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Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka
Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka
Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks
Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks
Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. head office in Colombo on 13 March 2013. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
Commentary / Asia

Impunity and Justice: Why the UN Human Rights Council Must Stay Engaged in Sri Lanka

As the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in Geneva this month, it’s time to assess how far Sri Lanka has come since last year’s passage of a landmark resolution to promote reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

Resolution 30/1, adopted in October, was a major achievement for the Council – and an important milestone in Sri Lanka’s journey toward lasting peace and a just settlement of its decades-old ethnic conflict. Following years of bitter resistance by the previous Sri Lankan government to international efforts to encourage post-war reconciliation and accountability, the new government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe displayed admirable political courage in negotiating a consensus resolution containing many of the elements needed for a sustainable peace.

However, Sri Lanka today is not yet the success story that many in the international community claim it to be. Progress on implementing the Council resolution has been slow and often grudging, and there are growing doubts about the government’s political will and ability to see the complex process through. For Sri Lanka to stay on the path toward recovery, it needs sustained international support and engagement.

Speaking at this critical juncture, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein this week encouraged the government to prepare a comprehensive strategy on transitional justice with “inclusive and meaningful engagement from all Sri Lankans”. As Zeid prepares to report to the Council on 29 June on progress toward implementation of the resolution, member states should send strong public and private messages to the Sri Lankan government, offering financial, capacity-building and other tangible support for its efforts – as well as clear suggestions for improvement.

The Reform Agenda

The government has adopted an ambitious reform agenda to address the many challenges the country faces: keeping a beleaguered economy afloat, strengthening the rule of law, tackling corruption, drafting a new constitution, promoting reconciliation efforts with the Tamil population in the north and east, and establishing a multi-pronged set of transitional justice mechanisms agreed with the Council.

Unfortunately, the entire program risks collapse unless new energy, focus and resources are brought to bear. A weakening economy and slow going on most other fronts have led to waning support from the key constituencies that brought the government to power – Tamils, Muslims and reform-minded Sinhalese. Belief in the possibility of meaningful progress is fading across the board.

Efforts of the national unity government – a coalition between President Sirisena’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) – have been weakened by a variety of factors. First, the government lacks technical capacity and trained personnel on key issues. Second, there is no unified strategy for advancing reforms – with the SLFP split between Sirisena’s wing and supporters of ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and often at odds with the UNP, particularly on economic policy. Third, the administration has not mounted a coherent public relations campaign to sell its successes and build support for the more politically controversial aspects of its program, including transitional justice.

The most critical element of the reform agenda is how to tackle the entrenched culture of impunity, which has fed multiple bloody insurgencies over the past 40 years. Sri Lanka must seize this narrow window of opportunity to address the problem. Failure to succeed in this effort will undermine virtually all the other reforms the government says it wants to achieve. Progress toward ending impunity is essential to reestablishing the rule of law for all ethnic communities, reasserting civilian control over the military and building the trust needed for a lasting political solution.

Notable progress has been made toward a new constitution, as parliament has begun to meet as a constitutional assembly. The report of the Public Representations Committee, tasked with gathering ideas from the public, was issued at the end of May. It endorsed a range of bold reforms, including the incorporation of a bill of rights. The committee failed to reach agreement, however, on expanded devolution of power for Tamil-majority regions in the north and east, a key issue noted in the Council resolution. With parliamentary consensus likely to fall well short of long-standing Tamil demands for federalism and national self-determination, the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) could face a major challenge in winning Tamil backing in the referendum needed to approve the new constitution, with the pro-engagement leadership of the TNA weakened as a result.

Transitional Justice

Sri Lanka has made only halting efforts toward developing the four transitional justice mechanisms pledged to the Council – a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with international participation. The national unity government should be encouraged to design and sell its Council-mandated transitional justice efforts as part and parcel of its larger agenda to promote “good governance” and the rule of law, which has widespread public backing in all communities. Meanwhile, donors should deepen their support – through training, equipment and personnel – to build the Sri Lankan state’s capacity to establish effective justice mechanisms, strengthen criminal investigations and improve witness protection.


Transitional justice efforts should be sold as part and parcel of the good governance agenda.

In advance of this month’s Council sessions, the government has scrambled to finalise a package of reforms it can present as evidence of progress. At the top of the list is the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), legislation for which was approved by the cabinet on 24 May and is expected to be presented to parliament in the coming days. While the proposed office would likely help thousands of families seeking information about their loved ones who went missing during the civil war, it has been criticised for lacking any effective link to criminal investigations and thereby potentially maintaining impunity for large-scale enforced disappearances. The government has also been criticised for its hurried and minimal consultation with victims’ families prior to finalising the proposed legislation. Council members should encourage the government to submit the draft bill, prior to parliamentary approval, to the national consultations process that is due to get underway by the end of June – both to improve the quality of the legislation and to win back flagging confidence among victims’ groups and civil society.

The government’s recent ratification, in May, of the UN Convention on Disappearances is a welcome move. Incorporating the treaty in domestic legislation, as promised to the Council, will be even more significant. These steps will mean very little, however, if the government remains unable or unwilling to prosecute cases of abduction and murder, particularly those for which they already have substantial evidence.

International participation is essential to the credibility of the special court.

Council members and the High Commissioner should press the government to follow through on its commitment to meaningful forms of international participation on the proposed special court for war crimes. The Council resolution specifies the importance of including “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators” in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism. Under domestic pressure, the president and prime minister backed away from promises to the UN and announced there will be no foreign judges. Given the decades-long failures of government commissions and judicial processes, international participation is essential to the credibility and effectiveness of the special court. Council members should insist that the government holds the line on the involvement of international judges, at least in observer roles, and devises concrete plans for outside experts to be included in investigations, prosecutions, forensics and witness protection.

Prosecution of military personnel, particularly with foreign legal involvement, was always sure to be the most controversial aspect of transitional justice for many Sinhalese. There needs to be a clear strategy to address Sinhala nationalist resistance, including by actively promoting the benefits of transitional justice for all communities. Instead, the president, prime minister and other key officials have regularly retreated when criticised by Rajapaksa and his nationalist supporters.

Even the most optimistic assessments of the government’s transitional justice policies suggest the government intends to postpone any moves to establish the promised special court until after March 2017, when the High Commissioner is due to issue his final report on implementation of the Council’s 2015 resolution. While justice for crimes committed by both sides during the war will necessarily take a long time to achieve, further delays in even initiating the process will only confirm suspicions that the government is merely buying time until the international community loses interest.

Legislation to establish transitional justice mechanisms must be on the books by next year.

Council members should press the government to begin building the legal, institutional and staffing capacity needed for all the promised transitional justice mechanisms. The High Commissioner should insist that legislation needed to establish these mechanisms must be on the books by March 2017, in advance of that month’s Human Rights Council session. These measures should include legislation to criminalise war crimes and crimes against humanity, and to establish command responsibility as a mode of criminal liability.

Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption

Confidence is faltering in the government’s commitment to restore the rule of law, a pledge that was central to the January 2015 election of Sirisena. Investigating complex financial crimes and political killings under the former regime is undoubtedly a slow, difficult and dangerous work. The challenges are made more acute by the involvement of key figures from the old regime still serving as ministers, bureaucrats and law enforcement officials, some of whom are known to be actively obstructing progress. There is increasing evidence that senior officials in the Attorney General’s department and in the military have blocked important criminal investigations.

Sri Lankan opposition party workers erect a cutout of their presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena in the north central town of Polonnaruwa on 30 November 2014. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi

The government must take steps to dismiss or discipline obstructionists. Officials who lobbied to undermine UN efforts to support justice and accountability under the Rajapaksa regime should also be removed from policymaking positions. In order to address long-criticised conflicts of interest in the Attorney General’s department, it is necessary to establish a permanent, independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases in which state officials are alleged perpetrators.

It is necessary to establish an independent special prosecutor for serious human rights cases involving state officials.

Meanwhile, credible reports indicate that witnesses in criminal cases implicating the security forces are facing serious threats. The government has yet to establish an effective witness protection program or revise its weak witness protection law, in compliance with a clause in last year’s Council resolution promising to do so.

Progress on key criminal cases is needed to reverse the growing sense that the national unity government is not substantially different from previous corrupt and inefficient governments. Progress on less politically controversial cases is also essential to rebuild confidence that the government is willing to tackle impunity and can establish a credible process of accountability for war-related crimes.

Adoption of some important legal and institutional reforms is said to be very close – including legislation to replace the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with new laws consistent with human rights standards, as required by the Council resolution. However, recent arrests under the PTA have violated due process and reawakened fears of a return to “white van” abductions, which were a primary means for hundreds of enforced disappearances under the Rajapaksa government. Detainees are still being held under the sweeping provisions of the law.

The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA before ending violations.

Council members need to press the Sri Lankan government to end abuses by the Terrorism Investigation Division of the police (TID), which continues to detain suspects without charge, often in aggressive and humiliating ways. TID must be made to follow established procedures – recently reiterated by Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission – on detentions, and personnel suspected of involvement in serious abuses must be suspended, investigated and prosecuted. The government should not wait for repeal of the PTA and the establishment of a new system before acting to end current violations.

Confidence Building and Military Reform

On ethnic issues and the legacy of the war, the president and other senior officials have set a more conciliatory tone – seen most recently in the much less triumphalist commemoration of the seventh anniversary of the end of the civil war. Nonetheless, the past six months have seen very little progress on the key issues of concern to Tamils in the north and east – concerns reflected in the text of last year’s Council resolution: the release of hundreds of detainees held under the PTA, the return of land held by the military, investigations into the tens of thousands of forcibly disappeared people, and the removal of the military from civilian affairs in the north and east. Indeed, progress has been so slow and grudging that what were intended to be confidence-building measures have become confidence-weakening measures.

Trust in the government’s good intentions has also been damaged by the tight and often intimidating surveillance of Tamil civil society activists by military and police, and by unwarranted arrests. The president and prime minister appear wary of asserting their authority over the military, and there has been little movement toward developing a longer-term plan for security sector reform. The inability to gain effective civilian control over the military is one factor behind the government’s slow implementation of its other Council commitments. This in turn undermines public confidence, especially among Tamils, in the government’s political will to guarantee justice for all.

Donors should use their leverage to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

The government should be encouraged to start developing a comprehensive plan for security sector reform. Such a plan should aim to reduce the military’s social, political and economic footprint in the north and east, as well as to include job training, re-employment programs and psycho-social support for demobilised soldiers. Many ex-soldiers are severely traumatised and caught in continued cycles of violence – in the home and on the street, sometimes as hired thugs for politicians. Foreign militaries now working more closely with Sri Lanka should make offers of technical support for security sector reform a central component of their re-engagement. Donors should use their leverage – including the prospect of additional deployments of Sri Lankan troops as UN peacekeepers – to encourage the long hard work of restructuring the military for peacetime duties.

As the past nine months of fitful and partial implementation of last year’s consensus resolution make clear, the political challenges ahead in Sri Lanka are considerable. For there to be a realistic chance of ending the culture of impunity and establishing effective forms of transitional justice, the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms will need to remain engaged beyond March 2017. Consideration of Sri Lanka by the Council remains one of the primary factors driving action – as is evident by the flurry of activity in recent weeks.  Member states should begin discussions now about what form continued engagement can take. Among other options, Council members should encourage the Sri Lankan government to invite an expanded presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose resources in Sri Lanka remain insufficient to meet the many pressing demands.

Sri Lanka’s much-improved engagement with UN agencies and human rights mechanisms is to be welcomed. But it is not enough. What all of Sri Lanka’s communities need and deserve now are tangible changes in legislation and concrete implementation of its international promises and obligations on the ground.

Ukrainian officials, representatives of Russian-backed separatists, OSCE officials and ICRC accompany the prisoner exchange between the Ukraine military and Russian-backed separatists at Mayorsk control gate in the Donetsk region on 27 December 2017. ANADOLUAGENCY/Stringer

Peacekeeping in Ukraine’s Donbas: Opportunities and Risks

The prospect of a UN peacekeeping force in Ukraine's Donbas offers a rare opening to discuss how to resolve the conflict. But Moscow's diplomatic overtures also risk fueling political infighting in Kyiv in the run-up to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region will soon enter its fifth year. In September 2017, talk of a settlement picked up after Russia circulated a draft UN Security Council resolution proposing the deployment of UN forces along the front line separating Kyiv’s forces, on one side, from Kremlin-backed separatists, on the other.

Moscow had ignored Kyiv’s calls for peacekeepers since early 2015, so its proposal was regarded with suspicion by Ukraine and its Western allies. Most saw the small force envisaged along the front as a non-starter, more likely to freeze the conflict than end it. Nonetheless, the proposal spurred fresh thinking about ways out of the stalemate.

U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker has now met several times with Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, to discuss what a compromise on peacekeeping might entail. After their fourth meeting in Dubai in January 2018, both expressed cautious optimism regarding initial aspects of force composition and deployment. In February, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, whose political consultancy group runs a strategic campaign called the Ukraine Initiative, floated a detailed proposal for a peacekeeping force.

While scepticism about Moscow’s intentions is justified, the Kremlin’s willingness to discuss peacekeepers marked a shift in the tenor of dialogue on Donbas, as Crisis Group argued in its December report Can Peacekeepers Break the Deadlock in Ukraine? Whether the change in tone brings a change in substance remains to be seen. The evolution of the peacekeeping debate, and the fact it even remains on the table, suggest it should be taken seriously. So too should the impact inside Ukraine. As the country prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019, Moscow’s peacekeeping overtures – genuine or not – risk fuelling political infighting motivated more by competition to establish patriotic credentials than by efforts to reintegrate Donbas.

Jonathan Brunson on Ukrainian Conflict and Donbas Reintegration

Jonathan Brunson, Crisis Group's Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood Senior Analyst, talks about the conflict resolution process, peacebuilding initiatives and policy recommendations relating to Donbas reintegration on Ukrainian state TV Ukrinform. CRISISGROUP

Competing Perspectives

Since Russian-backed separatists seized parts of Donbas in early 2014, fighting has left more than 11,000 dead and thousands injured. Millions of civilians are either displaced in Ukraine or living as refugees in Russia. The February 2015 Minsk II Agreement sets out a framework that leaders both in Russia and among Kyiv’s Western allies say they view as the only way to end the conflict. That agreement foresees the withdrawal of troops and heavy weapons from the area and reestablishment of Kyiv’s control over its side of the Ukraine-Russia border. It also sets out political provisions for the reintegration of separatist-held areas into Ukraine, including on local elections in those parts of Donbas, self-governance of these areas and amnesties.

Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict.

Kyiv’s argument has been that continued fighting and Russia’s financial and military support for separatists prevent Ukraine from advancing the political elements of Minsk. But more fundamentally, most Ukrainians see the deal as generally favourable to Moscow and the separatists. Kyiv has long seen the war in Donbas as an inter-state conflict involving Russia rather than a civil conflict. A new reintegration law signed by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in February 2018 makes this view explicit, labelling Russia as an aggressor and Donbas as an illegally occupied territory. Political and civil society actors in Kyiv insist this designation was necessary to place full responsibility for the conflict – its costs, as well as the human rights protection of those living in rebel-held Donbas – on Russia, and prevent it from participating in a peacekeeping operation, as the Ukrainian side formally considers Moscow a party to the conflict. Parliamentary Chairman Andriy Parubiy says the next step is to enact a de-occupation law. In this climate, Ukrainian leaders are likely to accept peacekeepers only if they believe the mission would safeguard Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, at the very least by monitoring the Russian border.

For its part, Moscow blames the deadlock on Kyiv’s failure to implement the Minsk agreement’s political provisions. The Kremlin also voices fears of reprisals against inhabitants of separatist-held areas were Ukrainian forces to return. In principle, Russia may gain from finding a way out of eastern Ukraine, where its interference has incurred both financial costs – due to U.S. and EU sanctions, as well as expenditures required to keep the regional administration afloat – and wider reputational costs. But despite the Volker-Surkov talks, it is unlikely that Moscow is seeking a way out, almost certainly not ahead of Russian elections in March 2018.

At this stage, Putin’s peacekeeping proposal and participation in subsequent dialogue probably aim to gauge reactions from others; possibly, to explore under what conditions Western powers might lift sanctions; and likely, to test how much pressure prospects of reintegrating Donbas by implementing the political provisions unpopular among most Ukrainians could put on Kyiv ahead of elections there in 2019. Whether Moscow is more willing to find a constructive solution after its elections remains unclear. Its degree of openness will depend on the nature of Putin’s domestic and foreign policy calculations after his almost guaranteed re-election. An optimistic scenario has Russia compromising on Donbas to help reframe relations with the West and prompt the lifting of sanctions. But some Western diplomats in Kyiv fear Moscow may float proposals that would stop short of guaranteeing Ukraine’s sovereignty, all the while increasing the onus on Kyiv to deliver on the divisive political aspects of Minsk.

Of Ukraine’s Western allies, the U.S. has been most active in exploring peacekeeping options.

Of Ukraine’s Western allies, the U.S. has been most active in exploring peacekeeping options, primarily through the bilateral channel between Volker and Surkov. Talks among the Normandy Four – the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany – complemented by more frequent exchanges among their respective advisers, and the Trilateral Contact Group comprising representatives of Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, proceed in parallel with the Volker-Surkov track.

Volker’s diplomacy continues to overshadow any European role. In 2018, however, Germany’s leaders appear to have again found their voice. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called for a UN peacekeeping mission in early January, and Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels announced on 15 February that Germany is ready to contribute troops.

Renewed European attention to Ukraine, particularly from the EU itself, could be useful. The EU’s close political ties to Ukraine and substantial aid give it critical leverage in Kyiv. A first step might be for Brussels to nominate its own special envoy or representative with a mandate similar to that of Volker. According to one EU official, a senior former politician would stand the best chance of making an impact, particularly given the sensitivity of the agenda and differences among member states.

Including the EU and U.S. in an expanded Normandy format might make sense, too. For now, that course appears unlikely, but it would serve to keep all actors on the same page and discourage both Moscow and Kyiv from shopping among rival forums.

Ukrainian Resistance to Minsk

Russian interference in Donbas is not the only obstacle to ending the crisis. In Ukraine, resistance to the Minsk agreement’s political provisions is growing. It is already a central campaign issue ahead of the 2019 elections.

The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk unwanted concessions to the Kremlin

Bar pro-Russia factions, President Poroshenko’s party stands alone in endorsing the accord. Even some in the president’s ruling coalition reject it. His junior partner, the People’s Front, openly declares that Minsk is dead, says Ukraine never endorsed its contents in the first place, and argues that Kyiv signed only to check the Russian-backed separatists’ military momentum and buy time. Indeed, even Poroshenko’s own commitment to Minsk is not entirely clear; he may merely be paying it lip service, so as not to alienate Kyiv’s Western allies. The vast majority of Ukrainian parties and civil society groups consider Kyiv’s obligations under Minsk unwanted concessions to the Kremlin, whose leverage in Donbas looks set to endure even if Russia pulls out its forces.

A narrative appears to be taking hold among Ukrainian elites that implementing controversial Minsk provisions could provoke a new wave of anti-government violence, even if the Minsk security provisions are implemented. The provisions on amnesties and self-rule for the now rebel-controlled areas are particularly contentious; many Ukrainians would see granting the special status stipulated in the agreement to parts of Donbas as rewarding a separatist area with privileges no other region in the country enjoys. For now, however, there are few visible omens of mass civil disobedience. Little suggests Ukrainians would come out onto the streets in large numbers, other than their recent history of doing so. The failure of successive revolutions to root out pervasive corruption appears to have provoked fatigue as much as anger among many. And Western diplomats have been speculating since October 2017 that the government was preventing the assembly of crowds outside parliament and on Maidan by occupying traditional demonstration spaces with an uninhabited protest camp and large outdoor exhibition. Authorities’ sudden March 2018 clearance of these may indicate government fears of public turmoil have largely abated. After the dismantling of the camp outside parliament, some prominent reformers and social media influencers criticised what they called aggressive policing reminiscent of old regime tactics, but the immediate reaction on the street has been muted.

Still, animosity toward Minsk fuels an early pre-election campaign in which discourses are hardening, as elites seek to outbid each other in their expressions of patriotism. A G7 diplomat privately commented: “Moscow knows full well how much damage it can create in Ukraine by floating more peace plans”, and said he expected it to do so after Russia’s presidential election. Peacekeeping dialogue needs to factor in this resistance and anxiety across the country about how the disputed areas would be reintegrated. European powers, in particular, could push Kyiv to explore how it might enact Minsk in a way that would not challenge Ukraine’s national cohesion and sovereignty. They should also help Kyiv prepare for the social and political challenges that the implementation of Minsk might engender.

An Expansive Peacekeeping Mandate?

To help resolve the conflict, the mandate of any peacekeeping mission would likely have to involve at least three elements. First, peacekeepers would need to establish control over the front line, protect civilians, provide security across the conflict zone, and verify the cantonment of weapons, disengagement and withdrawal of forces. A sustained ceasefire (a tall order, given that the record, set in September-October 2017, is twelve days) should be a precondition for any deployment. Second, peacekeepers ought to be mandated to monitor the Ukrainian side of the border with Russia to deter infiltration to the extent possible, with the eventual goal of reestablishing Kyiv’s control over its own side. Third, peacekeepers would have to lay the groundwork for Kyiv to implement the Minsk political provisions, starting with creating conditions for credible local elections that guarantee all candidates the right to safely campaign.

Many Kyiv elites contemplate a number [of required peacekeepers] that would exceed 30,000.

The composition of a potential peacekeeping force – which nations would contribute troops – has been the topic of some discussion in Kyiv. NATO and Russian forces would likely be unacceptable: Russia is predisposed to reject the former, Ukraine and its Western allies the latter. Many Ukrainian military and civil society experts also posit that Collective Security Treaty Organization members like Belarus or Kazakhstan be excluded. Other options might include troops from countries such as Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Argentina, all of which would probably be acceptable to most Ukrainians. That said, even were consensus to emerge on the principle of peacekeeping, finding a mix of troop contributors acceptable to both Kyiv and Moscow, and persuading those countries to commit forces, would likely prove a challenge.

Another decision relates to the number of peacekeepers required. Volker and some Ukrainian diplomats have floated the concept of a force of 20,000, a number now widely cited by Kyiv and its Western partners as necessary to carry out a robust mandate over a large and heavily populated area. That number would already be at the upper end of existing UN operations, but a smaller force would likely be unable to both monitor the border and project force across all of Donbas as local elections approach. Many Kyiv elites contemplate a higher number that would exceed 30,000.

The Security Council would also need to decide on the degree to which UN peacekeepers would enjoy explicit enforcement capability, how robust a posture they would adopt in the face of spoilers, and the manner in which they would deploy. Even with the consent of both Moscow and Kyiv – a prerequisite for any mission’s deployment – peacekeepers could still face local hostility.

Phased deployment – first along the front line, then within a wider radius, and finally across the entire disputed territory, including the Russian border – almost certainly would be required to dispel dual fears of non-compliance and reprisals. While Kyiv might oppose such a proposal, given suspicions that the Kremlin could obstruct latter phases, a fast deployment with clear deadlines might mitigate such concerns. Western officials say they are exploring options for a phased deployment that would combine security and political steps: deployment along the line of contact; followed by Kyiv’s adoption of legislation on greater autonomy for conflict regions; then deployment all the way to the border; and finally, local elections in Donbas. There are many hurdles to such a scenario, which would, however, address key points of the Minsk framework.

Any mission should also facilitate the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and commuters who continue to live on both sides of the front line, as well as refugees. IDPs and commuters could be a politically moderating force in reintegrating a Donbas society dominated, on the rebel-controlled side, by a siege mentality and exposed to potent anti-Kyiv and anti-Western propaganda.

Ukraine’s Western allies need to reassure Kyiv that any deal on peacekeeping would be acceptable only if it addressed security concerns without further undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty.

A final question is whether the Security Council ought to establish a temporary UN administration to govern separatist-held areas until the return of Ukrainian authority. Some past UN missions – Eastern Slavonia, Kosovo and Timor Leste – played this role. Whether such an intrusive mandate is needed in eastern Ukraine remains a divisive question for Kyiv. Ukrainian authorities would not be able to return immediately, but many elites also resent the notion of outsiders meddling in domestic affairs. Existing local de facto authorities are largely out of the question; indeed, the U.S. has long insisted on a change in their leadership as a precondition in its negotiations with Russia on Donbas, and Kyiv clearly would prefer a temporary UN administration to one led by pro-Russian separatists. If the UN does not play an administrative role, it is unclear what a transitional regime might look like. At the very least, the Security Council would need to empower a peacekeeping mission to help local state institutions perform basic functions during the transition.

A Rare Opening

Ukraine’s Western allies need to reassure Kyiv that any deal on peacekeeping would be acceptable only if it addressed security concerns without further undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine must not become a bystander to this process; spoilers on either side could easily exploit the perception that Kyiv is unable to influence the outcome. The West should continue to make clear to Moscow that non-Crimea sanctions on Russia will be lifted only once Minsk is fully implemented or when Russia ends its interference in Donbas, and that partial withdrawal will not give rise to partial lifting of sanctions.

A peacekeeping mission may still be a distant possibility. It is far from clear that Moscow is seeking an exit. Mounting resistance among Ukrainian leaders to the Minsk accord presents another challenge, which Russia may well be factoring into its calculations. Nonetheless, the current talks represent a rare opening to test ideas on how to settle the eastern Ukraine conflict and reintegrate the disputed Donbas into Ukraine. All parties should make the most of it.


Program Director, Europe & Central Asia
Senior Analyst, Ukraine/Eastern Neighbourhood