New Allegations of Torture in Ukraine Ahead of NATO Summit

Recent allegations against the Ukrainian security services raises questions about U.S. and NATO efforts to provide security aid to the Kiev government to effectively deter Russian aggression, even as it remains important to protect Ukraine’s eastern border. The charges come to light as the U.S. Congress debates whether to significantly increase funding levels for Ukraine’s forces in the National Defense Authorization Act and NATO member states meet at the NATO Warsaw Summit starting today where they will discuss Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Last month, the UN was forced to suspend an investigation into torture allegations by Ukrainian security forces when investigators were denied access to sites under control of Ukraine's domestic intelligence agency, the SBU. As a member state of the Optional Protocol on the Prevention of Torture, Ukraine has agreed to allow regular visits by an independent delegation to locations where there are suspected human rights violations. Its failure to comply was just the second time the UN subcommittee has ever had to suspend a mission. Despite a UN statement that there had been “positive” correspondence with Kiev about resuming the investigation, no date has been announced leaving significant questions about Ukrainian security forces involvement in possible human rights violations.

The UN’s allegations and delayed investigation closely coincided with a NATO agreement to provide significant financial aid to Ukraine for 2017. The NATO-Ukraine commission held a meeting on June 15 during which the Ukrainian Defense Minister and NATO General Secretary discussed plans to increase funding for Ukrainian security services through a Comprehensive Package of Assistance. Through direct bilateral aid, the United States is already planning to provide up to $420 million in security assistance for FY 2017 through various State and Defense Department-funded programs. The State Department has requested $70 million in military and police aid, while Congress, through the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017 (NDAA), is seeking to authorize the Defense Department to provide even more aid.

The House version of the NDAA authorizes $150 million in military aid, the Senate authorizes $350 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, with $150 million authorized specifically for lethal aid. In addition, the Senate appropriations committee version of the State Department’s Foreign Operations bill plans to allocate up to $663 million to Ukraine in order to counter “Russian aggression,” although the majority of this will be humanitarian and economic assistance. The requests for FY 2017 is in addition to the $287 million in military and police aid the United States allocated to Ukraine between FY 2014 and FY 2016. 

In February, an Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) report also documented cases of torture and ill treatment “perpetrated with impunity by Ukrainian law enforcement officials.” A separate OHCHR report published last month conveyed an equally “grim” human rights situation in Ukraine. The report states that those detained by Ukrainian security services and suspected of cooperating with separatist groups have faced systematic violations of their human rights, including lack of access to due process or fair trial. Arbitrary deprivation of liberty has reached “an unprecedented scale” in areas where a broad network of unofficial detention centers hold conflict related detainees. The report notes that despite the OHCHR’s evidence of human rights violations committed by the Ukrainian Security Services, the SBU denies the accusations and even the existence of unofficial detention centers. These allegations raise concerns that about the Kiev government’s efforts to gain the confidence of some Ukrainian citizens and may undermine its efforts for a durable solution to the crisis.

Troubling allegations against Ukraine’s security sector are anything but new. In an article published last year, Security Assistance Monitor noted that 20-25 percent of foreign aid allocated to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry was lost to corruption. In December, Foreign Policy released an article criticizing security service reform funded by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement as opaque and top-down. Foreign Policy argued that instead of allowing for civilian oversight and increased dialogue between society and the security apparatus, reform has focused on militarizing police and increasing the SBU’s surveillance reach within the country. According to a recent article in Politico, SBU director Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who visited Washington this past November, offered an equally disheartening assessment of Ukraine’s post-revolutionary security services. He testified that there was no will among security services “to go to the end, to prosecute the really corrupt officials at the top.”

In the face of increasing anxieties over Russian presence along NATO’s eastern borders, the United States and NATO may be willing to overlook red flags in offering assistance to Ukraine because it advances NATO’s overall security goals in Eastern Europe. However, such assistance may compromise some security efforts if it does not effectively address the issues of torture and ill treatment of suspected separatists and seek to reduce corruption. As NATO members discuss Ukraine at the NATO Summit and Congress debate increases in military aid to Ukraine, it will be important for them to discuss these allegations of torture against the Ukrainian security services and Ukraine’s inability to cooperate with international protocol.