Protecting the Rights of Ukraine’s Displaced

Assistant coordinator of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union branch Natalia Yesina (left) presented Nina’s case in the court and helped her renew the pension.
Natalia Yesina, assistant coordinator of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, left, presented Nina’s case in the court and helped her renew her pension.
Oleksiy Biesklietko, Northern Human Rights Group NGO
Legal aid center retrieves suspended pension payments
“I was in a very difficult position, and had no idea what to do.”

May 2018 — Amid the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine, Nina K.* abandoned her home in Luhansk oblast in 2014, resettled in Sumy oblast, and registered as an internally displaced person (IDP). When recent legal troubles threatened her income, she needed help quick.

In August 2017, the regional Pension Fund of Ukraine annulled Nina’s IDP certificate based on a letter from the State Border Service of Ukraine, which noted that she violated a prohibition on residing more than 60 days outside the oblast where an IDP is registered. The prohibition falls under the law entitled "On Ensuring the Rights and Freedoms of Internally Displaced Persons," which connects all IDP social benefits to their registration. The Sumy Oblast Pension Fund almost immediately suspended Nina’s pension payments.

As a result of being denied her only source of income, Nina could not afford to pay for her room in a public boarding house for the elderly and faced eviction. To remain in her quarters, she had to continually borrow money from acquaintances with no guarantee that she would be able to afford another month. 

Nina was indeed occupied for a time in Luhansk, where she was visiting her relatives when complications from a chronic disease and high blood pressure forced her to seek hospitalization. She exceeded the limit on her allotted stay outside Sumy by one week. “I was in a very difficult position, and had no idea what to do,” explained Nina.

When her pension was suspended, Nina immediately applied for legal assistance at the USAID-supported Human Rights in Action program’s legal aid center in Sumy. She knew where to turn for legal assistance because she had previously attended the center’s informational seminars for IDPs.

Human rights activists, who work regularly with IDPs free of charge, not only advised her, but also prepared a comprehensive package of procedural documents on the case to proceed with a lawsuit.

The legal aid center took up Nina’s case in Ukraine’s court system, and on Jan. 16, 2018, her pro bono lawyers won an appeal in the Kharkiv Administrative Court of Appeal. The court ordered Ukraine’s Pension Fund to renew Nina’s pension payments and repay a half-year of accumulated back payments, which Nina quickly received.

“As the process of recalculating pensions by the state was happening just when I was deprived the right to receive it, now I need to have my pension recalculated as well. This is crucial because I have plenty of debts to return – I had to survive somehow,” Nina says.

Ad hoc decisions by government agencies regarding social payments are especially challenging for elderly IDPs and people with disabilities.

“Most people who fall into these categories require extra protection since pensions are often their only source of income,” stresses Vyacheslav Pushyn, a lawyer with the legal aid center. Thus, most people who fall into these categories require extra protection. The work of human rights defenders, such as the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU), is critical to them. Regular awareness-raising events, accessible field legal consultations, and guaranteed court representation provide them with a degree of protection they would otherwise lack.

“Now we are working to prepare a legal memo for pension-deprived individuals, to provide them with a clear algorithm on how act under such circumstances,” explains Natalia Yesina, the UHHRU legal aid coordinator in Sumy.

More broadly, the USAID-supported legal aid centers that operate in eastern Ukraine provide free consultations and advice to all conflict-affected people. Since the program’s launch in 2014, legal aid lawyers have delivered pro bono consultations relating to pension payments to more than 500 people in need and supported approximately 70 related legal cases, achieving successful outcomes in 49.

The Supreme Court upheld the ruling by the Kharkiv Administrative Court of Appeal, which had been disputed by the Sumy Oblast Pension Fund. Nina found out about the end of the long legal proceedings in April 2018 and went to the Human Rights in Action legal aid center in Sumy to express her gratitude to the lawyers who helped protect her rights.

USAID’s Responding to Human Rights Violations and Empowering Citizens and Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine (Human Rights in Action) program runs from September 2014 to September 2022. The program is designed to empower human rights activists and respond to human rights violations through monitoring and advocacy; strategic litigation; awareness raising and citizen empowerment; and legal assistance to conflict-affected people.

*Full name withheld to protect identity.

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Last updated: May 08, 2018

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