COVID-19 Holds Lessons for Ukraine’s Amnesty Policy

Opposition to COVID-19 amnesties shows that effective government communication will be key to the success of Ukraine’s future reintegration of occupied Donbas.

Expert comment Updated 13 May 2021 Published 13 November 2020 2 minute READ

Kateryna Busol

Former Academy Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme

Anna Korbut

Former Academy Associate, Russia and Eurasia Programme

COVID-19 amnesties

Among the many issues brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns is the issue of amnesties. As social distancing in often overcrowded prisons is impossible, the UN, WHO and the Council of Europe have urged governments to consider early releases or alternatives to incarceration for vulnerable detainees and low-risk offenders.

Following the appeal, Italy has released 7,000 inmates and France has released 10,000. Ukraine, however, is struggling.

In April 2020, the Ukrainian parliament tabled two draft laws, one on improving the conditions in detention centres and prisons and one on amnesties. These laws would not apply to perpetrators of violent crimes and were strongly supported by human rights groups.

However, they were met with resistance from legislators, the media and the general public. In particular, there was concern about the release of potentially dangerous criminals during an escalating economic and unemployment crisis. Ignoring recommendations by the UN and human rights lawyers, Ukraine’s parliament withdrew the legislation in September.

Such misinformed resistance to COVID-19-amnesties, despite strong public health and security rationales, is indicative of the problems that even more controversial armed conflict-related amnesties might face.

Armed conflict amnesties

Due to the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine, 7 per cent of Ukraine’s territory is currently occupied or outside of Kyiv’s control.  More than half of Ukrainians view the residents of such territories as victims and support their full reintegration into Ukrainian society. However, achieving social acceptance of the steps towards restoring meaningful connections, including amnesties, is not easy.

Amnesties are among the most subtle components of the transition to peace and reintegration but Ukraine and Russia have different interpretations of the Minsk Agreement’s amnesty provisions. While Russia demands blanket amnesties for all, Ukraine – in accordance with international law and practiceis refusing amnesties for grave human rights violations, an approach reflected its new transitional justice policy. 

The government policy on conflict-related amnesties reflects public sentiments: 63 per cent of Ukrainians are against blanket amnesties for anyone who fought in Donbas and 77 per cent believe the ‘republic’s’ puppet officials should be dismissed when Kyiv regains control.

Although Kyiv’s approach is legally sound, considerable effort will still be needed to implement it in practice.

Ukrainian society’s opposition to ‘peace at any price’, a demand for perpetrators of human rights violations to face justice and wider tendencies to either glorify or condemn participants and affected parties of the conflict make societal acceptance of amnesties difficult, on both sides of the contact line. Those who see the residents of self-proclaimed ‘republics’ as victims might also be overwhelmed by security concerns and more likely to favour incarceration. Residents of these ‘republics’ might be worried that cooperation with the Russian-backed authorities will disqualify them from amnesties by the Ukrainian government. 

As the courts make final pronouncements on amnesties in Ukraine, distrust of the judiciary – made worse by the ongoing Constitutional Court crisis – creates further tensions.

Internal and external disinformation channels – notoriously instrumental in the Russia-Ukraine conflict – are likely to use the issue of amnesties to stoke tensions. Recent comments by Vitold Fokin, a former member of Ukraine’s delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, illustrate how propaganda fuels polarization. Deviating from Kyiv’s position, Fokin echoed the Kremlin’s demands for special status and elections for Donbas, and for blanket amnesties. Russian media misrepresented Fokin’s private opinions as ‘Kyiv’s conditions for peace’, while labelling the critics of this approach nationalists and warmongers.

Contributing to cognitive resilience

The key lesson for Ukraine from the rejection of COVID-19 amnesties is that the explanation of a complex policy is as important as its design. This is particularly true for the potentially explosive issue of conflict-related amnesties.

The government should work closely with civil society, especially NGOs directly engaged with Donbas, to study views and perceptions of amnesties. This should in turn inform policy design and implementation. A clear communication strategy should accompany all elements of transitional justice, including amnesties, with a tailored approach to different social and regional groups. Messages should pre-empt and address any concerns and fears, leaving little room for manipulation. It is especially important to focus efforts to ensure a more informed, fact-based discussion on social media channels, where users are increasingly exposed to malicious content. Other platforms could also help facilitate a more nuanced public debate, such as the public broadcaster and the Dim/Dom channel, which targets audiences in occupied areas.

Messaging from the government and trusted civil society organizations explaining the different elements of amnesties and their place in the larger reintegration framework will be key to help Ukrainians feel more informed, secure and resilient.