Ukraine’s Forgotten Missing and Disappeared

Photo by Olya Morvan

Photo by Olya Morvan

Since the spring of 2014 when conflict (“counter-terrorism”, as it is more often described by parties on both sides) began in Eastern Ukraine, thousands are believed to have gone missing as a result of refugee flight, fighting, reprisals and abductions. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, a marked deterioration in the human rights environment on the peninsula has been reported. Despite the “Minsk 2” agreement of February 2015, which provided for a ceasefire but which has never been fully implemented, human rights organizations and media continue to report widespread human rights abuses and casualties in Eastern Ukraine.

As a consequence of the conflict, it is estimated that 86,000 people have been internally displaced, over 6,000 have been injured and more than 3,000 have been killed. The exact number of those who have gone missing is unknown. The continuing violence involves a variety of actors, including Ukrainian military forces, pro-Ukrainian volunteers, pro-Russian separatists, and allegedly Russia itself. The conflict has resulted in a general breakdown of the rule of law in contested parts of the country. Reinstating law and order, including ensuring accountability by the relevant authorities in resolving missing persons cases, is a precondition for any long-term peace settlement. Estimates assembled from a variety of sources suggest that since the beginning of 2014 more than 2,500 people may have been kidnapped, abducted, forcibly disappeared or have gone missing from all levels of Ukrainian society, as well as from all sides of the political and conflict divide. According to sources interviewed by ICMP in Ukraine in September 2014, of this number, the fate of almost 1,000 persons is unknown. As fighting has continued, these numbers have continued to rise, which means that the discovery of more mass or clandestine graves like those found in Slovyansk in July 2014 is to be expected.

A human rights activist and journalist at the Kiev-based Center for Civil Liberties has suggested that the Ukrainian government is unwilling to investigate missing persons cases since some of their own forces may be implicated. Both Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists are guilty of abductions and torture, according to Amnesty International and the UN Human Right Monitoring Mission. Some Ukrainian formations have been accused of rape and murder.[1] Further, media have reported that civilians are growing increasingly concerned that officials on both sides seem relatively indifferent to the disappearances of ordinary people and, as a result, little has been done to account for the fate and whereabouts of the missing. The situation is made worse by the Kiev government’s inability to determine which agency should be given primary responsibility for the search for the missing – the police, the military prosecutor, or the security service (SBU). As The Guardian newspaper reported: “No centralized database of missing troops had been established. The SBU published one list, the Ministry of Internal Affairs another. Both set up a hotline for families of missing soldiers, but if relatives managed to get an answer from one, they were often just told to call the other. Soldiers who had been buried by their families remained listed as missing in action months later, others who were still actually missing ended up on memorial plaques for the dead.” [2]  What seems to be clear is that the country’s military and forensic identification systems are not in their present form adequate to deal with disappearances of this volume and this nature.

Resolving conflict-related disappearances demands that all sides to the conflict are involved and that search and identificaiton can take place in every part of the country – there is every liklihood that victims being sought by one side are to be found in territory controlled by the other side, so cooperation across confrontation lines is not simply a desirable aspiration, it is a basic requirement of an effective effort to account for the missing.

Only by including all parties to the conflict, as well as civil society stakeholders such as human rights organizations and family groups, and by applying modern forensic technology can the fate of Ukraine’s missing be resolved. This will make it possible for families to achieve a measure of closure; it will also help to remove a source of continuing bitterness and a recurrent obstacle to reaching a long-term settlement; and it will reaffirm the rule of law in a society where this has been fundamentally challenged on both sides of the conflict.