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Ukraine

German Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Strässer: 'Action is needed in the next few days'

European Union foreign ministers will meet Thursday to consider sanctions against Ukraine's government. Germany's human rights commissioner, Christoph Strässer, tells DW that the EU has just days to act.

DW: Mr. Strässer, what comes to mind when you see the images from Ukraine?

Christoph Strässer: Those are horrible images, and they're playing out in Europe. We were actually always of the opinion that something like that could never happen again in Europe. Now, really, everything has to be done - also on the side of the European Union and the international community - to ensure that the violence ceases.

What possibilities does the European Union have to influence those with responsibility?

That's is currently a difficult question - whether appeals are enough, especially to the government and the president, or whether we don't have to use the sanctions "toolkit." I'm not sure whether it's the right time for that yet, but we should make it clear that the possibility exists and that we could be ready to use it.

What kinds of sanctions are in the EU's toolkit?

Travel bans on those responsible, for example, or the freezing of bank accounts. That's what can potentially have an effect. But one also has to think things through clearly, because there are also cases where sanctions really haven't had an effect and, as a tool, were ultimately wasted. I find it important to keep up the pressure, and if the situation deteriorates further in one or two days, then one must a reach into that toolbox.

Sanctions always carry the risk of impacting the civilian population. How do you assess the situation of the Ukrainian people?

Christoph Strässer smiles at the camera.

German Human Rights Commissioner Christoph Strässer

That's exactly the reason one has to be very careful with these instruments. But I believe that one only reaches for the toolkit when repercussions for the affected population can be ruled out. When a government comes under pressure, one can never rule that out - that it won't lead to tighter sanctions against the population. But I think it can hardly get worse than it is at the moment.

Opposition members who've come to Germany have been desperately asking us to become active - in order to protect themselves and prevent situations where people who are picked on the Maidan [Independence Square] or nearby are tortured in prison. The situation is really very, very nasty, and I think action has to be taken in the next few days if it doesn't improve.

What do you know about the situation beyond the Maidan?

According to our information, protests are spreading throughout the country. People want a change to the constitution - they want more rights, they want to be closer to Europe. It's a conflagration which, if measures aren't taken soon, will spread throughout the whole country and will no longer be controllable.

One difficulty for Ukraine's opposition is that they don't always speak with one voice, but are rather a very heterogeneous mixture of varied groups. To what extent is the opposition involved in the current escalation?

Yes, I do think the perception is correct that there are different positions. But the most important thing is that the government's willingness to talk can be taken seriously by all opposition groups - that these serious offers are there, and that the opposition also finds ways of including the radicalized part of the movement. And then, when it actually comes to negotiations on new elections and constitutional changes, that one can truly win back peace and quiet on the streets.

At the moment, there remains, in my view, a huge danger of escalation within the opposition from a potentially uncontainable faction, one which does not want to find agreement with the political parties and groups, and which is out on the streets for other reasons.

Earlier in the week you met with Ukrainian opposition member Dmitry Bulatov. Can Ukraine place its hope in him? Or when it comes to Ukraine's immediate future, do you place your hopes in someone else?

I don't believe one can attach [those hopes] to individuals. It would be much better if one listened to the voices that one hears on the streets. There are very, very many civil society components to this movement, the foundation of which - to a certain extent - was established during the Orange Revolution [of 2004]. It would be really bitter for these people to feel, for a second time, that they haven't been able to take part in decision-making. Many of the elements in the opposition also have the responsibility to base their talks with the government on the broad movements in civil society.

How high is the risk that Ukraine will collapse?

This was a discussion we had years ago, with the eastern part of the country tending to Russia and the west towards the European Union. But there is, at least in my perception, a clear commitment - by those responsible both in the government and opposition - that Ukraine should be preserved as a state. And one must now try to complete the process which was begun over the last few years, to moving towards democracy.

The lawyer Christoph Strässer (64) has been the German government's commissioner for human rights and humanitarian aid since January. Before that, he chaired the German Social Democratic Party's parliamentary working group on human rights and was a member of the Bundestag's Human Rights Committee.

DW.DE