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No Seat at Cabinet Table for Veterans

It has been eight months since the veteran community has been waiting for the government to set up the Ministry of Veteran Affairs in Ukraine. In March this year civil society activists have taken the initiative and set up a project office for the development of legislation, policies and structures for the new Ministry. A model very similar to the US Department of Veteran Affairs has been proposed, consisting of three branches dedicated to veterans’ health, psychosocial support and memorial. The Parliamentary Committee on Veteran Affairs has endorsed proposals to digitalize service provision within the new Ministry, particularly through a revised comprehensive register of Ukrainian veterans and a re-issuance of electronic veteran ID cards.

The Ministry of Veteran Affairs project office, headed by the Legal Hundred Chairwoman Lesia Vasylenko, has gathered opinions of veterans across Ukraine, as well as the international veteran community. However, the much awaited decision of the Cabinet of Ministers on the setting up of the Ministry of Veteran Affairs never came. Despite numerous presentations and an official request to the government to set up an inter-agency working group to review the drafts submitted by the project office, the government continues to disregard veteran issues. Hundreds of veterans demanding a Ministry in front of the Cabinet of Ministers on Wednesday, 7 November also did not help.

The only compromise offered by the Prime Minister was to restructure the State Service for Veteran Affairs and grant it special status. An interesting suggestion, taking into account the fact such special status does not grant agencies the same authority as ministries during government decision-making process. Thus, veteran affairs policy will still hold low priority on the government agenda. On the plus side the new status may increase funding and may also mean the new veteran agency will no longer be subordinate to the Ministry of Social Policy.

 

The Invisible Combatants

It is no secret that with the start of the Russian aggression a significant number of Ukrainian and foreign nationals alike have put on uniforms, taken up weapons and organized themselves into quasi military units to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. International Humanitarian Law considers such persons as combatants and it is only natural that Ukraine, being a signatory to all Geneva Conventions and Protocols thereof, should recognize the status of volunteer fighters accordingly. However, this has not been the case.  

National laws consider volunteer fighters as veterans only if such persons have been wounded in combat and have, as a consequence, received disability status. If a volunteer fighter dies in combat his/her family becomes eligible for the family of the deceased status and may be granted state benefits. The volunteer fighters who have returned from the war zone alive and well, and sometimes even with national honors and medals, are not recognized as veterans.

This injustice has led to much tension across Ukraine and many demands to have the volunteer battalions legalized. As a result, 17 different legislative drafts have been submitted since late 2014 attempting to regulate the status of volunteer fighters. The main hindrance to the adoption of a solution is the lack of information as to the actual number of volunteer fighters. It is unclear whether any kind of registers of this group of combatants actually exists. There is also no understanding as to which government bodies should be responsible for revising evidence that such persons participated in combat, as well as to what this evidence should encompass.

While political will to solve the issue is lacking, hundreds of men and women who have been recognized as heroes by different government authorities, including in some cases the President of Ukraine, remain in an unclear status. Without veteran status these combatants are not eligible for support and assistance from the government, and are often left to deal with psychological disorders and other issues on their own.  

 

Memorial for Fallen Heroes or Graveyard for High Ranking Civil Servants?

The Parliamentary Committee on Veteran Affairs has rejected Draft Law №9170 “On Amendments to the Law of Ukraine “On Funeral and Memorial Complex”. Although it has been underlined that a Memorial Complex for Ukrainian veterans is much needed, the proposed draft includes more risks than solutions. The wording of the draft law promotes further division between different veteran generations and pertains that this national burial complex shall only be for veterans of the war on Russian aggression, participants of international peacekeeping operations and fighters for the independence and freedom of Ukraine. Leaving out Soviet Afghan war veterans and WWII veterans shall further extend the gap and stir tension between the different veteran groups.

Categories eligible for burial in the envisaged memorial include family members of high ranking defense and security officials who may have never actually taken part in combat. The draft law also lacks information as to the size of the memorial complex and does not account for the fact that the war on Russian aggression is still ongoing and may result in more casualties.

The general discussion of the issue during the hearing of the Parliamentary Veterans Committee has raised an important cultural aspect, whereby it is highly unlikely that many families will want their sons and fathers buried far from home. This will make visiting the grave difficult and expensive for many families.

Thus, the matter of a national memorial complex has been postponed until further notice.

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