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Biden Shouldn't Soft-Pedal Ukraine on Human Rights


When Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, meets with U.S. President Joe Biden on August 30, the world will be watching closely. Ukraine has been facing numerous challenges, including a war with Russian-backed armed groups in the east and a struggling economy. As the U.S. has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine, providing financial, military, and security assistance, it is essential for Zelensky to seek reassurances and commitment from Washington during this crucial meeting.


The Importance of Human Rights: While Ukraine faces pressing issues, it is vital not to overlook the significance of human rights. The Biden administration has repeatedly pledged to place human rights at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. However, some have questioned this commitment, particularly in light of recent events in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a failure in one area should not lead to the abandonment of human rights. On the contrary, President Biden should emphasize that protecting and promoting human rights remain key priorities for the United States.


Supporting Ukraine's Civil Society: One way to demonstrate support for Ukraine's civil society is by asking hard questions and addressing human rights concerns. Ukraine has a pending bill to reform the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU), which has long been criticized for its abusive practices. While the bill aims to rein in the agency, it still grants the SBU broad powers without sufficient human rights safeguards. President Biden should urge Zelensky to put the bill on hold, listen to concerns raised by independent civic groups, and revise it to ensure the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.


Promoting Justice: In May, Ukrainian lawmakers adopted a crucial law aligning Ukraine's legal framework on war crimes and crimes against humanity with international standards. This step is essential to ensure justice for grave crimes committed during the armed conflict. President Biden should encourage Zelensky to promptly sign the law, enabling it to go into effect and hold perpetrators accountable.


Combating Hate and Discrimination: Ukrainian authorities and security services must address the threat of violence posed by far-right nationalist groups. A zero-tolerance policy against hate and discrimination is necessary to protect ethnic minorities, LGBTQ individuals, journalists, and rights activists who remain at high risk. Both leaders should prioritize efforts to dismantle these groups and ensure the safety and security of vulnerable populations.


Addressing Humanitarian Concerns: The toll of the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine on vulnerable populations should not be ignored. While some restrictions on movement have been relaxed, individuals needing to cross between areas controlled by Russia's proxies and territories under government control still face significant hardships. A pending legislative reform to de-link the payment of pensions from the requirement to register as internally displaced would greatly alleviate the burden on older civilians.


Advocating for Humanitarian Access: Russian-backed armed groups continue to impose arbitrary restrictions on movement, leading to dire consequences for displaced people and pensioners. These de-facto authorities are also responsible for enforced disappearances, torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention on baseless charges. President Biden should urge Zelensky to provide humanitarian access to detainees and submit legislation to parliament that offers social and legal assistance to detainees and their families.


Conclusion: The meeting between President Zelensky and President Biden presents an opportunity to prioritize and demonstrate their commitment to human rights. Strengthening human rights is not only crucial for Ukraine's democracy and security but also aligns with the Biden administration's pledge to make human rights a central aspect of U.S. foreign policy. By addressing human rights concerns, both leaders can reinforce the values of democracy, justice, and equality.


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