Ukraine Caught in Controversy Over Election of New Ombudsman
4 June, 2017
Valeriya Lutkovska’s five-year term as Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights came to an end on 27 April Photo: Vladyslav Musienko, UNIAN

Ukrainian civil activists and foreign observers raised questions relating to the integrity of candidates in the election process for the new Ombudsman. Ukrainian parliament is set to choose the new Ombudsman at the beginning of June. Valeriya Lutkovska’s five-year term as Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights came to an end on 27 April.

The Ombudsman, a National Human Rights Institution, is the government's human rights defender with a broad mandate, responsible for reporting on human rights in Ukraine, intervening in cases where the right to access public information is violated, monitoring and documenting abuse and torture in closed detention facilities and more.

Acording to the Human Rights Information Center, the current Ombudsman has been quite involved in human rights in occupied parts of Donbas and Crimea, has established a working relationship with the Russian ombudsman, and has worked to free Ukrainians detained by separatist and Russian forces.

Concerns Over The Transparency Of Competition

A few weeks ago, a number of human rights organisation issued a public appeal to the Parliament Speaker to announce an open competition for the Ombudsman position. Their decision was based on the fact that the Ombudsman should be the mediator between society and the government, equidistant from all political forces. If the Ombudsman is only chosen by parliamentarians in order to fulfil coalition quotas, then the independence of the arbitrator “will be forgotten”.

Later on, 40 ombudsmen from the European Union also issued a similar appeal to the head of the parliament, the head of the human rights committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They called for the election process for the Ombudsman to be depoliticised and for the election to take place in consultation with the public.

The Ombudsman examines the orpanage in Ukraine

Why Is the Ombudsman Position So Important?

Apart from the numerous challenges that have faced the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights for years, such as opposing discrimination, respecting human rights in places of diminished liberty, the right to a fair trial, the Maidan events, annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas brought a whole host of new challenges:

  1. Ensuring the rights of immigrants and residents in the annexed Crimea and parts of occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions;
  2. Exchanging prisoners;
  3. Preventing illegal arrests, detentions and torture in the combat zones;
  4. Access to hostages being held in the occupied territories and on Russian territory;
  5. Protecting the rights of prisoners in prisons in the occupied territories and the possibility of transporting them;
  6. Overseeing the consequences of investigations regarding Maidan and other major events.

The key is protecting the people and not just the state. Especially when the state is operating unfairly. Therefore, emphasising human rights and the independence of the Ombudsman from the political forces is crucial.

Read More: The UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission In Ukraine, Explained

Who Have The Deputies Nominated

According to the law, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine must choose a candidate for the position. The deadline for it will expire at June, 6th. Three major Ukrainian factions have already chosen their candidates.

MP from "Petro Poroshenko Bloc", Serhiy Berezenko, told Hromadske that his faction has already chosen their candidate. They see Serhiy Alekseev as the next ombudsman. He is also an MP from the same faction, he is a lawyer by profession specialising in providing legal aid to banks and companies for debt restructuring and bankruptcy.

Serhiy Alekseev. Photo: Oleksandr Kosarev, UNIAN

"People's front" have decided to put forward one of their deputies - Liudmyla Denisova. She was the Minister of Social Policy in Yulia Tymoshenko's government in 2007-2010.

Liudmyla Denisova. Photo: Oleksandr Kosarev, UNIAN

Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko has put forward the lawyer and ex-ATO soldier, Andriy Mamalyga. His brother ran in the parliamentary elections for the same party.

Andriy Mamalyga (front left). Photo:  Andriy Mamalyga, facebook 

However, none of them have any experience in human rights advocacy. They are all connected to the political forces that put them forward for the role. A few days after a meeting of the president’s faction, it became clear that the Ombudsman position is not just politicised, but chosen on the principle of quotas. A source from Petro Poroshenko Bloc told RBC-Ukraine that they decided to give “People’s Front” a quota, while they [Bloc Petro Poroshenko] put forward a candidate for the head of the Accounting Chamber.

The Public Put Forward Their Own Candidates

However, for the human rights movement, all three proposed candidates are considered inappropriate. A coalition of human rights organisations, “Human Rights Agenda”, have named three people, who, in their opinion, could be worthy candidates.

These candidates include: the current Ombudsman, Valeriya Lutkovska; Yevhen Zakharov, director of a Kharkiv-based human rights group; Volodymyr Yavorskyy, the former executive director of the Helsinki Human Rights Union; and Larysa Denysenko, a human rights activist, lawyer, journalist and writer.

Yevhen Zakharov’s most recent role has been helping the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov, reform the police. Arsen Avakov also appointed Yevhen Zakharov to the commission which elected the new head of the National Police. However, because of his proximity to one of the most powerful people in the “People’s Front” party and its officials, not all human rights activists agree that Yevhen Zakharov is the only option for the Ombudsman position.

Larysa Denysenko has refused to run. This is not the first time human rights activists have proposed her for the position. Volodymyr Yavorskyy has not commented on his candidacy.

Valeriya Lutkovska herself said, in an interview with Hromadske, that she was ready to fight for her chair again, if she was put forward to the parliament as a candidate from the public.

Photo: Volodymyr Gontar, UNIAN

In informal conversations, the human rights activists have noted that Valeriya Lutkovska would be the compromise. They name one of her achievements as the implementation of a national preventative mechanism (a law which came into force in 2012, which functions as random spot checks of places of detention and relied heavily on the Human Rights Commissioner, in order to prevent torture and ill-treatment of prisoners). There was also the law on the protection of personal data and the law on protection against all forms of discrimination.

Separately, human rights activists also note the transfer of prisoners from the occupied territories to the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government and Ukraine’s National Human Rights Institution obtaining the highest class “A” from the UN, which means that the office of the Ombudsman is distanced from political influence (the previous Ombudsman, Nina Karpachova, was not able to achieve this status in her three terms in office) as achievements. An especially important step that the human rights activists have pointed out is the Commissioner’s role in the process of updating the lists of hostages for exchanges between Ukraine and the so-called “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics”.

However, they have noted a few criticisms as well:

– The reforms and the launch of the structure of the Commissioner only lasted in the first years;

– She lost a professional team (almost two years ago, the part of her office that helped with structure reform left);

– She was chosen for the role of Ombudsman by the “Party of Regions”, who was headed by fugitive Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Although she denied this in an interview with Hromadske;

– The lack of response to the “dictatorship laws” restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly passed on 16 January 2014 in order to counter the Euromaidan protests;

– The lack of an active position in Tymoshenko’s criminal case;

– Her cooperation with the Russian Ombudsman, Tatyana Moskalkova.

Уповноважений Верховної Ради України з прав людини

Human rights activists have criticised Valeriya Lutkovska for the fact she went to annexed Crimea with her Russian counterpart, and for generally communicating and meeting with her. However, the Ombudsman herself has said that, as long as this cooperation helps Ukraine, she will continue to work the Russian Ombudsman.

Despite these serious drawbacks, Valeriya Lutkovska looks like a figure who could satisfy both the public and the MPs.

However, it might already be too late for this. Human rights activists admit that they if they had started working on the issue of a new principle for electing the Ombudsman a year ago, for example, then maybe they would have been able to change the situation.

The parliament currently prefers their quota principle, and not the principle of “choosing the best”.

/Written by Anastasiya Stanko

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko