Interview with Alexander Hug: Special Monitoring Mission is the eyes and the ears of the international community in Ukraine
The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine is currently the only international presence that operates throughout Ukraine – including in the east and south-east of the country where fighting is taking place between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels. Since its inception in March 2014, the SMM has established an impressive network of contacts with all sides in Ukraine and it has become the “eyes and ears of the international community on the ground in Ukraine”. Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE SMM explains in this interview how the SMM operates in Ukraine. While he says that the security of the SMM personnel is “the most important parameter in the decision-making process”, he adds that “a minimal risk remains.” He also explains in the interview how the SMM was able to facilitate access of experts to the crash site of the MH17 Malaysia Airlines jet and points out some of the limitations of a civilian monitoring mission. The interview was conducted by Stephanie Liechtenstein, Website Editor of Security and Human Rights on 2 September 2014.*
SHR Monitor: Mr. Hug, can you briefly describe to us what the situation is like right now in eastern Ukraine? We hear reports in the media that pro-Russian rebels have made significant gains and have now also seized the airport of the eastern city of Luhansk.
Alexander Hug: The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine only reports what it has actually witnessed itself. We have had a robust presence in both the Donetsk and the Luhansk region since the inception of the SMM on 21 March of this year. We have a permanent presence in Donetsk city and we have a frequent visiting presence to the city of Luhansk. We have indeed also heard from government sources that the airport of Luhansk is not anymore under their control. However, we cannot independently verify this.
We were close to the airport of Donetsk yesterday and we saw that the fighting there is ongoing; it is unclear at this stage as to who controls the airport as well as the vicinity of the airport. However, our observations do suggest that the conflict in the east has intensified over the past five days or so with both government and rebel forces intensifying their attacks and their defense. You have to understand that the conflict in the east is not an all-encompassing conflict. It is patchy. The conflict occurs around checkpoints and around important infrastructure, but there is no all-encompassing conflict in eastern Ukraine. It is therefore difficult to make an all-encompassing judgment as to what the situation looks like. In addition to that the frontlines in the east are not static; they move permanently.
SHR Monitor: If I could just clarify: Where are you based right now?
Alexander Hug: For the time being, I am in Kiev at our head office. The Head of Mission and other senior staff are out of the country and so I am running the SMM from Kiev. But I will be travelling to the region tomorrow evening. It is not clear yet where exactly to, but most probably to the south-east of the country.
SHR Monitor: As you have just mentioned, you are going back into the zone of conflict tomorrow. I would like to ask how you take precautions for yourself but also for the other members of the SMM, especially in light of the fact that OSCE personnel has been taken as hostages in the past.
Alexander Hug: Security is the main parameter that determines our work. The priority of the Head of Mission and the SMM at large is to ensure that none of our staff are jeopardized. That is also the baseline of any plan. We undertake various different measures and I can briefly outline them.
Firstly, we reassess the security situation on a daily if not hourly basis because it changes rapidly. And as I have just explained, the frontlines change at times by the minute. That requires not only careful planning and assessing but also permanent reassessing of the situation and then crosschecking that information both with government forces and the rebel forces.
Secondly, all of our moves in critical and sensitive areas are coordinated and negotiated both with the government and the rebel forces so that they know what we do and where we are. In this way, we can ensure our free and unhindered passage and avoid getting caught in the crossfire.
Thirdly, our equipment is also there to protect us. We operate in armored cars and we have personal protection such as flak jackets and helmets. We also have communication equipment such as radio satellite telephones to enable us to stay in touch with our local base and the head office but also with the Ukrainian government if this becomes necessary.
Fourthly, it is quite important that we stay in touch with everyone in Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine we talk to all parties, including the rebels, and of course the government forces. That personal contact gives us some assurances and a point of reference should we end up in trouble. If indeed a patrol is in trouble or a group of monitors is held at a checkpoint, we know to whom to talk and what numbers to dial and we have immediate access to decision-makers.
These are the four principle measures that we undertake to mitigate the risks. Of course a minimal risk always remains but we reduce that to a manageable level. Security remains the most important decision-making parameter, particularly in the east of the country.
SHR Monitor: I would like to move to another topic, namely the situation around the crash site of the MH17 Malaysia Airlines jet. This tragic event was prominent in international media for quite some time, but now we don’t hear much about it anymore. I would like to ask you if you know whether all the bodies have been recovered and if the SMM still plays a role in relation to this terrible crash.
Alexander Hug: At the outset I would like to reiterate that the OSCE SMM did not lead the investigation into the cause of the incident. Neither was it responsible for the collection or recovery of the bodies, personal belongings or the debris. Instead, the SMM was facilitating access of experts to the crash site.
The experts have decided on their own account that it is too risky to work at the crash site and therefore they have withdrawn their activities. We stand ready to return to the site if those experts should request it. Since the withdrawal of the Australian and Dutch experts we are in daily contact with the Dutch contingent here in Ukraine.
We are the bridge between the Dutch experts and the rebels in Donetsk for further works on the MH17 crash site, including further collection of belongings and access to the morgue in Donetsk where some bodies have been held initially. So the SMM still plays through its contacts an important role. We are also of course available should the Dutch – who are the lead nation – want to return to the area. We can facilitate that should it be requested. The SMM made the deliberate choice to leave the lead to the Dutch at this stage because it should be clear to everyone that the SMM has not had any role in the investigation and the recovery. That was the role of the nations concerned, including of course Ukraine.
SHR Monitor: Coming back to the conflict itself, one of the main concerns is the fact that we hear an increasing number of reports that Russian military personnel operates inside Ukraine and that Russian military equipment is being used inside Ukraine by the pro-Russian rebels. The SMM’s mandate tasks the mission to “gather information and report on the security situation […]” and to report facts concerning “alleged violations of fundamental OSCE principles and commitments”. Why isn’t it possible for the SMM to independently verify the above-mentioned allegations on the basis of its mandate?
Alexander Hug: First, I have to start again with security. We are a civilian rather than a military observer mission. This gives us limitations as to how far we can go and how much risk we can take. Naturally that hardware that you refer to is used where the conflict is and therefore by definition access to those areas is difficult for us due to security considerations.
Second, whoever has this hardware under control of course wants to avoid that we see it. So even if we are entering these areas we are prevented from certain, specific locations because those that are in control of the hardware do not want us to see it.
Third, even if we see a tank, for example, it is very difficult to attribute it to anyone unless it is clearly marked and that is not normally the case. Therefore, unless we interview the tank driver and check his passport, it will be very difficult to verify to whom the tank belongs because both Russia and Ukraine use the same hardware to a large extent. Often the military material used by the rebels is the one that was previously used by the Ukrainian army because the rebels have seized it from them [the Ukrainian army]. Therefore we are in a difficult position to actually verify who is the owner or operator of the hardware.
However, if we should see that and could verify it then we would of course report about it. But there are clear limitations to it.
SHR Monitor: Have you also been to the southern part of Ukraine, close to the city of Mariupol where there is also fighting going on?
Alexander Hug: I myself was there before the fighting. We now have a team in Mariupol of up to 13 observers who have been deployed recently. They are there to monitor the situation. Mariupol has therefore also been included in the SMM daily reporting.
SHR Monitor: As a final question I would just like to ask you what in your opinion is the main contribution of the SMM since its initial deployment in March 2014.
Alexander Hug: First, the absence of conflict is very difficult to prove and therefore I would not lean out of the window and claim that the mission has contained the conflict in the east and that it has not spread further due to its presence. But certainly the presence of the SMM in eastern Ukraine but also in the adjacent regions has helped to raise awareness about the conflict. That in itself may have added to the containment of the conflict.
Second, the permanent and robust presence of the SMM throughout Ukraine – not only in the east of the country but in all ten field stations – has within a very short time delivered a wealth of contacts and relationships. Considering the size of the country this is quite a remarkable achievement. In the end, the happy ending of the hostage crisis, the rapid deployment to the MH17 crash site as well as the permanent presence of the SMM in the east of the country were and are only possible due to these robust contacts with everyone. I think that this is something very solid and something that we can build upon.
Third, the SMM is still the only presence that has access to all areas in Ukraine, albeit with some limitations and restrictions, self-imposed or de-facto, in the east. Nonetheless, it is the only international organization that is everywhere and therefore it maintains to a certain degree the role of being the eyes and the ears of the international community on the ground. I think the longer we go down the road the more sophisticated that role will become. If you compare our daily situation reports of today with those of earlier days you can see the difference in quality. All of this will contribute to the endeavor of establishing facts and verifying the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
*At the time of publication of this interview (8 September 2014), significant further developments have occurred in relation to the role of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine. The SMM will adapt its activities and take measures in order to monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement that was signed in Minsk on 5 September. “Security and Human Rights” will therefore update this interview at the earliest possible convenience.