanted to be part of Russia. Sure, but their willingness to support the actions of the Russian government in Crimea shouldn’t come at the expense of so many others who didn’t agree. Again, those people that didn’t agree, who largely voiced their opinion peacefully, they are right now being prosecuted for their opinion, for their unwillingness to accept the new policies.

When people talk about human rights abuses they usually talk about detentions and tortures. We know that this has happened to Oleg Sentsov, for example, who is now in prison in Russia, but he is not the only one. However, it’s interesting that you were looking into other things as well, such as the regular everyday life of the people, which can also be considered another side to the human rights story in Crimea.

Absolutely, and again, this is what we are talking about when we talk about a human rights crisis. It doesn’t only apply to those who have a certain political position and are not afraid to voice it, like a lot of the leaders of the Crimean Tatar community, it’s also this human rights crisis that [came about] after the occupation and concerned just ordinary people who, for example, had to make a choice to either become a Russian citizen, or lose access to healthcare for themselves, their children, and their families. For example, we talked to people who had a family member dying in a hospital as a result of the fact that she was refused hospitalisation because she wasn’t a Russian citizen. We talked to a father who had two children who could not continue their education in Ukrainian language because the class that they used to go to became Russian language classes. He had to send his son to Lviv, to make sure that he could continue receiving an education in Ukrainian language.

What else could you say about the economic situation in Crimea? Is that in the scope of your work as well?

We looked, for example, at cases of people who are either afraid of losing their jobs as a result of their citizenship - which means not Russian citizenship - or those who were actually forced to resign or were fired because either, again, they did not have a Russian passport, or, they had a pro-Ukraine position and were actually activists at some of the public demonstrations that happened in Crimea, and as a result were fired from their jobs. This one case that we documented was of a history teacher who was fired after he appeared at a pro-Ukraine demonstration.

How easy was it to talk to people? How representative can coverage of Crimea really be? What was it like for you, talking to people and getting a sense of what life is really like there?

Now that’s a very important question, and actually, when I was in Europe talking to some members of the European Parliament and representatives of European governments, there is this lack of information coming from Crimea and everyone wants to know what is happening in fact for people. Are they happy? Are they unhappy? What can be done? I cannot emphasis this more, that this kind of black hole that Crimea is right now for many who don’t live in Ukraine, is done on purpose of course and Russia and Russia’s policies in Crimea created serious restrictions for effective, constructive human rights monitoring in the peninsula and this must be addressed. Again, as an occupying power, Russia still has a lot of obligations under international law and one of the obligations is really not to restrict international and other human rights monitors from accessing the peninsula.

To finalise, what are the main concerns that need addressing as a result of your visit and what advice would you give?

The main concerns remain the same, and that’s to stop harassing and prosecuting Crimean Tatar community members for their peaceful but insistent criticism of Russia’s policies in the peninsula, to really take a look and start protecting the population and their access to fundamental freedoms, violations of which resulted after the occupation. For example, as we talked about, to allow education in Ukrainian language, allow people to access basic services such as healthcare, regardless of their citizenship, allow people to have access to employment and other spheres of their lives without having to go through the forcible citizenship process.

/ by Sofia Fedeczko