Last Friday the world observed Human Rights Day. Had this day been marked a month before, we would have again been spouting the same old story about endless human rights abuses, a subject that has flogged to death. Yet 2004 has become a special year in Ukraine in terms of human rights protection. Yevhen Zakharov, the head of a Kharkiv-based human rights group, claims there were more mass-scale systematic abuses than ever before, owing to the election campaign. There was overt political persecution: people were fired or illegally detained for quite legally handing out leaflets. Freedom of movement was also infringed: it was practically impossible to get to Kyiv on November 21-22.
The right to a free election of a president was also violated. “Vote rigging schemes were devised long before the elections,” says Oleksandr Bukalov, chair of the Donetsk human rights organization Memorial. “Absentee ballots, ballot boxes ostensibly meant to be taken to homes, and many other things that the Supreme Court considered.” Verkhovna Rada ombudsperson Nina Karpachova also believes there were human rights violations. She said recently that the current situation in Ukraine “was in fact provoked by the violation of constitutional rights and freedoms during the elections.”
Paradoxically, there were some positive aspects to the election- related infringement of rights. There were frequent statements made about the transformation of Ukraine’s population into the Ukrainian people and of the people into a nation, and other similar metamorphoses. The civic stance has engendered legal consequences. According to Ms. Karpachova, whoever is elected president in the rerun of the vote will not succeed in ignoring the problem of human rights and freedoms because the people showed that they are “not only an object of manipulations but also a subject of history.” People also made full use of their right to peaceful protest and free expression, the right to be heard.
“Hosts of people are eager to know what is written in this Constitution and how they can defend their interests by lawful means,” Mr. Bukalov says. “The Supreme Court’s televised session had a powerful effect. Before that, most Ukrainians didn’t have the faintest idea of what such a session looked like.” This in fact set a precedent of publicly solving a problem in court, and human rights champions say people are now poring over infringements of their rights and the possibility of redressing their grievances in a court of law. The people are now ready to voice their discontent instead of customarily keeping silent. Judges, too, feel less inhibited now. “The recent Supreme Court ruling was a breakthrough,” Mr. Zakharov says confidently, because “it showed that judges can be independent of other branches of power.”
One should not forget, however, that most of the law-related problems in our society still remain unsolved. The most widespread human rights abuse in Ukraine is unlawful actions by law-enforcement bodies. Mr. Zakharov says the use of torture by the police has somewhat diminished over the past year. Last fall the Ministry of Internal Affairs abolished the practice of assessing the performance of police units on the basis of the clear-up rate. “This eliminated the incentive for beating a confession out an innocent individual. As a result, the official number of crimes is on the rise because we are seeing a more realistic picture of what is going on,” Mr. Zakharov notes. What also played a positive role was the European Court’s acceptance of a Ukrainian’s complaint about police torture. The state cannot possibly ignore such precedents. The total number of lawsuits that Ukrainians have brought to the European Court has gone up, too: whereas only six lawsuits from Ukraine were accepted in 2003, twelve have already been registered in 2004.
Experts claim there is not a single offense today that cannot be taken to court. Yet Ukrainians practically do not react to some of these, such as infringements of the right to the confidentiality of personal data. Plans are underway to set up an integrated governmental computerized system that would combine all records of individuals. According to Mr. Zakharov, each person’s identification code will be recorded in their passport (it is already stamped in the new-type passports being issued in Kyiv), driving license, and even medical card. This system will enable any bureaucrat to get extensive information about an individual: his family members, trips abroad, credit history, and medical records. “A country that employs this system cannot be called a rule-of-law state,” Mr. Zakharov maintains. “This system also contravenes the Constitution of Ukraine, which guarantees that no one may gather information about an individual without their knowledge and consent.”