Amid The Tumult, What Dangers Face Minorities In Ukraine?

Rita Izsak, the United Nations' special rapporteur on minority issues, discusses her recent visit to Ukraine.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel.

Next, a United Nations mission to Ukraine to report on the concerns of minorities there. As Rita Izsak, the U.N. special rapporteur on minority issues, told me earlier today, the list of minorities there is a long one.

RITA IZSAK: Armenians, Azerbaijan, there's Bulgaria, the Crimean Tatar's, the Gagauz, there's the Germans, Greeks, Hungarians, Moldovans, Poles, Roma, the Romanians, Russians, Ruthenians and Slovaks, Vietnamese but I also need to tell you about the numbers of the Jewish communities.

SIEGEL: We'll hear from Ms. Izsak in a moment. First though, it was alarming news this week for the Jewish community of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine. Flyers appeared ordering Jews to register themselves and their property with the pro-Russian group that has declared a breakaway government. The authenticity of those flyers is in dispute. The leader of the pro-Russian group called them forgeries.

At his Geneva news conference today, Secretary of State Kerry cited the flyers as an example of the intolerance, racism, extremism, and anti-Semitism that the diplomats who met there today all reject.

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable, it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable.

SIEGEL: The Donetsk flier accused Jews of Ukraine of supporting the government in Kiev and the protest that put it in power. The Russians have called those protests and the Kiev government fascists and anti-Semitic. The charge of good relations between the Ukrainian Jewish communities and the present government, squares with what Rita Izsak told me earlier today. She just returned from visiting several Ukrainian cities and talking with minorities there. First, the reports of anti-Semitism.

IZSAK: There has been some evidences of hate speech and hate crimes. But I need to tell you that I was in Odessa last week. There was an anti-Semite graffiti appearing on one of the Jewish sites.

SIEGEL: Graffiti, this is.

IZSAK: And it was signed by a far right political group in a community in Ukraine. Now interestingly, they refused that they would be the ones who did the graffiti. They came together with a rabbi and the representatives of the right sector actually washed down the graffiti together with the rabbi. Of course, because of the current political and social changes, there is a fear for animosity against certain groups but it's not threatening their community members.

SIEGEL: Historically, the most vulnerable groups in that part of the world were, of course, the Jews and the Roma, the gypsies. What did you hear from the Roma communities?

IZSAK: Well, I did go and visited one community very close to Kiev. What you saw there reminds you of the classic pictures that you see about these Roma settlements. The temperature was very low. We were freezing in our big coats. And many of the children were without socks, without shoes and slippers. They are quite sick. We met at least 67, the children on this settlement which was built on the garbage - a previous garbage dump. And the situation is severe.

Now, it's important to say that the government did adopt a strategy for Roma people. But the complaints they received is that neither in the adoption of the strategy, nor in the current monitoring are Roma representatives.

SIEGEL: The Russians said that Ukraine passed the law to force ethnic Russians to use the Ukrainian language. The Ukrainians say that that bill never became law, it was vetoed. Who's right in this case?

IZSAK: There have been steps taken in February 2014, this year, to abolish the 2012 law which protected the minority languages. And this is about having only 10 percent criteria on those who speak a certain language to be able to use it. Now, then they said that this must be abolished and it might even be increased to a 30 percent criteria.

SIEGEL: You mean the law said that only groups that account for 10 percent of the population or more could have, say, schools or use their own native language for official business?

IZSAK: Yeah, there have been allegations that they want to abolish the 10 percent criteria and raise it to 30 percent. So many groups would not be able to meet this criteria.

SIEGEL: And this is something that people talk about even though it didn't come the law. Ethnic Russian speakers would say this is what the Ukrainians are really all about?

IZSAK: Yeah, a lot of people still doubt whether this is in effect. And, in fact, the Ukrainian government is now working on a new law. I think we can trust that probably the new law will also meet the international standards. And I do hope that this will be adopted, that the participation of different language communities. At the moment, we talked to various minority groups, nobody said that they are part of the new law. And I think this is very problematic. So we do hope that when they are in the process to come up with a new law, this should be in-line with international standards.

SIEGEL: Well, Ms. Izsak, thank you very much for talking with us today.

IZSAK: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Rita Izsak spoke with us from Budapest. She is the United Nations special rapporteur on minority issues. And she was talking about her recent mission to Ukraine.

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