‘Accountability gap’: Nobel Peace Prize laureate warns Russian war crimes will go unpunished | Ukraine
OLeksandra Matviichuk has a point to make. The Ukrainian lawyer heads the Center for Civil Liberties, a human rights organization which this month jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize. And she wants to use her platform to call now for international action against Russia’s human rights abuses.
The body she heads has patiently documented more than 21,000 instances of war crimes committed by Russian occupation forces since 2014, many of them after the February invasion. But, speaking calmly and with controlled emotion, she complains, “I have no legal instrument to stop Russian atrocities” – no immediate way to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Crime seems vast when listed. “After the large-scale invasion, we documented different kinds of war crimes every day, such as intentional bombing of residential buildings, churches, hospitals, schools, bombing of evacuation corridors,” Matviichuk said. “We have received requests for help from people in the occupied territories because they have been abducted, tortured; we recorded sexual violence, extrajudicial executions.
Staff from the Center for Civil Liberties were among those who passed through Irpin, Bucha and towns and villages northwest of Kyiv after Russia abandoned its attempt to seize the city in March. “I will remind you,” she said, that bodies were found uncollected in the streets or thrown into mass graves. “And what was Putin’s response? He provided medals to the army unit that was staying in Bucha.
Russia, as it is currently governed, shows a “genocidal character”, she claims. At first, she admits the sheer emotional difficulty of dealing with the trauma of individual cases, especially understandable when her organization is dealing with so many.
Gradually, Matviichuk tells the story of a young pregnant woman severely beaten in Russian captivity after the 2014 war. “She begged them to stop beating her because she is expecting a baby. But he was told “you have pro-Ukrainian sympathies, and therefore your child has no right to be born”.
Later, in another insult, Matviichuk says, the woman’s captors agreed to release her if she told a Russian reporter she was a sniper – a false story – but then “asked her to s ‘sit in a pose that her pregnancy was concealed’ when being interviewed.
These are stories that we may not want to dwell on but that cannot be brushed aside. “Because we have enormous 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 submit Ukraine to a “psychological experience” through “the immense pain of the civilian population”.
Matviichuk then refers, vaguely, to controversial experiments from the 1960s in which dogs were subjected to electric shocks. “A dog was beaten with electricity every time he tried to eat, and that resulted in the situation where this poor dog decided to starve to death but didn’t try to survive,” says- she. The phenomenon in which an animal or person gives up trying to avoid pain because they have already been through so much is called, she says, “learned helplessness.”
It’s a goal that Russia has been allowed to pursue for 20 years to the point, according to Matviichuk, where it has become a pattern of behavior. “This hell we are going through now is the result of Russia’s complete impunity, which they have enjoyed for decades, as they have committed horrific crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, Libya and Syria, they were never punished for,” she said. “They believed they could do whatever they wanted because they are members of the UN Security Council.
The concept of fundamental human rights has been eroded so that freedoms now depend on where a person lives due to the lack of response, she says. “It is very dangerous to live in a world where your security does not depend on the rule of law but on whether or not your country belongs to a military bloc. This is a dangerous development path for humanity.
Matviichuk’s organization won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize in conjunction with Memorial, a Russian human rights group banned by the Kremlin, and veteran Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski, who is held in prison without trial in his native country. At the time of the announcement this month, some Ukrainian politicians wondered aloud if a joint Ukraine-Russia award was appropriate. “Interesting understanding of the word ‘peace’,” tweeted presidential adviser Mykhalio Podolyak.
But the president of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties brushes it off with a familiar universalism. “Freedom and human rights have no limits,” says Matviichuk. 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 organization has had disagreements with the Ukrainian government, including over the reform of the security services.
His key argument is that in the current conflict, war crimes risk going unaddressed and going unpunished, even when attracting full international attention. “We are in a situation where the national system is overloaded with an extreme number of crimes and the International Criminal Court will limit its investigation to a few selected cases. So we have a liability gap.
Providing more resources to local justice and the international tribunal in The Hague is only part of the answer, she says. This raises the question of whether Matviichuk thinks there could be a role for a special Ukrainian war crimes tribunal, similar to the Nuremberg trials of surviving Nazi leaders at the end of World War II.
“We must find the courage and establish an international tribunal to detain Putin, [Alexander] Lukashenko [the Belarus president] and other responsible war criminals,” says Matviichuk. But his suggestion would be that it starts working now, not like Nuremberg did “only after [the] The Nazi regime had collapsed”. Justice “must be independent of Putin’s power. We can’t wait,” she said.
Does the international community have the will to try to attack Russia on this issue? Matviichuk argues that the peace prize can help move the case forward. “We will use this platform to promote justice and accountability to achieve lasting peace,” she says, before resorting to a key moral argument. “We must bring justice to the people who suffered horrific atrocities.”