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11-Feb-2021 02:35:05
Eastern Ukraine situation will remain fragile without means to calm mounting tensions, Under-Secretary-General tells Security Council.

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Talks Taking Place against Backdrop of Russian Aggression, Delegate Stresses, Contrasting Kyiv’s ‘Positive’ Steps

The situation in eastern Ukraine will remain fragile until a way is found to calm rising tensions, the Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs warned during a Security Council video conference briefing today.

Emphasizing that talks are no substitute for real progress, Rosemary DiCarlo said the overall situation remains fragile despite agreements on restoring stability and other encouraging developments, such as reduced violence and the release of detainees. Despite the relative calm, however, worsening humanitarian conditions are unfolding, due in part to restrictions on the freedom of movement and the COVID-19 pandemic.

With more than 3.4 million people still in need of sustained humanitarian assistance, contact line crossings have been sharply reduced and water and sanitation services affected, she reported, noting that unexploded ordnance continues to cause harm. Humanitarian access has also been restricted, she said, urging all actors to allow freedom of movement to permit the delivery of aid. Under the new humanitarian response plan, partners aim to reach more than 1 million people in need and seek $168 million to provide it.

Noting that the first delivery of COVID-19 vaccines are expected in Ukraine later this month, she said the United Nations is working on that and related issues. Guided by the Ukraine-United Nations partnership framework, the Organization will continue to strengthen recovery initiatives, among other measures, she pledged. Expressing concerned about security incidents along the contact line, she stressed that the trend must be reversed.

Heidi Grau, Special Representative of the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) Chairperson-in-Office, said the past year brought a radical reduction of ceasefire violations, but latest trends have shown that it will be difficult to maintain the relative calm on the front line if humanitarian and political issues are left unresolved. It is, therefore, high time that all sides show commitment and responsibility, she said, pledging that the OSCE mediating team will do whatever it can to assist them.

She went on to report that pandemic-related travel restrictions have forced OSCE to hold its biweekly Trilateral Contact Group meetings by videoconference since the end of March 2020, emphasizing that such limitations have also made it much more difficult for Ukrainians to meet relatives on the other side of the contact line. However, the Group continued its efforts towards implementation of the Minsk agreements and the 2019 Normandy Summit tasks, she noted.

Regarding the Normandy tasks, particularly the release and exchange of conflict-related detainees following the principle “all for all”, she said another step was taken in April 2020 with the release of 34 prisoners from detention. However, negotiations later slowed down with participants accusing each other of failing to honour their commitments. “I very much hope that this year will allow us to move forward on this vital humanitarian issue,” she said.

Two additional checkpoints along the contact line unfortunately remain unilaterally closed, while negotiations on technical details are ongoing, she reported, expressing optimism that the checkpoints will reopen soon. The most important step of 2020 was the Trilateral Contact Group agreement of 22 July 2020 on additional measures to stabilize the ceasefire, she said, noting that it brought long-awaited relief to people on both sides of the contact line. Despite a worrying recent trend of breaches, the number of ceasefire violations observed by the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission is still significantly lower than it was in the first half of 2020, she noted.

Turning to disengagement and demining, she said not enough progress has been achieved on those fronts. While participants identified 19 new demining areas and four disengagement zones in mid-2020, some participants in the Group made their implementation conditional on indirectly related political issues. All discussions in the political working group stalled in August 2020 when some participants demanded that Ukraine’s parliament repeal a resolution on local elections before discussions could continue. She expressed gratitude for the involvement of the political advisers of the Normandy Four in actively seeking ways out of the impasse. She reported that the working group on economic affairs continued its indispensable efforts on a variety of issues, including the maintenance of vital infrastructure, environmental threats and pension payments.

Halit Çevik, Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, noted that, whereas 2020 was rife with unforeseen challenges, productive dialogue led to a period of stability. If there is political will, the situation on the ground can improve, particularly for civilians affected by the conflict, he said, while cautioning that recent heightened tensions are threatening to derail the progress achieved. The narrowing window of opportunity for de-escalation and obstacles to freedom of movement for monitors makes it imperative that the signatories to the Minsk agreements adhere to their commitments and uphold the additional measures they agreed in July 2020, he emphasized. “The window of opportunity for further political progress that appeared last summer must remain open for the ceasefire to be sustained.”

Against the backdrop of the volatile security situation along the contact line, he continued, the 22 July 2020 agreement within the Trilateral Contact Group on additional measures to strengthen the ceasefire saw a substantial decrease in armed violence, but adherence has frayed over time. Before the July 2020 agreement, reports showed a daily average of 594 violations, which dropped to 19 from August to October 2020, and has risen to 87 since November 2020, he said, pointing out that other violations continue, despite commitments by the parties, ranging from newly built trenches to the presence of heavy weapons in residential areas. At the same time, discussions with the working group on security issues are at a standstill, with no agreement on a joint coordination mechanism to follow up and investigate alleged breaches, he noted, stressing that such a mechanism could serve as an important confidence-building measure, as would the parties answering calls to take action against impunity.

He went on to report lower numbers of conflict-related civilian casualties, from 24 deaths and 107 injuries in 2020 compared with 8 deaths and 32 injuries after the introduction of additional measures in late July 2020. Small arms fire or shelling with heavy weapons caused 64 civilian casualties in 2020, with 61 occurring before the additional measures entered into force, reflecting a powerful demonstration of how sustained ceasefires can save lives, he said. Given that mines, unexploded ordnance and other explosive devices continued to exert a heavy civilian toll — causing 16 deaths and 51 injuries in 2020 — the parties must implement demining commitments, he added. In light of conditions exacerbated by the pandemic for those living along the contact line, he said, civilians still cannot use new crossings at Zolote and Shchastia, despite an agreement reached within the Trilateral Contact Group in 2020.

Noting that checkpoints have been operational in Government-run areas since 10 November 2020, but not in corresponding areas outside Government control, he reported that the number of crossings dropped by more than 92 per cent, from 11.99 million to 903,000, between March and December 2020. The Mission continues to facilitate dialogue between the sides and to monitor ceasefires, and has repaired nearly 120 gas, water and electricity infrastructure objects serving 6 million civilians. But, violations persist, including near the Donetsk filtration station, and shootings occur regularly during scheduled shift changes of workers known to the parties, despite specific security guarantees, he cautioned.

Despite the operational challenges posed by the pandemic, he said, the Monitoring Mission continues to maintain a robust presence throughout Ukraine and provides objective and impartial information about the situation on the ground through its monitoring and reporting. Underlining the essential importance of freedom of movement for the mission, enshrined in its mandate and the Minsk agreements, in order for it to serve as the eyes and ears of the international community in Ukraine, he said obstructions persist, with more than 95 per cent of all such restrictions in 2020 having occurred in non-Government-controlled areas and 46 per cent in the southern part of the Donetsk region, and in areas close to the uncontrolled border with the Russian Federation.

Attempts to restrict the Special Monitoring Mission’s use of technical monitoring assets have persisted on both sides of the contact line, he continued, recalling that the Mission’s unmanned aerial vehicles were targeted by gunfire on 70 occasions and subjected to GPS signal interference 700 times in 2020. Should that trend of restricting free movement continue, the Mission’s ability to monitor the situation on the ground and report objective and corroborated information will be increasingly constrained, he warned.

In the ensuing discussion, several Council members condemned the Russian Federation’s occupation of Crimea and continued aggression in Ukraine. Others recommended ways by which to ensure further progress on implementing negotiated agreements, including establishing confidence-building measures. Some speakers called upon the parties to ensure the delivery of much-needed assistance to improve conditions for those whose suffering has been exacerbated by pandemic‑related restrictions. Members agreed that a diplomatic solution remains the only path towards ending the conflict.

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