Oleksandra Matviichuk has a point she wants to make. The Ukrainian lawyer heads the Centre for Civil Liberties, a human rights organisation that this month jointly won the Nobel peace prize. And she wants to use her platform to call for international action against Russian human rights violations now.
The body she heads has patiently documented more than 21,000 examples of war crimes committed by occupying Russian forces since 2014, including many from after the invasion in February. But, speaking quietly and with controlled emotion, she complains: “I haven’t any legal instrument to stop the Russian atrocities” – no immediate way of bringing perpetrators to court.
The criminality appears vast when listed. “After the large-scale invasion, we every day documented different kinds of war crimes, like intentional shelling of residential buildings, churches, hospitals, schools, the shelling of evacuation corridors,” Matviichuk says. “We received requests for help from people in the occupied territories because they were abducted, tortured; we recorded sexual violence, extrajudicial killings.”
Staff from the Centre for Civil Liberties were among those who travelled through Irpin, Bucha and towns and villages north-west of Kyiv after Russia abandoned its attempt to seize the city in March. “I will remind you,” she says, that bodies were found lying uncollected in the streets, or dumped in mass graves. “And what was Putin’s response? He provided medals to the army unit that was staying in Bucha.”
Russia, as governed now, shows a “genocidal character,” she argues. At first she admits the sheer emotional difficulty of taking in the trauma of individual cases, particularly understandable when her organisation deals with so many.
Gradually, Matviichuk tells a story of a pregnant young woman severely beaten in Russian captivity after the war of 2014. “She begged for them to stop beating her because she’s expecting a baby. But she was told ‘you have pro-Ukrainian sympathies, and therefore your child has no right to be born’.”
Later, in a further insult, Matviichuk says, the woman’s captors agreed to free her if she told a Russian journalist that she was a sniper – a false story – but then “asked her to sit in a pose that her pregnancy was hidden” when being interviewed.
These are stories that one might not want to dwell on but that cannot be swept aside. “Because we have a huge material collected – 21,000 episodes of war crimes – we can be very clear that Russia used war crimes as a method of warfare,” she says – and that Russia has sought to subject Ukraine to a “psychological experiment” through “the immense pain of the civilian population”.
Matviichuk then refers, loosely, to controversial experiments from the 1960s in which dogs were subjected to electric shocks. “A dog was beaten with electricity every time it tried to eat, and resulted in the situation when this poor dog decided to die with a hunger but not try to survive,” she says. The phenomenon in which an animal or person gives up avoiding pain because it has been subjected to so much already is called, she says, “learned helplessness”.
It is an aim Russia has been allowed to pursue for 20 years to the point, Matviichuk argues, where it has become a pattern of behaviour. “This hell which we’re going through now is a result of total impunity of Russia, which they enjoyed for decades, because they committed horrible crimes in Chechnya, in Moldova, in Georgia, in Mali, in Libya and Syria they have never been punished for,” she says. “They believed they could do what they wanted because they are a member of the UN security council”.
The concept of fundamental human rights has been eroded so liberties now depend on where a person lives as a result of the failure to respond, she says. “It’s very dangerous to live in the world where your security depends not on the rule of law but on whether your country is a part of a military bloc. That’s a dangerous line of development for humankind.”
Matviichuk’s organisation won the 2022 Nobel peace prize in conjunction with Memorial, a Russian human rights group outlawed by the Kremlin, and the veteran Belarussian activist Ales Bialiatski, who is being held in prison without trial in his native country. At the time of the announcement this month, some Ukrainian politicians wondered aloud whether a joint Ukraine-Russia award was appropriate. “Interesting understand of the word ‘peace’,” tweeted the presidential adviser Mykhalio Podolyak.
But the chair of the Kyiv-based Centre for Civil Liberties brushes this off with a familiar universalism. “Freedom and human rights has no limitation,” Matviichuk says. She says her group was congratulated by Andriy Yermak, the president’s chief of staff, in a meeting shortly after the award was announced, although she says her organisation has had some disagreements with the Ukrainian government, including over security service reform.
Her key argument is that in the current conflict, war crimes risk going unexamined and unpunished, even allowing for all the international attention. “We are in a situation when national system is overloaded with an extreme amount of crimes and the international criminal court will limit its investigation only to several select cases. So we have an accountability gap.”
Providing more resources to local judiciary and to the international court in The Hague is only part of the answer, she says. That prompts the question of whether Matviichuk believes there could be a role for a special Ukraine war crimes court, similar to the Nuremberg trials of surviving Nazi leaders at the end of the second world war.
“We have to find the courage and to establish an international tribunal to hold Putin, [Alexander] Lukashenko [the Belarus president] and other war criminals accountable,” Matviichuk says. But her suggestion would be for it to start work now, not as Nuremberg did “only after [the] Nazi regime had collapsed”. Justice “must be independent of Putin’s power. We can’t wait,” she says.
Does the international community have the will to try to take on Russia over this issue? Matviichuk argues that the peace prize may help advance the case. “We will use this platform in order to promote justice and accountability in order to achieve sustainable peace,” she says, before resorting to an essential moral argument. “We have to provide justice for people who suffered from horrible atrocities.”