‘We have to prove Putin wrong’ Human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk on pursuing justice for Ukraine in wartime
Ukrainian Human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk and her colleagues at the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Center for Civil Liberties have been documenting Russian atrocities in Ukraine since 2014, and this became the main focus of their work after Russia began its full-scale invasion. Together with other Ukrainian rights groups, they founded the Tribunal for Putin initiative, which now hosts a major database of suspected war crimes. At this writing, it includes more than 58,900 cases. But the real number of incidents is certainly higher. In November, Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin said that the Ukrainian authorities have gathered evidence of around 109,000 suspected Russian war crimes. On the sidelines of last month’s Halifax International Security Forum, Oleksandra Matviichuk sat down with Eilish Hart, the editor of Meduza’s The Beet newsletter, to discuss the ins and outs of pursuing justice in wartime. This interview has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.
This interview first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.
Eilish Hart: You’ve been monitoring Russian human rights violations and war crimes in Ukraine for nearly 10 years now, and I know you’ve personally gathered testimonies from victims of these crimes. How important are these testimonies in terms of actually prosecuting war crimes in a court of law?
Oleksandra Matviichuk: Documentation has several goals. First, for us as human rights lawyers, it’s important to document the stories of people affected by this war for justice [purposes] and to document the fact of a crime [having been committed]. Right now, the Tribunal for Putin initiative’s database has more than 56,000 episodes of war crimes that took place during the period of the large-scale invasion.
This is a very essential ground for further investigation, and that’s why we opened our database. We provide information to the International Criminal Court and cooperate with national law enforcement bodies. We also provide information to the U.N. commission of inquiry created by the Human Rights Council, and we work with the OSCE Moscow Mechanism and all other international institutions that do investigations or provide assessments of the situation on the ground. We hope that in the future this will result in a legal process that will end with a [ruling] that provides a possibility for victims of this war to restore their rights.
But documentation has other goals, one of which is returning the truth. Because this war also has an informational dimension and Russian propaganda is extremely powerful. Russia prepared for this war for a long time, and it has a huge network of [TV] channels, journalists, money flows, etc. in different countries. That’s why if we want to return the truth about what’s going on we have to make additional efforts.
The third goal is preserving historical memory. According to scientists, [oral history] exists only between three generations and then it disappears. Only senses and stories that are preserved in a special way can transfer to other generations. I think the main [points] are that war is horrible and each person’s life matters, but also that we as Ukrainians didn’t choose this war. Russia started this unprovoked invasion, but in these dramatic times a lot of people [show] their best features. This sense of what it means to be a human being during war, when you risk your life to save others whom you’ve never even met before, that’s something that we have to transfer to the generations that will come after us.
There’s a lot of different groups working to document war crimes in Ukraine right now — not just Ukrainian investigators, but human rights groups like your own and also investigative journalists. In your view, do these efforts complement each other? Or is this a situation where there’s just a lot of disparate information?
We are in the course of the war and you can’t synchronize everything properly because the war is destructive. It does huge damage to all social institutes and the [fabric] of society, but we try to cooperate. As I mentioned before, we provide information to law enforcement bodies, and we try to coordinate with other initiatives and groups that do documentation work.
The problem is that because Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare — to try and break people’s resistance and occupy the country by inflicting immense pain on civilians — we all have a lot of work to do. But sooner or later, everything that we have documented ideally has to be gathered in one place. Because when you do an investigation, you have to build links between cases, especially when we’re speaking about concrete perpetrators who could be involved in not just different cases in one region, but different cases in different regions (when Russian troops moved from the Kyiv region to the Kharkiv region, for example). It’s important to have everything [in one place] in order to be able to make these links.
Ukraine held its first war crimes trial in May 2022, just months into the full-scale war. Why was it so important for Ukraine to begin prosecuting war crimes while the war is still going on?
I think from a human point of view, it’s about [regaining] control over the situation. The large-scale invasion meant that everything you would call “normal life” disappeared in one moment and you lost control over everything. You can’t plan not just your day but your next several hours because you never know when the next Russian air attack will start. This trial showed that we can fix this problem: We [couldn’t] stop this crime from being committed, but we will take back control over the process of investigation and justice, which restores the victims’ rights.
I used this human aspect to answer your question and not the judicial aspect because I think this explains why, when they were asked in a sociological survey last autumn what would be the [biggest] disappointment for you after the war ends, the vast majority of Ukrainians (65 percent) answered that the biggest disappointment would be impunity for Russian war crimes.
Is there a judicial aspect to why you would begin prosecuting while the war is still going on?
The interests of justice tell you that you have to do it without any delay. If you have enough evidence and you can submit the case to court, why wait for the end of the war? But from the practical point of view, justice also has a very important “freezing effect.”
When I interviewed people who survived Russian captivity, they told me that the perpetrators were confident that they would never be prosecuted and punished because Russia committed horrible war crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, Syria, Libya, and other countries, and has never been punished for it. This impunity has become a part of Russian culture. Because culture is not just literature or ballet, culture is the senses and patterns present in society.
I think that when we’re able to start legal proceedings — ideally on an international level, not just on the national level in Ukraine — and show that justice will be accomplished sooner or later, it can have a freezing effect on the brutality of Russian human rights violations. Even if a part of the Russian military starts to worry that this time they probably won’t avoid responsibility [for war crimes], it can save thousands and thousands of lives during the large-scale war.
The Clooney Foundation recently filed three cases with federal prosecutors in Germany to investigate alleged crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. What difference does it make to file cases like this outside of Ukraine?
A lot of countries have a provision of universal jurisdiction in their criminal courts, which means that they can prosecute international crimes regardless of where and against whom these crimes were committed. This is the nature of international crimes: these are the most serious violations against human beings and that’s why there’s this idea that the entire international community has to prosecute and stop them, not just a [specific] national government.
Germany has this provision and one of the cases the Clooney Foundation submitted used materials from our database. I also know that German lawyers submitted previous cases about sexual violence to the prosecutor general’s office, so there are at least four cases awaiting decisions in Germany.
I think there are two aspects to this story: the legal aspect and the informational aspect. When we talk about the legal aspect, we have to acknowledge that the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office has officially registered [more than] 100,000 criminal proceedings and it’s impossible to investigate such a huge number of [war] crimes, even for the best national system in the world. [Opening] four cases in Germany doesn’t make a huge difference when you compare it to 100,000, but it makes a huge difference for the victims in these cases.
Then there’s also a very important informational aspect because it’s domestic justice, which will be held in the German language and can be covered by German media. German citizens have more trust in German courts than courts in Ukraine, so this provides an opportunity for society in Germany to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of these crimes and the pain behind these stories.
Can you tell me a bit about the case that you helped submit evidence for?
I can’t give you those details because I didn’t work with the Clooney Foundation, but I can give you an example of a case that we documented.
Let’s take the case of 13-year-old Yelisey Ryabokon. In March of last year, [Yelisey], his mother, and three-year-old brother tried to hide from the large-scale war in a village [in the Kyiv region]. They thought that being in a village would probably be much safer, but unfortunately, they miscalculated. The Russians occupied their village, and because of the explosions, they had to hide in a basement without water, electricity, food, and proper facilities. [Yelisey’s] mother asked the occupation authorities to allow her to take her children to a safer place by car. Finally, the Russians agreed, and they even waved to them, as though wishing them goodbye.
But when the cars with women and children started to leave the village, the Russian [soldiers] suddenly opened fire. Some children and women were killed, among them this 13-year-old, Yelisey Ryabokon. His mother said that everyone who survived was obliged to return to the village. [At first] the Russians didn’t allow them to [collect] her dead son’s body. Then later, they wouldn’t let them bury the dead in the cemetery. So she buried her son in the garden near her house. She said the only thing she has left from her son is a red hat, which was cut by shrapnel, and a white shirt because they all wore white t-shirts over top of their jackets to show that they were civilians. These are the kinds of stories we document.
The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova over their alleged complicity in the illegal deportations of children from Ukraine’s occupied territories. Why do you think the ICC chose this as its first case linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? And do you believe that Putin and other Russian officials might someday be held accountable for crimes like these?
I have no doubt that they will [be held accountable] because I think it’s our historical responsibility to break the cycle of impunity that Russia has enjoyed for decades. We have to ruin this basis of Russian culture: once again, it’s a long-lasting tradition.
After World War II, Nazi war criminals were tried for the crimes they committed. But Soviet [totalitarianism] was never condemned, and [no one was] tried for the atrocities they committed against their own citizens. So it’s no surprise that while many countries that suffered or were involved in World War II commemorate the day it ended with the slogan “Never again,” Russia commemorates it with the slogan, “We can [do it again].” If you don’t break the cycle of impunity, this story will be repeated again and again. The only question is, who will be Russia’s next target? What country and what nation?
[As for why the ICC chose this as its first case], I think there’s probably a number of factors. First, it’s a really serious crime on a huge scale. Ukrainian authorities have identified [more than] 19,000 children, but the Russian authorities said about 700,000 [were taken from Ukraine]. It’s very obvious that we’re speaking about a crime on a huge scale, and it’s being committed against the most vulnerable group: children. But I also think that it’s because for this crime it was much easier to build the chain of command from the executors to the top political leadership of the Russian state because Putin publicly confessed his involvement in this crime, together with his children’s commissioner Maria Lvova-Belova, who “adopted” a Ukrainian boy, Filipp.
I think these are probably the [main] factors, but I could be wrong. What we know for sure is that this isn’t the last case the International Criminal Court will open in [response to] Russia’s war against Ukraine.
But also, because they’re children, it creates a huge [amount] of pain in Ukrainian society. Ukrainian society treats [all] children as our children, and that’s probably because of the genocidal aspect of this war. When you take children from one national group and transfer them to another one — when you re-educate these children as Russians, erase their identity, and bring them up in Russian families — this is something people [become] very conscious of. This understanding that [Russia] wants to destroy us as a nation, and that’s why they take our children and try to re-educate Ukrainian children as Russians.
Does a case like this lay the groundwork for prosecuting the crime of genocide?
The International Criminal Court qualified [the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children] as a war crime. But I’m sure that it’s not just a war crime: it’s an element of Russia’s genocidal policy. The crime of genocide has a very high standard of proof and it’s very difficult to [prosecute] because you have to prove genocidal intent (that all these actions were done with intent to partially or completely destroy some national group), but I think we have evidence that can prove it.
There’s also these genocidal claims from the top Russian leadership and Russian propagandists. And there’s Vladimir Putin’s public claims that there is no Ukrainian nation, that we [Ukrainians] are Russians, and that there is no Ukrainian language or culture. And we can see how on Russian state TV these words were reformulated as “Ukrainians have to be either re-educated as Russians or killed.”
And later we see how this idea was implemented on the ground because Russians transfer Ukrainian children to Russia, they ban Ukrainian language and culture, they persecute people who express some pro-Ukrainian sympathies, they deliberately exterminate [community leaders] — not just mayors or local deputies, but journalists, priests, artists. So, putting everything together, I think we have solid evidence to prove that there is this intent to partially or completely destroy [the Ukrainian] nation.
But I think this isn’t the main problem at the moment because, while we are debating about the crime of genocide, we forget the historical lesson that genocide doesn’t happen in one day. There are a lot of signs that appear beforehand, like in the case of Rwanda. And I’m afraid that, [if] we aren’t able to stop Russia and the atrocities that Russia is committing in Ukraine, we could reach a point where even the most severe critics will have no doubt that this is a genocide — and I don’t want to reach this point.
You’ve argued that Ukraine’s Western allies need to redefine their goals in terms of supporting Ukrainian victory. Do you think the same can be said about the international community’s involvement in investigating and prosecuting Russian war crimes and other violations of international law?
I think that it’s a part of my [argument] that we have to redefine the goal and help Ukraine to win. Because this war has a value dimension, as well. Putin tried to convince [people] that democracy, rule of law, and human rights are fake values because they couldn’t protect anyone during the war. So, we have to win this value dimension and prove that Putin was wrong. And in order to do this, we can’t just quote the norms of the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have to show something essential, and this is justice.
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