On 16 April 2020, around 40 prisoners were exchanged between the government-controlled and non-government controlled areas of Ukraine. Despite the Ukrainian government having declared a state of emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the planned prisoner swap successfully went ahead, with participants agreeing on the necessary precautions and protective measures in advance.
The prisoner exchange was preceded by intensive negotiations within the Humanitarian Working Group of the Trilateral Contact Group, a forum representing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Russian Federation and Ukraine. The negotiations have been led since January 2020 by Swiss Ambassador Heidi Grau as Special Representative of the OSCE’s Chairperson-in-¬Office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group.
The Humanitarian Working Group is led by its Swiss coordinator, Ambassador Toni Frisch, and usually meets every two weeks in Minsk. The last large-scale exchange of around 250 prisoners was concluded on 29 December 2019, following negotiations under the aegis of the OSCE. Since the beginning of March, negotiations have been conducted by videoconferencing on account of travel restrictions related to COVID-19. In addition to negotiating the release of prisoners involved in the current conflict, the working group also reached several agreements on other humanitarian challenges such as the key issue of finding and identifying missing persons, as well as improving crossing points over the contact line for civilians.
The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has been ongoing for six years now and, according to the UN, has claimed over 13,000 lives. Switzerland is committed to a peaceful solution to the conflict and promotes de-escalation and dialogue, mainly within the framework of the OSCE. As part of its peace policy engagement, Switzerland has provided Ambassador Heidi Grau as Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-¬Office in Ukraine and in the Trilateral Contact Group since January 2020 and Ambassador Toni Frisch as Co-ordinator of the Humanitarian Working Group since spring 2015.
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