Oleksandra Matviichuk: "Russians have enjoyed impunity for decades"

Oleksandra Matviichuk

Last year, the non-profit Centre for Civil Liberties was one of three recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize - the first time ever that a Nobel Prize has been awarded to a Ukrainian citizen or organisation. Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk started working for the organisation, which she now heads, in 2007. She has been involved in a number of activities relating to the protection of human rights, including the collecting of evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, so when Czech Radio's Jan Bumba interviewed her recently, he started by asking her what specifically she is focusing on right now.

“I want to find answers for the people we are documenting all these crimes for. Who will provide a chance for justice for hundreds of thousands of victims of this war? It is not an abstract question.

“The Ukrainian national system is overloaded with an extreme amount of crimes and the International Criminal Court will limit its investigation only to several selected cases. So we need to change the world’s approach to war crime justice in order to achieve this goal.”

How do you do it? What are you actually trying to do? Who do you want to address?

“We need to convince the international community to establish a special tribunal on aggression and to hold Putin, the high political leadership and top military command accountable.

Oleksandra Matviichuk | Photo: Peter Dejong,  ČTK/AP

“We also need to convince the international community to integrate an international element into the level of national investigation and national justice in Ukraine.

“We want to create a model where national prosecutors work together with international prosecutors and national judges work together with international judges.”

When you say international community, who exactly do you mean? Is it the ICC or is it the UN? Which authority should be there to actually judge the deed?

“This decision has to be taken by governments, which means we have to convince ordinary people. A lot of things are not limited by national borders and justice is a very understandable value for everybody.

“When I describe the Russian war crimes that we documented, the pain and horror is understandable to everyone, regardless of their nationality, gender, age, social position, citizenship, ideology or religion, because first and foremost we are all human beings.”

At the same time, aren’t Russians quite successful in gaining support from many countries and governments, including very influential countries such as China or India? Therefore isn’t it extremely difficult to convince the international community to put them on trial?

“It is not an easy task, but there are different reasons why countries do not support the idea. When it comes to China, let’s remind ourselves that China commits horrible atrocities against its own citizens.

“They committed crimes against humanity against the Uyghurs, they created digital censorship. So it is no surprise that they will not fight for justice, because the regime itself is very bloody and unjust.

“India, however, is a democracy. So there we have to convince Indian politicians that they have to express the same values that they declare in their country in their foreign policy as well.”

President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping meets with President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the official welcoming ceremony in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. | Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

Do you think it is doable?

“It is doable, because when it comes to a long-term approach, you have to base your political decisions on human rights values.

“This situation convincingly proves that when you base your political decisions solely on economic interests, you can benefit in the short-term, but in the long-term, you will pay much more.

“This is a lesson which well-developed democracies have now learned. They closed their eyes against the violation of human rights in Russia for decades. They built gas pipelines, they did business as usual, they shook Putin’s hand – and now we are all paying for it.”

Which type of authority, which type of court could actually punish Russian war crimes?

Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova | Photo: Presidential Executive Office of Russia,  CC BY 4.0 DEED

“The activities of the International Criminal Court are extremely important in this regard. I would like to emphasize once again the historic decision of the ICC to issue an arrest warrant against Putin and his children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova.

“Because Putin tried to convince the whole world that a country with strong military power can dictate the rules to the international community.

“And with this decision, the International Criminal Court said: We don’t care that you are a strong military power, that you have nuclear weapons or that you are a member of the UN Security Council. If you commit international crimes, you will be held responsible.”

You once said in an interview: “Russians believe they can do whatever they want.” Why is that? Why do you think that happens?

“Because Russians have enjoyed impunity for decades. When you look at what they did in Chechnya or Syria, it was inhuman. These horrible atrocities should have been prosecuted, but the perpetrators have never been punished. And that is why they started to believe they can do whatever they want.

“The bombing of the Mariupol theatre while hundreds of people were inside is the same type of bombing which Russia did in Aleppo in Syria.”

I understand your point, but most people don’t commit crimes because of the fear of punishment. I mean, we don’t steal because we think that it is not right to steal.

“That’s another problem. It’s a problem of Russian culture. It is not the culture of Tchaikovsky or Dostoyevsky or the Russian ballet. It is a culture of violence, of denial of human dignity and of people who believe they have the right to forcibly restore the Russian empire.

“That’s why it is so important to show justice and to demonstrate justice. It can lead to a very painful but necessary self-reflection that the Russian nation needs to go through. They must understand that it is not normal to think like this in the 21st century.”

Do you think that it is a matter of education or a matter of culture? What is it?

“I think it’s a matter of long-lasting impunity. I will illustrate it with a story I was told by my colleagues, Russian human rights defenders.

Demonstration for support of Memorial organization | Photo: Tomasz Molina,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“When the Soviet Union collapsed, there was a discussion going on in Russian society and some groups promoted the idea of starting a historical legal process against Stalin and the crimes of the communist regime.

“However, this idea was not supported because a lot of people said: everything is clear, people understand that they were horrible crimes and that it was illegal.

“But what we see now is Russia promoting Stalin, Russia using an alternative version of history as a state ideology, Russia justifying repression and crimes committed during the Soviet era. They even closed the Memorial Human Rights Centre because it showed unpleasant truths.

“So now, when my Russian human rights colleagues are reminded of this discussion, they say: we failed and it was the wrong decision.”

Even in the West, there are people and political parties that are pro-Russian. They usually claim they demand peace. Why do you think this is happening?

“Because they think peace can be achieved when the country which was invaded stops fighting. But it will not be peace. It will be occupation.

“And occupation is a state where people live in fear of constant violence, when they have no tools to protect their rights, their liberties, their lives, their property and their loved ones.

“I know what I am talking about because I have been documenting war crimes for nine years and I personally interviewed hundreds of people who survived Russian captivity in occupied territories.

“They told me how they were beaten, how they were raped, how their fingers were cut, how they were tortured by electric shock. It is horrible. It is not peace. Occupation is just another form of war.”

Are you still in the process of gathering evidence, or do you think that you have already got enough, and your task now is to talk with governments and other people to establish some form of a court?

“When the large-scale invasion started, we united our efforts with dozens of civil organisations, mostly regional ones, to create the Tribunal for Putin initiative.

“We built an all-Ukrainian network of local investigators and this work is continuing daily. At the moment, we have more than 36,000 accounts of war crimes in our database.

“I myself currently focus on international advocacy to create mechanisms of accountability, because we do this job not just for national archives. We are not historians. We are human rights lawyers.”

When you travel across Europe and around the world, does the response to your testimony vary in different countries?

“Yes. There are different attitudes depending on whether or not the country itself actually experienced some sort of violence. For example, when I had a meeting with members of the city council in Buenos Aires and told them about the kidnapping and forced adoption of Ukrainian children, I suddenly saw people crying.

“Later, I remembered that Argentina also suffered from this horrible practice. They knew what I was talking about. They don’t just have empathy. They have their own experience.

“So it is different depending on the history of the country and on people’s experience. But what is the same in all the countries where I talk about human pain, Russian war crimes and our fight for justice, is that ordinary people support our fight, because once again, there is a lot of things that are not limited by national borders, and human solidarity is one of those things.”

Have you come across people who actually don’t believe you? Who would say that you are perhaps exaggerating or that the evidence is not clear enough or something like that?

Photo: Martin Dorazín,  Czech Radio

“Yes, and it’s very understandable that the court will have the final decision. All the evidence which we gathered has to be presented in a competent court process, where the Russian military and Russian leadership will have their defence lawyers. They have the right to protect themselves in a legal procedure.

“I will not convince anyone to believe me. Come to Ukraine and see with your own eyes what is going on.”

Which Russians do you think should be put on trial – should it be Vladimir Putin and his government, should it be the military commanders, individual soldiers, or Yevgeny Prigozhin? Who should be put on trial?

“Everybody who committed international crimes.

“People who committed these crimes with their own hands, people who took decisions to commit war crimes, people who provided orders to commit them – all people who contributed to making these crimes happen. So-called Russian journalists as well.

“I interviewed a young woman from Donetsk. She was taken into captivity because she has pro-Ukrainian sympathies and she was severely beaten. She begged not to be beaten because she was pregnant, but she got the answer, ‘You have pro-Ukrainian sympathies and your child has no right to be born.’

“But later she was told that she would be released – if she told Russian journalists that she was a sniper. And she agreed. For sure, she agreed just to survive.

“One detail in her story shocked me the most. When these so-called Russian journalists arrived and understood that she was pregnant, they asked her to sit in a position to hide her pregnancy, because it would have ruined the whole story otherwise.”

Photo: René Volfík,  iROZHLAS.cz

You have also joined the debate about Russian athletes being allowed back to international competitions. Why is it important? Would it make such a difference?

“One of my personal moral leaders is Václav Havel. He said that we have to live in truth. And to live in truth means calling things what they are.

Photo: Anne Jea.,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

“We can’t normalise killing, rape, and torture. We have to say that it’s not normal, and until Russia stops this, we will not interact with the country in culture, sport, and other fields.

“Especially taking into account that the majority of these Russian athletes supported this war of aggression.”

Why do you think there are so many ordinary Russians, including sportsmen, who support the war?

“Putin governs his country not just with repression and censorship. He governs Russia with a special social contract between the Kremlin elites and ordinary Russians. And this social contract is based on Russian glory.

“Unfortunately, the majority of Russians still see their glory in the restoration of the Russian Empire.”

You have touched on the topic of Ukrainian children being taken or kidnapped to Russia. According to the ICC, at least hundreds of Ukrainian children have experienced this. Do you have more precise numbers? What are the estimates?

“We are in the course of a war, and it’s very difficult to speak about numbers. The last number from Ukrainian officials was 16,000.

“But we can’t track each individual child’s destiny. It’s enough to say that it is a systematic practice – it’s not just sporadic or some occasional action. It’s a policy of the Russian state.”

Photo: Children of war

Maria Lvova-Belova, the Russian commissioner for children’s rights, said that these children lived unattended in poor conditions, and that they are better off in Russia. What do you say to that?

“I will tell a concrete story of a family from Mariupol. The father brought up three children and he lived peacefully in Mariupol before the large-scale invasion started.

“Then, in order to save his children’s life, he decided to move to Russia, because Russia doesn’t give permission to the international Red Cross to evacuate civilians from Mariupol to another region of Ukraine.

“But he didn’t pass border controls. He was imprisoned, his children were transferred to Russia, and the process of forced adoption started. Regardless of the fact that the children already had a father.

“But this is a story with a happy ending, because they released the father, and the elder son found a way to call him and tell him, ‘You have five days until adoption starts, please come and save us.”

“He managed to do it, but there are a lot of things which we can’t track.”

Is it the usual destiny of these children that they are put up for forced adoption? Is that what usually happens?

“This is a component of a broader policy. This war has a genocidal character. Remember, Putin openly said that there is no Ukrainian nation, that we are the same people as Russians.

“This policy has the goal of forcibly changing Ukrainian identity. That is why, after the occupation, the Russians prohibited the Ukrainian language, why they brought Russian teachers to schools to teach their version of history, and that is why they provide this legal transfer of Ukrainian children to Russia for forced adoption.”

You have also expressed sympathy to the family of the Russian activist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was sentenced to 25 years in prison a few days ago. You have also written that you are sure that Putin’s regime will fall much sooner than that. How stable do you think today’s regime in Russia is?

“Unfortunately, as I said before, a majority of Russians support this war of aggression, and I don’t believe in any possibility of mass protests against Putin in Russia.

Vladimir Kara-Murza | Photo: ČTK/AP/Uncredited

“But Putin started this war in 2014 when Ukraine obtained a chance for a democratic transformation after the collapse of the authoritarian regime due to the Revolution of Dignity. Because he was afraid of that idea of freedom coming closer to the Russian border.

“So the success of Ukraine will provide a chance for the democratic future of Russia itself. And that is why, when I speak with my Russian human rights colleagues and ask them, ‘How can we support you?’, the response has been the same all these years: ‘If you want to help us, please be successful.’”

How has the war experience changed Ukraine itself and the Ukrainian nation?

“In this war, we are fighting for freedom in all senses. For the freedom to have our own state and not to be a Russian colony, for the freedom to be Ukrainians and not to be forcibly re-educated as Russians, and for the freedom to have our own democratic choice and to build a country where the rights of everybody are protected.

“And we pay a high price, just for the chance to build such a country. And each Ukrainian knows it.”

Can you imagine what the relations between Russians and Ukrainians may look like in 10 or 15 years?

Photo: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine

“It’s very difficult to predict. We have to win this war with Russia, which means two things. First, we need to push out Russian troops from Ukrainian territory and occupied Crimea and other Ukrainian territories.

“Second, we need to succeed in the democratic transition of our country and build sustainable democratic institutions. When we do this, it will have a huge impact on Russia and other countries in our region as well. Once that happens, we can try to build another system of peace and security in the region, because the current one is not able to prevent such a bloody war as we have at the current moment.”

If I may ask a personal question, you were named among the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine. How influential do you yourself feel?

“I am an ordinary human rights lawyer, but the demand of millions of people for justice is a very powerful tool. And that is why I feel that I am not alone. There are a lot of people who support our fight in bringing Putin and other Russian war criminals to justice.

Has the Nobel Prize helped? Does it open doors?

“Yes, because for decades the voices of human rights defenders from our region weren’t heard in the rooms where political decisions were taking place. We were invited and we were heard only in such platforms as the UN Human Rights Council.

“And now, I think a very important process of re-thinking has started in the world, that when you don’t base your political decisions on human rights, it will lead to a bad result.”

Is your work appreciated back home? Are you a well-known person in Ukraine?

“Human rights defenders are not celebrities. Our human rights organisations are known in Ukraine by our ability to involve ordinary people in our work.

“So, I do believe that we can’t leave human rights just for lawyers, diplomats, and experts. It has to become a general job.”

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