Let me first join my colleagues in thanking our briefers: Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson, Assistant Secretary-General Simonovic, Director of Operations John Ging, and Ambassador Apakan. UN and OSCE teams are active on the ground working in extremely difficult conditions, and please express the United States’ gratitude and – I’m sure – the broader international community’s gratitude, to them.
Foreign Minister Klimkin and Foreign Minister Linkevicius, thank you for joining us.
I would like to start by apologizing for the late start to this meeting. The delay was unavoidable and very important to protecting the integrity of the UN Security Council. I also must stress the absolute criticality and centrality of independent reporting of facts to the implementation of the Minsk Agreements and the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2202. In arguing, as the Russian ambassador did earlier, that the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights should not brief, one does wonder what Russia seeks to hide. But we understand its very unfortunate desire to prevent the Council from hearing inconvenient facts, and it is absolutely essential that we not let that happen and that the facts be presented such as they are.
As we’ve heard today, the present situation in Ukraine looks different than it did when we last met in June, just a few days then after a combined Russian-separatist force offensive that coordinated attacks west of the ceasefire line in Donetsk.
But the horrific situation back in June cannot become the baseline for our assessments or our actions. While major combat is down since the September 1st ceasefire – and that’s extremely important for all of the lives affected – this crisis remains no less real, no less urgent, and no less troubling. There are still, as we’ve heard, daily ceasefire violations. And as has been described in great detail today, the citizens of Ukraine – all of Ukraine – continue to suffer enormously.
Let us be clear about why we are gathered again and what continues to drive this crisis.
We are here because Russia continues to occupy Ukraine’s autonomous region of Crimea, in defiance of international law, in defiance of its treaty obligations, the Helsinki Final Act, and the resolution passed by 100 members of the UN General Assembly that rejected the phony Crimea referendum and that called for Ukraine’s territorial integrity to be respected. Its authorities there have opened criminal cases against critics of the occupation and specifically targeted the Tatar community, subjecting them to beatings, arbitrary detentions, and police raids.
We are here because even today Moscow continues to arm, train, support, and fight alongside separatists in eastern Ukraine. On Wednesday, the OHCHR confirmed the continued “inflow of ammunition, weaponry and fighters from the Russian Federation into the territories controlled by the armed groups.” A robust combined Russian-separatist military force, led by Russian officers, continues to operate in Ukrainian territory.
We are here because Moscow and the separatists continue to obstruct international monitoring efforts, undermining the ceasefire and the prospects for peace. OSCE monitors face obstruction on a daily basis. And just this past weekend, OSCE monitors on patrol were threatened by separatists with automatic rifles.
We are here because – in blatant disregard for the commitments that have been made – the Russian-backed separatists continue to attack Ukrainian positions along the line of contact almost every day, at times with mortars banned under weapons withdrawal agreements. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians continue to be killed or wounded in these attacks. And we cannot afford to get used to that.
The cumulative impact of Moscow’s aggression remains the widespread and unnecessary suffering of Ukrainian civilians. Almost 1.5 million people are unable to return to their homes, their schools, and their daily lives. Winter has arrived, and as many as 300,000 people residing along the contact line are in need of blankets, fuel, and clothes to get them through the cold.
Yet despite the urgent need, few relief organizations are able to work in the separatist-controlled areas because, as we heard from John Ging, the separatists suspended and expelled UN and international humanitarian organizations in July. Only a fraction of the aid required by the two million people in need in these areas is getting through. We heard earlier a very moving account by the Ambassador from the Russian Federation on the plight of people living in Donbas, yet it is Russia’s separatists that expelled humanitarian organizations and by-and-large haven’t let them resume their function. We urge Moscow to finally honor the commitments that it made when it signed the Minsk Agreements and ensure that separatists lift restrictions and allow the immediate resumption of critically needed aid. We also encourage the Government of Ukraine to accelerate efforts to facilitate the movement of civilians and cargo across the contact line, and continue the provision of social, education, and economic benefits to internally displaced people and others in need.
There has also been a deeply concerning deterioration in the human rights situation in Donbas, as described in depth by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission. Their report this week notes “new allegations of killings, torture and ill-treatment, illegal detention, and forced labor” in separatist controlled areas. The self-appointed authorities in the east have systematically failed to stop, investigate, or hold to account those believed responsible for abuses and ill-treatment. The Mission also reported incidents in areas controlled by the Ukrainian government, and we urge the government to immediately investigate all serious and credible allegations.
Just as we know who is driving this conflict, we know what must be done to end it. The September 2014 and February 2015 Minsk agreements are the best and only way to achieve peace in eastern Ukraine. Over the six months since we last met, we have seen how even incomplete steps toward implementation of Minsk – like the September 1st ceasefire – can reduce casualties and provide space for progress on other fronts.
What is needed now – what is long overdue – is full implementation of the Minsk agreements.
All sides must seize the opportunity to bring this conflict to a peaceful end. This year has seen some progress in this direction, with fewer casualties and some limited weapons withdrawals, and now is the time to implement Minsk and settle this conflict. This would allow the people of Ukraine to resume normal life and focus on building the democratic, European society that Ukrainians have fought and in many cases died for.
Let me be specific about the path to peace laid out by the Minsk agreements. Most immediately, the daily violations of the ceasefire line must come to an end; heavy weapons must be withdrawn from the frontline, and the OSCE must be allowed full access all the way to the border. Legitimate local elections must then be held in Donbas. Minsk is crystal clear on the requirements for these elections: they must be held according to Ukrainian law and OSCE standards, and they must be held under OSCE’s observation. In October, President Putin recommitted to these Minsk-required standards and agreed on the urgent need for the sides to agree on election mechanics that conform to these standards. But since then, Russia and the separatists have rejected proposals by Ukraine and the OSCE because they included elements like free media access and the right of Ukrainian political parties to participate. While the rest of Ukraine held local elections on October 25th and November 15th, residents in the Donbas continue to be deprived of legitimately elected representatives, and Russia and its surrogates continue to stonewall the work of the Trilateral Contact Group.
Holding legitimate elections is the key to unlocking the remaining steps of Minsk and enabling the separatist-held territories to be peacefully reintegrated back into the Ukrainian political and legal system. As agreed in Paris in October, the elections must be followed by implementation of Ukraine’s special status law and entry into force of the amnesty legislation. Constitutional reform must also occur, and Ukraine has been working toward this for many months – its draft amendments on decentralization were endorsed by the Venice Commission’s international legal experts and in August received the first of two required approvals by Parliament. And finally, Russia and the separatists must fulfil other outstanding Minsk obligations, which include withdrawing all foreign fighters and military equipment, releasing all hostages and unlawfully detained persons – including Nadia Savchenko and Oleh Sentsov – and turning over control of the international border back to the sovereign Government of Ukraine.
When all sides faithfully uphold their commitments, we will see progress on this conflict. Until then there will be casualties, and those causalities will inevitably rise. Let me conclude by trying to humanize the stakes.
Marina Reznik is 13 years old. On a Saturday back in January, Marina was visiting her father in a residential neighborhood of Mariupol. That day, separatists announced an offensive against the city; the rocket fire that followed killed at least 29 people and injured 97 others. Marina was one of those injured. When the shell hit the house, her father tried to use his body to shield her, but two shell fragments sliced into her. One hit her spinal cord. Nearly a year later, Marina, whose love of dance led her to dream of being a professional hip-hop dancer, still cannot feel her right leg. She cannot walk. And instead of dancing, she now hopes to help other children who have been affected by this conflict.
We are here today because of Moscow’s aggression – because of how it continues to fuel this conflict, and because of how this conflict hurts innocent people like Marina. We will continue meeting about this crisis, we will continue to insist that we hear the facts until the aggression ceases and until Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are restored. We urge Moscow to choose the path of peace and uphold its Minsk commitments.
I thank you.