‘There isn’t a rational explanation for torture’ Oleksandra Matviichuk, who founded Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, speaks about tracking Russian war crimes in Ukraine and sharing a Nobel Peace Prize with peers from Russia and Belarus

Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) was one of the three laureates that shared the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. Founded by the human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk, the NGO was honored for its outstanding work documenting war crimes, human rights violations, and abuses of power, chiefly in Ukraine, but often extending beyond its territory. Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the center’s database grew to hundreds of thousands of records describing wartime atrocities committed by the invading military. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke with Oleksandra Matviichuk about how human rights advocates collect information, cope with stress, and collaborate with their peers in Russia.

— How did you become a human rights advocate?

When I was still in high school, I met the Ukrainian writer and philosopher . He took me under his wing and introduced me to other Ukrainian dissidents. The example of those people — who had the courage to speak what they thought, and to live as they spoke, in their struggle against the totalitarian Soviet machine — inspired me to apply to law school, so that I could also defend human dignity and freedom.

In 2007, the Helsinki Commission for Human Rights proposed setting up аn NGO in Kyiv, to monitor rights and liberties not just at the national level, but also going beyond Ukraine’s immediate state borders. At that time, Ukraine looked like an exception among the neighboring states. Russia was already passing new repressive legislation. In Ukraine, though, after the Orange Revolution, the government was trying to enact some democratic reforms. You could breathe easier there, and it was easier to work.

This is how the Center for Civil Liberties came into being. I was its first director, and I must admit that those who inspired us to establish it had been mistaken about scope. In a few years, Viktor Yanukovich became president and set to work on a power vertical, smothering all freethinking. So, instead of working at an international level, as we’d envisioned, CCL had to give more and more attention to rights and liberties in Ukraine proper.

At that time, Ukraine was literally duplicating the Russian legislation. When Russian human rights activists called their State Duma a “crazed printer,” we told them we had a “crazed copy machine.” Whenever Russia passed new legislation, it would resurface after a while in our own country, in the shape of legislative proposals.

— In 2014, CCL became the first human-rights organization to send mobile groups to Crimea and the Donbas. What did you encounter there?

We dispatched our first mobile group in late February 2014, when the so-called “green men” started appearing around Crimea. Russia and Putin personally denied that these were their combatants. At the time, we didn’t even realize this was the start of a war. It was the time of the Revolution of Dignity. We slept for three or four hours a night, because our new initiative, Euromaidan-SOS, was getting hundreds of reports from people who had been beaten, tortured, or prosecuted on fabricated charges. We had neither time nor energy for reflection.

Later, in April 2014, when Igor Girkin-Strelkov started gaining notoriety, I got a call from a colleague in the Russian human rights center Memorial (which has since been dissolved). I remember him saying, “Sasha, our death squads have come to your country.” That phrase struck me as something that belongs in a novel. It was all the more strange to hear it from that particular person, who is usually very restrained. He has worked in numerous war zones in the past. But then we started seeing cases: disappearances, torture, extrajudicial killings in Russian-occupied territories… And I finally understood what he’d meant.

Russian FSB agent Olga Kulygina in Slovyansk, May 2, 2014
Igor Strelkov (second from left) in Slovyansk, 2014

— After February 24, 2022, you got multiple local human rights organizations involved in documenting the Russian war crimes. How does this work?

We pooled our resources together with dozens of organizations, mostly regional, in an initiative called Tribunal for Putin. We set an ambitious goal of documenting every criminal episode that took place in each village, down to the smallest ones, in every part of Ukraine.

Apart from the practices we had documented before — unlawful detentions, abductions, civilian torture, and killings — we were now dealing with all kinds of crimes against humanity: unlawful deportations, executions, and the use of prohibited weapons in densely populated areas.

We interview witnesses and victims in liberated territories and monitor the still-occupied territories. We also check open-source data. Our database now has over 49,000 records of international crimes, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

— How do you find witnesses?

You would have to ask members of the mobile groups who worked in liberated regions like Kyiv, Kharkiv, or Kherson. They had no trouble finding either victims or witnesses because you can come to any village, and something will have happened there. Every village has this huge amount of pain. It’s human suffering we document.

— How do human rights monitors cope with their work?

There are some things you just can’t prepare for. I still haven’t found the words to explain what it’s like to live amid a full-scale invasion. It’s a total rupture of social fabrics and structures. Everything you thought was just part of normal life crumbles. Things you took for granted vanish. You lose control over your life because you can’t make any plans, even for the next few hours, since there might be an air-raid alert at any moment. So you just keep working, even as you realize that neither you nor your loved ones have any safe place to hide from Russian missiles.

Kyiv on the first day of the full-scale invasion, February 24, 2022

Every person has limits. I never interview children, for example — I just don’t think I could do it. I have a lot of empathy in general, and when it comes to kids… But lots of my peers work in children’s rights advocacy. It’s thanks to their work that I know the story of a little boy who lived in Mariupol with his mom. While the Russian army was steadily demolishing their city, he and his mother were in a bomb shelter. The boy still got wounded. He couldn’t walk, and his mother, who had also been wounded, managed to drag him off to some safe place. And she died there, in his arms. I just don’t know how anybody can survive something like that.

— How hard is it to document sexualized violence?

These are considered “crimes of shame,” because victims of sexualized violence often cannot talk about what happened, either to law enforcement or to human rights advocates. The first thing these people need is to recover. Later, they can decide whether they want to testify and take action on their case.

I’ve interviewed people who had been kept in detention together, in the occupied parts of the country. Witnesses would talk to me about recurrent rapes, but the victims themselves couldn’t speak a word about that sexualized violence, even though they’d describe other kinds of torture, down to the most terrifying details.

Sexualized crimes target the whole community: their victims feel ashamed; the victims’ loved ones feel guilt since they couldn’t prevent what happened; and everyone else feels fear since they can also be victimized. This decreases the group’s overall capacity for resistance.

In March 2022, we wrote a booklet for the survivors of this type of violence, and it had a section that really speaks to our current reality. We wrote it in consultation with Ukrainian gynecologists. It was about how to help yourself if you’ve been raped in occupied territory and can’t even get to the doctor.

— What about the people who were captured by the Russian military?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people since 2014. People who had their nails pulled out and their knees shattered, people who had been hammered into wooden boxes, people whose tattoos had been cut off their bodies and who had their limbs cut off, or who had electric cables put to their genitals. Anything the Russian military and secret services could imagine — they did it, just because they could. This defies explanation. There isn’t a rational explanation for torture. But this defies even irrational explanation.

A torture dungeon set up by the Russian military. Kozacha Lopan, Kharkiv region, Ukraine. September 17, 2022.
Exhumed bodies at a cemetery. Bucha, Kyiv region, Ukraine. April 7, 2022.

One man told me that he still keeps hearing the crackling of scotch tape. Where he was being held, the captors immobilized people with tape before beating them. Some people say the hardest part was not being tortured but hearing others, when people begged to be killed instead of suffering like that. I’ve heard about a father and his son, who were tortured in front of one another, to make it even more painful.

The common denominator in all cases of torture is this: the Russians did it simply because they could.

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bohdanivka

‘I can do whatever I want to you’ Russian soldiers raped and murdered Ukrainian civilians in the village of Bohdanivka

— How do you track what happens to Ukrainians in occupied territories, or people who were taken to Russia’s temporary housing facilities, orphanages, and jails?

It’s not always possible to do this by legal means, but there’s also human connection. People who want to help, who are trying to save someone — there are people like that everywhere, in occupied parts of Ukraine and in Russia, too. We also have all the latest digital tools, which probably make this the best-documented war ever. They don’t even have to be present in person to identify criminals. This is something that the perpetrators themselves don’t quite grasp.

— How do you explain the Russian military’s cruelty?

War crimes are part and parcel of how Russia engages in warfare. They deliberately terrorize civilians to break down resistance. They instrumentalize human suffering in this way. When I studied in law school, we were told that this is a hallmark of weak armies that don’t feel secure and in control.

The Russian army also committed war crimes in Chechnya, Georgia, Mali, Syria, and the Central African Republic — without ever really being punished. This culture of impunity makes them think that they can do anything to people.

— Do you track the war crimes committed by the Ukrainian army?

We track all war crimes, regardless of who commits them. This has been our position since 2014. It would be strange if we didn’t do this as human rights advocates. But because we’ve documented everything since February 24, 2022, in a single database, I can say with absolute certainty that the Russian military has committed most of the crimes on record. But you don’t measure human rights in percentages. Every single violation is terrible.

War presents a massive challenge to our value systems, but Ukrainian society still has some capacity to intervene: to prosecute, to publicize, and to allow international organizations to visit its POWs. I’m not trying to say that everything works smoothly: We’re a country in transition, and our justice and law-enforcement systems are still reforming after the fall of the authoritarian regime. But at least we have these possibilities, while Russia doesn’t.

— You have said that there isn’t an international court that could hold Putin responsible for the crimes of his regime. What did you mean by that?

This is a really interesting question. The Russian regime being what it is, the so-called developed democracies spent decades averting their eyes from what Russia was doing at home all that time: persecuting the press, jailing the activists, suppressing the protests. And they kept shaking hands with Putin, doing business as usual, building the gas pipelines. But when evil goes unpunished, it grows.

Why doesn’t the International Criminal Court have any jurisdiction while Russia commits all kinds of crimes — war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and military aggression? This is because the countries of the Rome Statute have defined aggression too narrowly, forfeiting their right to interfere. It isn’t Putin who stands in their way; this is their own responsibility.

— Will the ICC’s arrest warrant for Putin be enough to ensure that he faces justice?

Putin cannot travel to South Africa anymore, since its authorities have a duty to arrest him. I realize that they don’t particularly want to act on this special duty, but the fact is that they have to. This is to say that even people who might prefer to engage in “business as usual” must recognize that they are shaking hands with a formally indicted war criminal. Some people say that Putin doesn’t need to shake hands with anyone. But personally, I think this does matter to him and his pathologically inflated ego.

History tells us that authoritarian regimes crumble in the end and that their leaders, who once considered themselves untouchable, ultimately face justice in court. Serbia, for example, didn’t want to deliver Radovan Karadžić or Slobodan Milošević — they were its national heroes. But when it had to rebuild civil relations with other countries, it finally had to comply.

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— What changes to international law would make it easier to hold the perpetrators of war crimes responsible?

Before changing the law, we need to change our way of thinking. Of course, the justice system itself can be improved, but even the system already in place isn’t working because politicians continue to view the world through the optics of the Nuremberg trials, which condemned the Nazi leadership — that is, the leadership of an already-defunct regime. This was a very important step for the past century, but we are living in a new century when it’s time to stop subordinating international justice to authoritarian regimes.

We must demonstrate that when someone commits international crimes, they will be held responsible, regardless of their regime’s size and nuclear arsenal. I think of this as the historic task of our generation, and how we address this will determine what kind of world we will inhabit in the future.

— Does the Nobel Prize help your work?

The Nobel Prize helps us have our voices heard. Human rights advocates from our region were ignored in the past, even though we’ve said the exact same thing for decades. For decades, we’ve been saying that a country that violates the rights of its own citizens is a danger to its neighbors and the rest of the world.

— Many Ukrainians objected to the Nobel Prize going to human rights advocates from three countries: Ukraine and the two countries with which Ukraine is at war.

When you see a headline with three words, “Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus,” separated by commas, this immediately brings back the fusty Soviet memories of “fraternal nations,” together with the feeling of being coerced back into that threesome. Of course, everyone has grasped by now that there weren’t any “fraternal nations” in the USSR, where one nation, one language, and one culture dominated all the rest. The others could make presentations at ethnic festivals.

Of course, in wartime, when Russia and Belarus are acting as aggressors while Ukraine has to defend itself, the triple award alienated some people. We, for our part, have tried to convey that the prize honors people rather than their countries, and those people have been working together for a very long time. Both before and after 2014, we worked very closely with Russian human rights activists. We share the same vocation with them, and the same framework of values.

When we were just starting out with human rights monitoring in Crimea and the Donbas, we relied on the experience of joint mobile groups that previously worked in Chechnya. I remember calling my Russian colleagues, asking them, “Do you have any materials? Instructions? Questionnaires? We’re sending in our people who will have to work on wheels.”

And mind you, thousands of our civilians are now jailed in Russia. Where we don’t have any access, our work is done with the help of Russian human rights defenders.

— After more than nine years of monitoring Russia’s human rights violations and war crimes, do you sometimes feel helpless?

“Helpless” is how Russia would like us to feel. The feeling of helplessness determines the whole modus operandi of Russian society itself. It shows up in statements like “well, what are we going to do,” “the government knows better,” “we don’t know all the facts,” and “I’m just a cog in the machine.” In reality, this is a craven position and doesn’t save anyone from responsibility. The appropriate position is resistance.

When the full-scale invasion started, it wasn’t just Putin who thought he’d capture Kyiv in three days. Our international partners thought so, too. No one believed in us, but this struggle for our freedom was the Ukrainian people’s decision, and the people turned out to be much stronger than they thought. So, when the so-called ordinary people get mobilized en masse, this can change history.

Reserves and reservations Combat within the Robotyne–Verbove–Novoprokopivka triangle may well determine the outcome of Ukraine’s entire summer campaign

Reserves and reservations Combat within the Robotyne–Verbove–Novoprokopivka triangle may well determine the outcome of Ukraine’s entire summer campaign

Interview by Lilia Yapparova. Translated by Anna Razumnaya.

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