In the spring of 2014, international dialogues between governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and international news organizations were galvanized over the issue of Crimea — a peninsula within the Black Sea region of Eastern Europe. Narratives around the global importance of this small territory are often dominated by the coverage of ongoing territorial disputes between the Russian Federation and Ukraine, who both lay claim to the strategically crucial area. However, there are also critical human rights issues occurring within Crimea that are far too often overlooked by members of the international community.
The alarming nature of increased militarization within the region (particularly on the part of the Russian Federation) is well established and documented by world leaders, prominent newsmedia, and international organizations such as the UN — and rightfully so. Continued acts of Russian aggression not only stand in violation of international law but also significantly threaten the very structure of peaceful inter-state relations between sovereign nations throughout Eastern Europe and beyond.
However, the attention of the global community has unfortunately not focused as comprehensively on issues within the borders of Crimea. Since Russia annexed the region in 2014, strict censorship measures have made the stories of everyday people living within the region nearly impossible to obtain. Freedom of the press — or more appropriately, a lack thereof — has created an environment in which it is logistically unfeasible and personally dangerous for journalists and human rights advocates to conduct research within the country (the international human rights monitor Freedom House assigned the region a “world freedom” score of 8/100, or more clearly put, unfree).
In rare cases, limited information about the current domestic situation within Crimea is collected and disseminated by international and local human rights organizations. The subsequent reports often present a clear and disturbing trend of the political targeting and severe persecution of perceived political dissidents of the Russian regime, as well as ethnic and religious minority groups.
A Brief Background
Russian-Ukrainian hostilities came to the forefront of international attention in the tumultuous year of 2014, in light of the successful revolutionary overthrow of the Ukrainian government by its citizens. It is within this politically charged environment that the Russian Federation, under the leadership of regional strongman Vladimir Putin, saw the opportunity to capitalize on the post-revolution power vacuum, and in March 2014, illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. This annexation was justified with an almost certainly politically corrupt referendum in which supposedly, 95.5% of voters (most of whom were likely subject to some form of intimidation or misinformation) supported joining the Russian federation. The overthrow of the Ukrainian government also sparked the further militarization of Russian-backed separatist movements in the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine where a violent conflict continues to take place.
On 27 March 2014, just ten days after Russia declared its annexation of Crimea, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 68/262, officially declaring the Referendum of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea as unrecognizable under international law. The resolution also urged state leaders and international organizations to resist recognizing any resulting change in the political status of Crimea or the highly disputed port city of Sevastopol.
In the six years since the Russian Federation illegally took control of the region, shallow promises of national prosperity facilitated by an increase in investment for sectors such as construction and tourism, have dissipated into the stark reality of an authoritarian state. Censorship, extreme militarization (as illustrated by the 2018 Kerch Strait Incident), economic disintegration, and political violence have become the defining factors of the Putin controlled state — the effects of which continue to significantly alter the lives of millions of Crimeans.
International Reporting and Participation
Repercussions of the 2014 Russian annexation have undoubtedly affected Crimeans of all classes, creeds, genders, ethnicities, and religious affiliations — the significance of which cannot be understated. This being said, the UN General Assembly session held on 20 February 2020, identified several communities who were most at risk, including the Crimean Tatars (the country’s indigenous population), Ukrainians, Muslims, and members of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Discrimination against these groups, in addition to the prolific violence of the Donbass conflict, has led to a combined 2 million Ukrainian and Crimean refugees and internally displaced peoples; causing one of the biggest humanitarian crises that Eastern Europe has seen since the end of the Balkan Wars.
Despite having the attention of the UN General Assembly, this calamity is alarmingly absent from a majority of international dialogues, as Russian media censorship has made it extremely difficult for a steady stream of reliable information to flow out of the region. 2017 was the last year in which multiple high profile reports were published on internal Crimean issues, with very few major updates coming from prominent global news outlets since.
One such 2017 article titled “Crimea: ‘Not Our Home Anymore”, was originally published by the Ukrainian Kyiv Post newspaper, and subsequently promoted on the official Human Rights Watch website. This piece paints a grim and telling picture of life in Crimea under Russian authority, as it highlights the sheer magnitude of the human rights offences being committed, suggesting the nearly complete erosion of democratic limitations on government power within the region. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the mandated act of acquiring Russian citizenship, which if avoided, is punishable by severe limitations on access to political freedom, healthcare, and employment. Devastating stories of Crimeans losing their loved ones to treatable diseases, simply due to the withholding of healthcare by the state, illustrates that these issues are not just verifiable truths of authoritarian politics, but a genuine matter of life and death for thousands of Crimean families.
Local Human Rights Reporting
The unrelenting pursuit of journalistic advocacy in the face of censorship, political threats, and violence is by no means a small feat, but it is one that Crimean human rights activists hold at the very core of their identities. International regulatory bodies and NGOs attribute a large amount of the information they are able to gather on Crimean human rights issues to the efforts of regional organizations such as the Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG). The CHRG’s monthly publications provide some of the only consistent data on the political and humanitarian situation inside the borders of one of the world’s most censored territories.
The most recent situation review published by the CHRG identified 105 people that had suffered political, religious, or criminal persecution within Crimea during September 2020. Of these affected individuals, 69 were Crimean Muslims, who have been targeted based on falsified charges of affiliation with groups deemed to be “extremist” or “terrorist” by the Russian Federation.
This particular issue further emphasizes just how dangerous it is when world leaders promote any form of Islamophobic rhetoric or legislation, seeing as the political targeting of Muslim populations, even in small countries such as Crimea, has the potential to quickly devolve into genocidal campaigns. This is evident in the cases of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Uyghurs in China, and in countless other cases that we, as the international community, may not even be aware of.
Implications of Media Censorship
Social media activism has swept the international community with a force that has forever changed the global order — allowing human rights advocates to shout from the proverbial rooftops about serious issues transpiring thousands of miles away.
However, participation in such forms of international solidarity is logistically inaccessible to the people of Crimea. Freedom of the press, as it pertains to both access and publication, is very clearly under subjugation by the Russian Federation. CHRG reports that in September 2020, 25 separate Ukrainian sites were made inaccessible by internet providers within Crimea, in addition to the blocking of websites connected to the “Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Ministry for the Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine.” Thus, these tactics by the Russian Federation are as sinister as they are highly calculated, as any consolidated resistance movements within Crimea have very little opportunity to communicate with compatriots in Ukraine and across the world, leaving them geographically, politically, and morally isolated.
What Can Be Done?
How can the international community best advocate for the people of Crimea? This is a question perhaps best directed to human rights advocate Olga Skrypnyk, a CHRG representative who in an interview with the Human Rights House Foundation, emphasizes the dire need for widespread rejection of Russian propaganda and misinformation, increased coverage of Crimea by foreign journalists and activists, and an “international platform for negotiations regarding Crimean human rights”.
Although the current Crimean state of affairs may seem like an insurmountable obstacle for human rights advocates within and outside of the country, raising awareness of these avenues for change, along with emphasizing the urgency of international engagement, provides a network of solidarity that can serve to support the Crimean people in their pursuit of inalienable political rights and freedoms.