The ceasefire a step in the right direction, road to peace remains long | Den norske Helsingforskomité

The ceasefire a step in the right direction, the road to peace remains long

The ceasefire a step in the right direction, the road to peace remains long

The ceasefire agreement, which entered into force as of Sunday 15 February, is good news for the civilian population in the Donbass region”, said Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General. – However, it is already marred by violations and important questions remain unresolved. There are also serious flaws with the agreement. – The loser after nearly a year of hostilities is the civilian population in Eastern Ukraine who have seen their houses, economy, infrastructure and key public institutions shot to pieces. The human rights situation was far from perfect before the armed conflict, but there is no doubt that it has become much worse in the rebel-controlled areas.

About one million Ukrainians are internally displaced, and 600 000 are refugees, mainly in Russia. Over 5,300 have been killed; many more wounded. Monitoring reports by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and human rights groups paint a dark picture. Lawlessness is the conflict’s close companion.

– There is every reason to welcome the ceasefire agreement, said Engesland. However a similar agreement signed in Minsk last September quickly collapsed. The new agreement builds on similar principles, and may suffer the same fate. We are also deeply concerned that the Agreement’s provision on a general amnesty for the warring parties in reality will mean impunity for war crimes. Lack of accountability is the common denominator of the many armed conflicts in the post-Soviet are of the last 25 years, and is in our opinion a driving force behind the violence that continue to claim lives.

While the ceasefire according to the OSCE was broadly observed through Sunday, fighting continued around Debaltseve, a key transport hub held by government forces. OSCE has been denied access to the city, and rebel commanders maintain that Debaltseve belong to them.

The agreement obliges the parties to withdraw heavy weapons from the conflict zone. Foreign (i.e. Russian) weapons and soldiers should be pulled out of Ukraine, and illegal groups should be disarmed. The Parties shall release prisoners, and all combatants are granted amnesties. The economy in rebel-held areas shall be restored with tax collection and payment of pensions and social security.

The agreement also binds Ukraine to devolve more autonomy to rebel regions. If the terms of the agreements are adhered to, Ukraine in return should get back control of the border with Russia at the end of 2015.

– There is good reason for skepticism, said Engesland. Firstly, Russia’s intentions are unclear. Last year’s annexation of the Crimea and the considerable support to the rebels in eastern Ukraine indicate an aim to destabilize the neighboring country. Can we believe that Russia now has changed policies? The EU, the US, Norway and other democratic states should keep up, and even be ready to increase, pressure on Russia to abide by the agreement and international law.

– Secondly, it is difficult to see how the agreement can be effectively monitored. Separatist military leadership is far from transparent and there are also the “ghost troops” from Russia, which makes monitoring difficult. The OSCE, Ukrainian and international human rights activists make a formidable effort, but there is clearly a need for a more robust European peacekeeping force that can ensure that the agreement is implemented.

– The overriding question is: what effect will the agreement have for Ukraine as a whole? Will it provide a respite so that the country can develop in a democratic direction?

President Petro Poroshenko and his allies in parliament gave a signal last week that they take promises to modernize Ukraine seriously when they passed a law that, if finally adopted early this fall, will abolish the immunity of elected representatives against criminal prosecution.

– The law may become a milestone for Ukraine on the road from post-Soviet kleptocracy to modern legal state. There are, however, big challenges, said Engesland. A modern state based on democratic principles and rule of law cannot ignore war crimes and human rights violations. The ceasefire agreement allows for amnesties for such crimes. On the other hand, the Ukrainian authorities have turned to the International Criminal Court and asked it to investigate such crimes. Local human rights organisations as well as international ones are currently documenting as far as possible human rights violations in the Eastern Ukraine for the purpose of bringing the responsible to account at a later stage.

– There is no doubt which way Ukraine should choose, concluded Engesland. The government needs to fight a tradition of impunity and corrupt politicians. But whether Ukrainian authorities really have the will and strength to implement the needed reforms remain in doubt. We expect the EU, the US, Norway and other democratic states to be strong advocates and supporters of democratic reforms in Ukraine. In the long run, the ceasefire and the fate of democratic reforms will both determine the future of Ukraine.