By Dean Carroll
Protesters demanding revolution and a turn towards the European Union, rather than Russia, in Ukraine have faced ‘excessive force’ from riot police – a campaign group active on the ground in Kiev has claimed. Detailed reports of attacks on the elderly and peaceful demonstrators as well as those engaged in violent civil disobedience have become commonplace, according to Human Rights Watch.
“Ukraine is going through serious civil unrest,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “No matter how difficult the situation becomes, police shouldn’t be beating people who pose no threat.” The group has demanded an inquiry into the violence and a guarantee of right to assembly from the authorities, in line with international law.
Some tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev and other cities across Ukraine in the days following the government’s decision, on November 21, to suspend preparations for a European Union-Ukraine Association Agreement. The unexpected move came following pressure from neighbouring Russia. The pact was considered to be an important step toward the country’s integration with the EU and liberalised markets. Marches and rallies, largely peaceful said Human Rights Watch, continued in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities for nine days with little police interference.
But on November 30, riot police were said to have violently dispersed several hundred peaceful protesters gathered at Independence Square in central Kiev. Later that day, Interior Minister Vitalii Zakharenko apologised for the police’s use of excessive force and said that an investigation would be opened. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also said sorry for police actions when addressing parliament on December 3. The demonstrators had maintained a round-the-clock gathering at Independence Square since November 21.
Acknowledging that governments had the right and duty to stop violent attacks on police and public buildings, Human Rights Watch insisted that in doing so the authorities were obliged to respect basic human rights standards governing the use of force in police operations. “These universal standards are embodied in the United Nations basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials, which state that ‘whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence’,” said a spokesman for the pressure group.
Human Rights Watch joined the clarion call for calm after the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and United States Secretary of State John Kerry urged the Ukraine government to take note of public dissent over realignment away from Europe towards Russia. Kerry insisted that the ruling party in Ukraine must “listen to the voices of its people”.
On Tuesday, the Ukrainian parliament rejected efforts to force the resignation of the government in the wake of a motion of ‘no confidence’ tabled by opposition politicians. Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated his belief that “outside actors” were responsible for the backlash, labelling the uprising to be “more like a rampage than a revolution”.
The outburst of public support for the European project in Ukraine was deeply at odds with the tone of debate within the powers of corridors in Brussels, where EU officials were facing up to the apathy and disdain from citizens across a number of core member states. While protesters in Italy and Greece have compared the EU to a fascist regime, due to its strictly imposed top-down austerity regime, nations like the United Kingdom have even contemplated the ramifications of leaving the union altogether.