Ukrainian Nobel laureate calls for new approach to wartime justice

Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, outside her office in Kyiv, Ukraine.  (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post).
Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, outside her office in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Heidi Levine for the Washington Post).

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine and its global supporters must radically rethink how to achieve justice for thousands of Russian war crimes victims, a co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize says, by expanding the Criminal Court international community and overhauling the cumbersome, cumbersome system that often failed to be accountable after the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Africa and the Middle East.

The new Nobel laureate, Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer whose Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) was among a trio of rights defenders awarded the Peace Prize last week, said in an interview with the Washington Post that it is no longer acceptable that only a tiny fraction of war crimes go to trial while thousands, if not millions, go unaddressed by the global justice system.

“We need to change our outlook,” Matviichuk said in the interview, his first since the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced it last week. She said the world cannot wait until after Russia’s war to seize large swathes of Ukrainian territory, it concludes to compensate the victims, as happened with the Nuremberg prosecutions against the criminals Nazi war fighters in Germany after World War II.

Cases before the ICC and autonomous tribunals like the one set up after the Balkan wars have progressed slowly. Some of those charged or wanted by lawsuits have remained out of reach for years. In 2006, former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic died in a UN prison while facing a lengthy genocide trial.

“We live in a new century and we must go further,” Matviichuk said, adding that Russia should not be allowed to delay investigations and legal proceedings, either through intimidation on the battlefield or by exercising its veto in the United Nations Security Council. “Justice cannot depend on the extent of power of the Putin regime.”

The scale of Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure, visualized

Matviichuk recommended expanding the capacity of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the “Joint Investigation Team” – a European Union-led mechanism through which multiple countries can join forces for cross-border criminal investigations. She also called for the creation of a special international tribunal to help Ukrainian courts deal with what is expected to be a massive charge of alleged war crimes by Russia.

These efforts, Matviichuk said, could serve as a “boost to the national system, like a vaccine.” Eventually, she said she hopes Ukraine can establish something akin to the truth and reconciliation committees that countries like South Africa and Peru have created to work through their own dark histories.

Matviichuk said such efforts would be crucial in helping Ukraine close what she called a dangerous “responsibility gap”.

Speaking from the CCL’s modest office in central Kyiv, Matviichuk described the group’s efforts to document human rights abuses beginning in 2013, when then-President Viktor Yanukovych led a crackdown on pro-European protesters in Kyiv.

After Russia illegally invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and began fomenting a pro-Russian separatist war in the eastern Donbass region, the group turned to chronicling kidnappings and abuses in those areas. .

This effort accelerated dramatically after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, subjecting cities like Mariupol to indiscriminate bombardment, displacing millions and seizing control. of territories that Russia now claims to have annexed – in violation of international law. right.

Since then, the CCL has recorded details of some 21,000 incidents of alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity, drawing on a network of regional groups and volunteers who report information across Ukraine.

Matviichuk and his CCA colleagues know well the difficulties of trying to obtain justice.

After years of referring alleged incidents of sexual assault, torture and enforced disappearances to state authorities and outside organizations, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Matviichuk has said she and her colleagues were frustrated that such abuse continued to occur.

And in the interview, she became emotional as she recalled the trial of a 21-year-old Russian sergeant who was sentenced to life imprisonment in May for the murder of Oleksandr Shelipov, a Ukrainian man shot dead in February while he was was pushing his bike, unarmed, near his home. .

During the trial, Shelipov’s distraught widow confronted the soldier and demanded to know why he had come to Ukraine. “He was an ordinary farmer, but he was his whole universe,” Matviichuk said of Shelipov.

“At that point, I understood that we had to find a way to bring justice to every victim, whoever they are, whatever the type of crime…whether or not the media is interested in their case” , she said.

While this case reflected the willingness of Ukrainian government prosecutors to telegraph that Russian war crimes would be punished, experts agree that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Ukrainian courts to deal with crimes on the scale of this which has already happened in almost eight months of war.

The CCL received the peace prize alongside the Russian human rights group Memorial, which was abolished last year, and imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski. It was the first time that a Nobel Prize was awarded to a Ukrainian person or organization.

The awards represented a sharp rebuke to Putin a year after the committee awarded the peace prize to the editor of an independent Russian newspaper.

Just three days after the prize was awarded, Russia launched a barrage of missile strikes on central Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, killing around 20 people in an attack Putin said was retaliation for an explosion on a strategic bridge. These strikes hit civilian infrastructure targets, including power plants across the country, which is a potential war crime.

Stephen Rapp, who was sent for global criminal justice during the Obama administration, said even a layered approach involving Ukrainian and international courts would likely fall short of trying to try all of Russia’s wartime abuses. .

One of the main challenges, he said, would be securing custody of alleged perpetrators or planners of war crimes who, with the exception of captured soldiers, would likely be in Russia – far beyond. of the scope of these courts.

“She’s right to demand it,” Rapp said of Matviichuk. “What politicians and people in government who have limited resources need to do is strategize how to get as close to that as possible.”

Rebecca Hamilton, who served as a lawyer at the ICC and now teaches law at American University, said the chances of securing broad accountability may be higher in Ukraine due to the intense global focus on war, which she attributed in part to systemic racism, linked to the fact that the war is taking place in Europe rather than in the Global South.

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“Ukraine is perhaps the best case scenario for what international criminal accountability can offer,” Hamilton said. “And yet, for many survivors, that still may not be enough.”

Immediately after receiving the news from the Nobel Committee – which she received shortly before boarding a train to Kyiv from Warsaw after a working visit to New York – Matviichuk issued a public call for deportation of Russia from the United Nations Security Council.

While more than 140 countries voted at the UN General Assembly this week in favor of a resolution demanding that Moscow reverse its annexation of four other Ukrainian regions, Moscow has used its veto power in the Security Council to block any legally binding measure.

Ukrainians have frequently called for Russia to be stripped of its seat, which they believe Moscow unfairly inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and because of its use of aggressive military force in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere.

“It leads to a situation where the Russians are starting to believe they can do whatever they want,” Matviichuk said. “We must break the cycle of impunity, not only for Ukraine, but for other countries.”

While some Ukrainians criticized the Nobel committee for jointly recognizing human rights defenders in Belarus and Russia, Matviichuk described a common fight that human rights defenders were waging in all three countries. “It’s about people, not countries,” she said.

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Matviichuk, who describes herself as an empathetic person, acknowledged that years of documenting the worst in humanity had taken an emotional toll on her and her CCL colleagues. “I believe in human dignity,” she said.

She recalls an attempt to toughen herself up, when in 2014 she co-authored a report on kidnappings and abuses in occupied areas of Ukraine. She volunteered to oversee the chapter on torture, delving into reports of victims who were beaten and raped, had fingernails pulled out and had their genitals electrocuted.

“I understood that it was a long marathon and that I had to be prepared,” she said. But, she added, “Frankly, you couldn’t have been prepared for these kinds of atrocities.”

Elna M. Lemons