UN Rights Official Worries About Ukraine Religious Freedoms

The United Nations

Addressing the Security Council on Tuesday, Ilze Brands Kehris, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, expressed concern about restrictions to freedom of religion in Ukraine, including territory under Russian control.

The theme of the Council meeting briefing on Ukraine came under the “Threats to International Peace and Security” agenda item. It was requested by Russia’s Permanent Representative, Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia, during an earlier Council meeting on 13 January, during which Mr. Nebenzia alleged that Ukraine is attempting to “destroy” the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is canonically linked to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Destroyed Residential Building in Dnipro, Ukraine.

Destroyed residential building in Dnipro, Ukraine

Thousands of civilians killed

Before addressing the question of religious freedoms, Ms. Brands Kehris gave an overview of the severe human rights and international humanitarian law violations inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Russia’s armed attack on the country, and ensuing hostilities which, she said, put countless lives at risk, caused massive displacement and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

The senior UN human rights official documented the thousands of civilian casualties that the war has claimed since in began on 24 February 2022: the UN Human Rights Office has recorded more than 7,000 civilians killed and more than 11,000 injured, but the real figures are believed to be much higher.

Ms. Brands Kehris referenced the Russian missile attack on a residential building in Dnipro – which killed at least 45 civilians, including six children, and injured at least 79 – and Russian strikes on critical infrastructure which have killed at least 103 civilians and injured at least 371, and caused major electricity and water shortages across the country.

In the Russian-occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions, civilians have suffered from Ukrainian shelling of densely populated areas, said Ms. Brands Kehris: the Human Rights Office has recorded 498 civilians killed, including 25 children and 1,675 injured, including 117 children.

A Sunday mass celebration in the church of the Kyiv-Pechera Lavra, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

A Sunday mass celebration in the church of the Kyiv-Pechera Lavra, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Deteriorating tensions between Orthodox communities

Ms. Brands Kehris then turned to the concerns over restrictions to freedom of religion and freedom of association across Ukraine, including territory occupied by Russia.

Tensions between Orthodox communities in Ukraine existed for decades, she said, but they deteriorated following the Russian Federation’s armed attack against Ukraine.

The UN official described Ukrainian Security Service searches of Ukrainian Orthodox Church premises and places of worship as “worrying developments”: at least three clergy, she said, are now facing criminal charges, including for treason and denial of the “armed aggression” of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.

“We urge the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that any such searches in premises and places of worship are in full compliance with international law,” said Ms. Brands Kehris, “that fair trial rights are given to those facing criminal charges, and that any criminal sanctions are compatible with the rights of freedom of opinion, expression and religion”.

Ms. Brands Kehris shared the concerns of the Rights Office that two draft laws recently tabled in the Ukrainian Parliament could undermine the right to freedom of religion or belief, as enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Under international human rights law, any limitations to the right to manifest one’s religion or belief must be prescribed by law, necessary and proportionate”.

Concluding her address to the Council, the senior UN official called on both parties to the conflict to respect and ensure that the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly, association, and religion can be exercised without discrimination by all.

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