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A Ukrainian’s Crusade to Fix the International Justice System for Everyone


Oleksandra Matviichuk is a human-rights lawyer whose organization she runs, the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties, just won a Nobel Peace Prize. In her quest to reform the international criminal system, she says: “All people deserve justice. Not only those who get media attention or have some social position, but because all lives matter.”  HUMAN RIGHTS FOUNDATION

Documenting the “dozens of thousands” of Russia’s war crimes that have been committed so far in Ukraine isn’t a problem for Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human-rights lawyer and civil society leader based in Kyiv. But having a fully developed international criminal system tasked with pursuing justice for all victims of war, is.

“All people deserve justice,” Matviichuk said in an interview with PassBlue earlier this month. “Not only those who get media attention or have some social position, but because all lives matter.”

Matviichuk heads the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), a Kyiv-based human-rights group that was recently awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, along with the jailed activist Alex Bialiatski from Belarus and the Moscow human-rights organization Memorial, which was banned by the Kremlin last year.

The Nobel Peace Prize awardees were announced on Oct. 7 by Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. “These Peace Prize laureates . . . have made an outstanding effort to document war crimes, human rights abuses and the abuse of power” in their countries, Reiss-Andersen said in a televised address. “Together, they demonstrate the significance of civil society for peace and democracy.”

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In a Facebook post, Matviichuk said she was “delighted” that the Center for Civil Liberties “received the Nobel Prize today along with our friends and partners at Memorial and Spring.”

Born in the Kyiv region, Matviichuk, who celebrated her 39th birthday on Oct. 10, received her master of law degree at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in 2007 and was a visiting scholar in 2017 at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Matviichuk also led Euromaidan SOS, a civic initiative that provided legal aid to victims of the violent crackdowns during the Euromaidan protests against the Russian-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych that led to the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2013.

PassBlue met with Matviichuk on Oct. 3, at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Times Square to discuss the monumental task of promoting democracy and documenting war crimes in Ukraine, under Russia’s invasion. She had arrived, jet-lagged from Kyiv — a journey that took three days as Ukraine’s airspace is restricted because of the war — late the night before to speak at the Oslo Freedom Forum, a global human-rights conference that was being held in Manhattan the afternoon of the interview, four days before her organization was awarded the Nobel Prize.

On Feb. 28, four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Karim Khan, prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), announced his “intention” to open an investigation into “alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity” in the country. Since then, other international bodies have begun to set up investigations to prosecute such crimes in Ukraine as well.

Most recently, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania issued a joint statement calling on the European Union and others to help Ukraine establish a special tribunal. The body would investigate the crime of aggression, “fill in the existing jurisdictional loophole” and “ensure Russia’s accountability against Ukraine,” their statement read. The tribunal, they added, would complement the role of the ICC.

Established in 2002, the ICC investigates and tries individuals charged with committing the “gravest crimes,” including genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. To date, 31 cases have been brought before the court.

Matviichuk described the opening of the ICC investigations as a “huge step” but also as a “huge challenge,” given the sheer number of war crimes being documented in Ukraine since Russia’s full-fledged invasion began in late February.

After analyzing digital evidence, including video and satellite imagery, Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, concluded as early as Feb. 25 that the Russian military’s “blatant disregard for civilian lives by using ballistic missiles in densely populated areas” could “constitute” war crimes. Then, in a statement released on March 23, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded that “war crimes had been committed by Putin’s forces in Ukraine.” Days later, on March 26, during a televised address in Warsaw, Poland, US President Joe Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “dictator” who “cannot remain in power.”

According to reporting by The Intercept, since 2014, when Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea — a move that has been condemned as illegal by the international community — neither Putin nor any other senior Russian officials have been prosecuted for the crime of aggression. The ICC defines it as “the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, integrity or independence of another State”; the crime of aggression can also be described as the “mother” of all war crimes —  arguably the one that “enables” all the others.

Because Ukraine is not a member of the ICC, it cannot independently refer a case to the court; however, since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and fighting between Russian-backed separatists and Ukraine’s military broke out in the Donbas region in the country’s east, the Ukrainian government formally agreed to accept ICC jurisdiction on alleged crimes committed on Ukrainian territory on an “open-ended” basis. Countries that adopt and adhere to the Rome Statute, the governing treaty of the ICC, are considered member states. In addition to Ukraine, neither the US nor Russia are members of the ICC.

However, to obtain authorization to open an investigation into war crimes in Ukraine, Khan would need judicial approval, or one of the 123 member states of the ICC would need to refer the situation to the court. As a result, on March 2, a total of 37 countries joined Britain to formally refer the case to the Hague-based ICC. Since then, six more countries have joined the referral.

In an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sept. 18, Andriy KostinUkraine’s newly appointed prosecutor general, said his office had documented 30,000 “potential” war crimes committed by the “Russian aggressor,” including the bombing and shelling of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, reports of rape, summary executions and torture. (In July, President Volodymyr Zelensky fired Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, citing potential treason.)

“Even the best prosecutor’s office in the world couldn’t effectively investigate dozens of thousands” of war crimes, Matviichuk said in her interview. It may not be possible to “give all victims of war a chance for justice,” but this is precisely what she wants to change. “We have to put this question on the table because it’s not normal when hundreds of thousands of people have no chance for justice,” she said. “It’s not normal neither for Syria, nor for Ukraine, nor for other countries.”

In this interview for PassBlue’s Women as Changemakers column, Matviichuk discussed her vision for global criminal justice “reform,” which includes the creation of a Nuremberg style tribunal, her legal “battlefield” in the war and why she thinks there will never be “peace and security” in Ukraine without justice. The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. — DAWN CLANCY 

PassBlue: The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine, created by the UN Human Rights Council, released a statement on Sept. 23, concluding that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine by Russian forces. In the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy regions, the commission said it had documented violations “such as the illegal use of explosive weapons, indiscriminate attacks, violations of personal integrity, including executions, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual and gender-based violence.” How do you hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes committed during the war when there are so many atrocities?  

Matviichuk: This is a very good question, and it’s one I ask myself: Who will provide all victims of this war the chance for justice? Because when Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare, and now we’re faced with an extreme amount of war crimes, and when you have thousands of criminal proceedings, it’s very difficult to effectively investigate each one. So even if it’s possible to identify the perpetrators, it’s impossible to prosecute when you have many investigations. [Most of the war crimes documented in Ukraine have been tied to Russian aggression, but on Aug. 4, Amnesty International reported “a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war” when operating in “populated areas.”]

PassBlue: It sounds like you’re calling for a complete reform of the international justice system — starting with the ICC and other bodies — because as the war in Ukraine is revealing, the system isn’t working.

Matviichuk: Yes, and it’s essential not only for Ukraine because other people in other countries are faced with the same challenges. I call this challenge an accountability gap: When the national system doesn’t want to, like in Syria, or is not capable, like in Ukraine, of providing an effective investigation of each criminal procedure. As I told you, I was in Kyiv when Russian troops circled the city, and I left only in May for several advocacy visits to different countries that were planned before the invasion. And I used this opportunity to meet with politicians, think tanks, journalists and human-rights defenders to understand whether there is, on the international level, a demand for justice. Unfortunately, I didn’t find this demand. Instead, I found a demand for peace, which is a huge misunderstanding because Russia has used war crimes to achieve geopolitical goals in our region and other regions for decades. So, if we want peace, we have to break the circle of impunity. We will have no sustainable peace in our region without justice because impunity leads to Russians thinking they can do whatever they want.

For example, there are videos of Russian [soldiers] in Syria cutting off people’s hands, slitting their throats and burning Syrians. And when my colleagues, Russian human-rights defenders, identified the perpetrators and tried to open criminal proceedings in Russia, they were denied. So it was a signal that you can do whatever you want in the world. That’s why I say we will have no sustainable peace without justice. People think it’s a huge success that the UN created a special international commission of inquiry for Ukraine, but if you look back at other crises, you will see that these commissions provide brilliant analysis and recommendations, but they don’t change reality. We need an instrument, like an international tribunal, which has the mandate not only to provide analysis and recommendation — it’s important for sure — but also to bring perpetrators to justice. I strongly believe that this is our historical task as a generation because in the past century, we had the Nuremberg trials and this was an essential move for justice. But these trials were created only after the Nazi regime collapsed. In the new century, we have to find a way to provide justice now. [Since May, two Russian soldiers have been tried and sentenced in a Ukrainian court after being found guilty of “violating the laws and customs of war.”]

PassBlue: I wanted to ask about your comments on a recent episode of Al Jazeera’s talk show, “The Stream.” You stressed Ukraine’s need for heavy weaponry to win the war and hinted at the apparent conflict between being a human-rights defender while advocating for weapons that have the potential to kill civilians and destroy civilian infrastructure. How did you come to this duality? 

Matviichuk: As someone who has spent 20 years defending human rights, I know pretty well that the UN and the OSCE system [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] have no legal instrument to release even one person from Russian captivity because international law doesn’t work that way. That’s why back in February and March, and even now, when someone asks me how to help people in occupied territories of Ukraine, I tell them to provide Ukraine with weapons. I had never expected myself to be in such a position as a human-rights lawyer. This shows that we live in a very dangerous world, where you have no legal instrument to defend people, and you can only rely upon weapons, and that’s why I think that my battlefield in this war is the law because the law doesn’t work. My task is not only to bring perpetrators to justice and to provide justice for as many victims as possible but also to prevent new war crimes and new victims. Unfortunately, the only way we can do that is with armed resistance, and these are not my values. I value peace, and I strongly believe that we have to invest not in the army but in education. To do that, we need to change something on the international level because the system is not working.

PassBlue: The depth of reform you’re calling for feels monumental. How big is your team at the Center for Civil Liberties?

Matviichuk: We have a small team, it’s up 20 people, but we can mobilize thousands of volunteers. And yes, reform may seem huge, but every single thing we’ve achieved is the result of the community, not because we are brilliant human-rights lawyers or we are the best human-rights organization, no. It’s only because common people support our work. I will finish with this: I would never wish for any nation to go through war because it’s very painful. But this dramatic time provides Ukrainians a chance to express our best features and be better than we are. Now we are very sharp, and we realize what it means to be human.

PassBlue: That’s a fascinating lesson to glean while living amid the atrocities of war.

Matviichuk: When you face atrocities, you start to realize there’s a lot of things in your life that don’t matter, but there are some things we should fight for.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on Olesksandra Matviichuk's crusade?

Dawn Clancy is a New York City based reporter who focuses on women’s issues, international conflict and diplomacy. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Previously, she has written for The Washington Post and HuffPost.

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A Ukrainian’s Crusade to Fix the International Justice System for Everyone
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