Ambassador Markarova, distinguished panelists, and guests, thank you for this opportunity to speak with you at this important event.
It is wonderful to see such beautiful vyshyvankas today. What a great reminder of Ukraine’s rich and vibrant culture.
Today is also, unfortunately, a solemn occasion, as the Ambassador explained so eloquently, marking the 79th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s horrific forcible mass deportations of Crimean Tatars. This brutal atrocity, part of a brazen attempt to demographically alter the peninsula, resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.
The fate of Crimean Tatars, forced by Soviet authorities into cattle cars and taken away to far-away territories in today’s Uzbekistan and Siberia, is a stark reminder of the terrible abuses that occur under authoritarian rule.
Tragically, abuse against the Crimean Tatars and efforts to alter demographically the peninsula are not relics of the past. Today, the human rights situation in Crimea and other Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine is beyond dire and reflects similarly horrific abuses. I fear we are only beginning to understand the scope of atrocities committed by Russia’s forces and authorities.
We must not forget that Russia’s present-day abuses in Ukraine began and continue to this day in Crimea. Abuses in Crimea since Russia’s attempted, illegal annexation in 2014—its militarization of the peninsula, torture and brutality against civilians, enforced disappearances and detention of those who defend fundamental freedoms, and the Kremlin’s attempts to so-called “Russify” the population with propagandist education and narratives—all foretell Russia’s plans and tactics in other occupied areas of Ukraine writ large. The grim warnings are prescient and add urgency to the defeat of the Kremlin’s ambitions in Ukraine.
We also hear that, since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the people of Crimea fear the world has forgotten their plight. I am here to affirm that the United States will never forget the people in Crimea and all others in Ukraine who suffer under Russia’s cruel occupation.
The State Department has closely tracked the deterioration of human rights in Russia-occupied areas of Ukraine over the past nine years. Unfortunately, darkly reminiscent of the horrors faced by Tatars in 1944, we are seeing a new era of repression under Putin’s forces.
Russia’s occupation authorities have systematically dismantled a once-vibrant civil society and media landscape in Crimea through detentions, arrests, and disappearances. It is no surprise that Freedom House now ranks Crimea among the least free environments globally in its annual Freedom in the World rankings.
This has involved the elimination of local independent media in Crimea, banning of all outside Ukrainian-language media, and widespread arrests of journalists. Russia’s occupation authorities have designated journalists, activists, and civil society organizations, especially those involving Crimean Tatars, as terrorists simply for speaking the truth about Russia’s repression. Tellingly, since Russia’s illegal invasion of Crimea, we’ve seen the number of media outlets on the peninsula shrink by more than 90 percent.
By our best estimates, Russia’s forces currently hold more than 150 political prisoners from Crimea, most of them Crimean Tatars, and many of them journalists. More broadly across Ukraine, Russia’s forces have unjustly detained tens of thousands of civilians, many of whom Russia has failed to confirm or to even acknowledge it holds. The United States stands with these detainees. We continue to press for international access to detention centers in Russian-held areas. We will continue to amplify your stories and the injustice that you face. And we will continue to use every appropriate tool to pursue accountability for the Kremlin’s abuses.
I would like to recognize the brave advocacy of our panelist Kateryna Yesypenko. Her husband, Vladyslav, was arrested by Russia’s occupation authorities in Crimea in 2021 while working for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. He was subjected to inhumane treatment and is now serving a five-year prison sentence. What was his so-called crime? Interviewing residents about how life had changed under Russia’s occupation. Exposing the truth cost him his freedom and cost his family a husband and father. Kateryna – we stand with you; we advocate for you; and we wish you continued courage.
Unfortunately, Vladyslav’s story is not unique and these tactics have only worsened since Russia’s full-scale invasion. Since February 2022, we’ve heard reports of new prisons or detention centers set up in Crimea to hold civilians and others identified through Russia’s systematic and abusive filtration process. There are very few eyes on the fate of these individuals, and those who seek information or advocate for their release are themselves targeted. Last August, for example, Russian authorities arrested prominent Crimean Tatar journalist and activist Vilen Temeryanov, accusing him of terrorism, likely for his work advocating for the release of political prisoners.
So how is the world to respond? Today we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukrainians to call for the immediate release of all political prisoners held by Russia.
Earlier this year, the State Department launched the “Without Just Cause” initiative. In this campaign, we advocate for the release of emblematic political prisoners around the globe and raise awareness of the human cost of political imprisonment. Among those featured in this campaign is another voice of conscience held unjustly by Russia, pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who is serving a 25-year sentence for his principled criticism of the Kremlin’s war against Ukraine.
At the same time, U.S. diplomats are prioritizing conversations to urge governments to release all political prisoners and dismiss politically motivated charges, because, as Secretary Blinken put it, “we know that sustained pressure can work.”
I assure you the Department is applying this same relentless advocacy to the hundreds of political prisoners and tens of thousands of detained Ukrainian civilians.
Justice for Ukraine and securing Ukraine’s freedom mean holding Russia to account. The United States promotes accountability for Russia’s actions using every diplomatic tool at our disposal.
As Vice President Harris announced in February of this year, the United States determined Russia’s forces have committed crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape, and deportation of a population. We’ve enacted more than 7,000 sanctions designations and visa restrictions since February 2022 against Russian perpetrators. We are providing robust support to civil society and Ukrainian government officials to document and prosecute Russia’s more than 80,000 war crimes, including through the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group.
We support international accountability mechanisms, including the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, the UN HRC Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, appointing a UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Russia, and the Council of Europe’s Register of Damages to expose Russia’s on-going abuses to the international community and to maintain global condemnation of them. And, most recently, we’ve announced our support for the establishment of an internationalized tribunal on the crime of aggression – one that is rooted in Ukraine’s legal system and with significant international elements, a pursuit not taken since Nuremberg. Our support for these efforts is resolute, and we will pursue accountability in the words of our President for as long as it takes.
I want to end by talking about the future. A future that will be won by the people of Ukraine with the support of international partners. We work for a future when all the people of Ukraine enjoy full respect for human rights and democratic values. In doing so, we look for opportunities to join with like-minded, democratic countries to speak out against political imprisonment. So long as there continue to be political prisoners, we must “shine a ray of light” and we must persist.
I will close by reiterating the message of President Biden and Secretary Blinken: We will stand united with the people of Ukraine, as you stand up for freedom, the UN Charter, and the principles that undergird international peace—full respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity—full respect, and that means Crimea. Crimea is Ukraine and we unequivocally stand with Ukraine–for as long as it takes. Slava Ukraini!