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Sweeping sanctions have been imposed by the European Union and the United States on Russia for its alleged involvement in eastern Ukraine.
And yet so far very few concerns have been expressed about the conduct of Kiev’s military campaign despite mounting civilian casualties and the widespread destruction of infrastructure.
On Tuesday the United Nations security council met to discuss the situation in the region and heard from the UN director of humanitarian operations John Ging, who warned that in the areas around Donetsk and Lugansk, power and water supplies are scarce, homes are being destroyed and health workers are fleeing.
The lack of attention to what Kiev has been doing gives rise to a real danger that war crimes and human rights violations are being committed and that they will simply go unrecorded.
Ging told the Security Council that at least 1,367 people have been killed since mid-April when the fighting in eastern Ukraine started. UN figures quoted on Tuesday state that more than 258,000 people have fled their homes. These figures are huge considering that this is a domestic dispute which could have been resolved through a negotiated settlement.
It is therefore essential to make sure that the Ukrainian armed forces are held fully to account for their actions. The same principle applies even more to the militias that have been enlisted to support the campaign to suppress dissent in eastern Ukraine.
It needs to be understood that in international law there is a clear requirement of distinction placed on combatants in any conflict which obliges them to strictly distinguish between perceived legitimate enemy military targets and the civilian population.
They must at all times seek to minimise civilian casualties. For example, prior to taking military action, there is an obligation to warn the civilian population of any impending attacks. However the evidence is that the civilian population of eastern Ukraine is not being given any warnings of imminent attacks. As a direct result, the civilian death toll is rising.
In any conflict, the actions at all times should be proportionate which means that the pursuit of legitimate military objectives must not lead to unnecessary civilian casualties.
The high casualties directly result from the fact that Kiev, emboldened by its strong backing from the EU and US, is seeking to achieve a military victory rather than pursuing a peaceful path to resolve the crisis.
Innocent people are being killed unnecessarily and this should be stopped immediately. In one incident, wheelchair-bound pensioners in an old people’s home were among the dead when at least 24 civilians were killed in just one day, reported Helen Womack in The Times on July 29.
A UN monitoring mission in Ukraine has warned of an alarming build-up of heavy weaponry in civilian areas of Donetsk and Lugansk — including artillery, tanks, rockets and missiles that are being used to inflict increasing casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
A UN report pointed out that use of such weaponry could amount to a violation of international humanitarian law.
“There is an increase in the use of heavy weaponry in areas that are basically surrounded by public buildings,” said Gianni Magazzeni, head of the UN office’s branch that oversees Ukraine. “All international law needs to be applied and fully respected.”
Furthermore, Human Rights Watch has produced what it said was evidence that the Ukrainian army had deliberately fired on houses in the suburbs of Donetsk.
A report in The Independent on July 29 gave a vivid description of the attacks on civilians. “Shells smashed into a residential neighbourhood of Donetsk today as Ukrainian forces intensified their campaign to encircle the rebel stronghold. The shelling killed a number of people, blew gaping holes in an apartment block and raised fears that the city is on the verge of severe bloodshed.”
The leaders of Ukraine flatly deny that their forces are shelling or targeting civilians. Kiev’s deputy ambassador to the UN Oleksandr Pavlichenko told the Tuesday UN meeting that the humanitarian situation was “manageable.”
But despite these denials, the reality on the ground seems to tell a very different story with mounting casualties and huge destruction of buildings and homes, including schools and hospitals.
In what was described as “a major escalation” in Kiev’s offensive, CNN reported that Ukrainian forces had begun firing short-range ballistic missiles at areas heavily populated by civilians.
Short-range ballistic missiles can carry warheads of up to 1,000 pounds (450 kg) and are capable of killing dozens of people at a time, CNN noted on July 29.
Making matters worse are the freelance militias operating in the region alongside the regular Ukrainian army.
These militias are closely linked to far-right groups, many of whose leaders have used extreme racist language and even threatened to eliminate Russians from Ukrainian soil.
These groups appear to be functioning independently of government control which is a huge concern in that it makes it much harder to monitor military operations and the lack of a clear central control opens up the possibility that more violations will be committed.
It is essential that Russian-speaking citizens are not discriminated against in any new constitutional arrangement in the country.
There have been deeply worrying signs that Kiev is seeking to permanently marginalise ethnic Russians, downgrading the status of the Russian language and using physical force to eject political parties from Ukraine’s parliament because their politics are not in tune with the dominant groups exercising power in Kiev, many of whom have affiliations and heritages that are far right and even fascist. They also usurped power in a coup.
It can surely be argued that the overt backing from the EU and US has in fact fuelled the crisis by strengthening those forces in Kiev who are seeking a total military victory in east Ukraine.
It must be recognised that the Ukrainians are in reality waging war on their own citizens and the long-term consequences of this will be a disaster for the country.
There needs to be an immediate ceasefire leading to impartially brokered peace talks between Kiev and representatives of the people of east Ukraine.
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