New Ukrainian law defines Russia as “an aggressor state” and raises controversy among human rights defenders

On January 18, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a law defining Russia as the “aggressor state” which conducts combat operations in the east of Ukraine and occupies part of the Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts. However, some of the provisions in the documents do not please human rights defenders.

280 deputies of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine voted in the second reading for the document commonly known as the “Donbass Reintegration Act” or the “Reoccupation of Donbas Act”. It took few months of epic battle to adopt the law.

In October 2017, the project of new law was adopted in the first reading. President Petro Poroshenko together with Oleksandr Turchynov, Secretary of the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine, personally persuaded the deputies to vote in favour of the law. It was Turchynov who wrote that law, although it was officially introduced to the Parliament by the President.

Initially the second reading of the law was planned before the end of 2017. However, according to unconfirmed reports, the voting was postponed due to the negotiations regarding the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and the unrecognized separatist republics in Donbas.

At the same time there was a heated discussion over the content of the law. The critics suggested that the authors want to give the President too extensive powers. The restriction of citizens’ rights of the population living in Donbas was also underlined.

The Members of the Parliament made a total number of 673 amendments. 280 MPs voted to adopt the law and that number was surprising even for some of the parliamentarians. A part of the opposition also voted in favour of the law, including those who loudly criticized the draft law earlier.

Political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko points out that voting against that law “might have been the reason for suspicions about secretive relations of a given parliamentarian with Russia and accusing him of insufficient patriotism.”

What does the law change?

Even though it is commonly called the “Reintegration Act” or “The Act of Reoccupation” of Donbas, it does not contain any provisions determining the strategy of regaining the occupied territories. Only the full and official name indicates what the adopted document concerns. The law on “peculiarities of the state policy of restoration of state sovereignty of Ukraine under temporary occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions” redefines the status of the areas east of the country which are uncontrolled by Kiev, and the rules of conducting military operations in this area.

First, Russia is called “the aggressor state” that conducts combat operations in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and occupies part of the Ukrainian territories.

According to the document, Russia is also responsible for violating the rights of people living there until the occupation troops are withdrawn from the Ukrainian territories.

All people taking part in the armed assault or working in the Russian Federation occupation administration are criminally responsible for their actions. Russia is also to suffer the consequences of material damage resulted from the Donbas conflict. However, the law does not specify what kind of responsibility this is to be.

The date of the beginning of Russian aggression in Ukraine was also not specified. Provisions of the recently adopted law refer to the previous law concerning the temporary occupation of Crimea, where the day of its annexation was indicated – February 20, 2014. Thus, that day is recognized as the beginning of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Secondly, the act changes the order of conducting Ukrainian combat operations in Donbas area. In April 2014, Ukrainian authorities launched an anti-terrorist operation, known as ATO, due to the occupation of the city of Sloviansk in the Donetsk Oblast by armed fighters from Russia. According to the new adopted law, military operation in Donbas is now called “a means to guarantee national security as well as a method of defence, and resistance, and containment of aggression of the Russian Federation.”

The Security Service of Ukraine was in charge of ATO operation in Donbas. From now on combat operations will be coordinated by the General Staff of the Ukraine Armed Forces. Directly, the military operation will be led by the Joint Operational Headquarters of the Ukraine Armed Forces. It will have under its command all means and forces from other security departments. The commanding officer of the Joint Operational Headquarters will be appointed by the President.

Thirdly, the President will also set the borders of the occupied territories. The government will determine the rules of crossing the frontline by civilians and carrying various goods by them. The commander of the Joint Operational Headquarters will have the right to limit the possibility of civilians to cross the so-called demarcation line.

Fourthly, the military units operating in the frontline and in the front zone (the “security zone” will probably cover the entire Donbas) will receive special powers of attorney. According to experts, it means the introduction of the rules of a martial law. Civilians will have to comply with the requirements of the law enforcement representatives. Soldiers and other services’ officers will have the right to use weapon against whoever disturbing “security operations.” They will also have the authority to search personal belongings, cars, private houses and organization houses, as well as to block roads and confiscate means of transport and means of communication.

Why is the law criticized and who criticizes it?

The extension of the powers of the law enforcement representatives in the frontline and in the front zone raise doubts and criticism among part of the opposition and organizations dealing with human rights. They point to the possible limitation of civil rights of local population. They also warn that the lack of control over the actions of law enforcement representatives can lead to some abuses on their part.

The law also extends the President’s mandate to conduct combat operations. According to it, operations for security in Donbas will be managed by the Joint Operational Headquarters and it is the President who will determine its powers.

Supporters of the new law emphasize that the armed aggression of Russia against Ukraine requires the use of extraordinary measures, but critics indicate that the document gives the President new powers that are not enshrined in the constitution.

What about Donbas future?

It is not easy to predict to what extent the new law will affect the situation in eastern Ukraine. Despite the next ceasefire, gunshots can still be heard along the border. Whether the new power of attorney will allow the Ukrainian forces to defend themselves more effectively will not be clear until all the changes come into force.

As expected, the law triggered a critical reaction of the Russian authorities. Dmitry Peskov, the Press Secretary for the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, declared on January 19, that Russia is not responsible for the situation in Donbas and categorically disagrees with being labelled an “aggressor state”.

During a press conference at the Headquarters of the United Nations, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, Sergei Lavrov, declared that the law adopted by the Ukrainian Parliament would undermine the Minsk Protocol, which is aimed at settling the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Simultaneously, the Kremlin emphasizes that Russia is interested in resolving the conflict in Donbas based on the implementation of points recorded in the Minsk Protocol. On January 18, Boris Gryzlov, Russian representative in Minsk contact group, announced the intensification of the Russian delegation’s activities as a part of peace summits in the capital of Belarus.

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