Her name is largely associated with the demand for justice for war crimes committed in Ukraine. In her constant calls through international media, she explains that the demand for accountability is not only moral. If the perpetrators start to get the message that the international community is becoming aware and organizing to track them down, lives will be saved. The fear of retribution will act as a deterrent on the battlefield. That is why Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of the Center for Civil Rights, has mobilized all her resources to collect evidence of the crimes and identify the individuals who committed them. The organization for which the Ukrainian lawyer works was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022. She explains to Kathimerini the difficulty, but also the need to bring justice to the victims of war crimes.
What motivated you to get involved in documenting war crimes in Ukraine?
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 on the initiative of the heads of Helsinki committees from different countries. We have been defending human rights for the past 15 years. To this end, we engage many people in our programs, campaigns and initiatives. After all, if human rights protection is left solely to lawyers or diplomats, it is difficult to achieve strategic changes. The war has adjusted our priorities. We were the first human rights organization to send mobile teams to document war crimes in the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. These mobile teams were staffed by volunteers with special training in documentation and security.
Currently, the Center for Civil Liberties team is documenting war crimes together with other organizations of the “Tribunal for Putin” initiative. We have set an ambitious goal to recreate the chronology of war crimes, starting from February 24 in the smallest settlements of each region. To do this, human rights activists use various methods: face-to-face communication with witnesses and victims, working with open sources, and digital tools for recording crimes. The key motivation is to ensure justice for hundreds of thousands of victims of war crimes. We strive to use every opportunity to ensure that justice for war victims and the punishment of war criminals is high on the international agenda and is enforced by international law.
What are the most serious cases of war crimes you have documented and in which areas were they carried out?
As a human rights activist, I document war crimes and crimes against humanity in this war that Russia started in 2014. Since the full-scale invasion, we have faced an unprecedented number of war crimes. Russian troops are deliberately destroying residential buildings, churches, schools and hospitals, shelling evacuation corridors, coordinating a system of filtration camps, conducting forced deportations, and kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing people in the occupied territories.
We see that all these crimes are systemic; they were committed in the Kyiv region, Kharkiv region, Mykolaiv region, and Odesa region, and today they continue to be committed in the Kherson region and other occupied territories. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Tribunal for Putin initiative has already documented almost 38,000 war crimes. To date, the largest number of crimes have been recorded in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Chernihiv and Zaporizhzhia regions, with 3,253 cases documented in Mariupol alone. It is a deliberate policy. Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare. Russia wants to break the resistance and occupy the country through the excruciating pain of civilians. We are documenting this pain.
I talked to a hundred people who survived the captivity. They told me that they were beaten, raped, electrocuted through the genitals, had their nails pulled out, had their knees drilled, and were forced to write with their own blood. A woman described how they gouged out her eye with a spoon. There is no military justification for such actions. The Russians did it only because they could. I work with people who have been through hell, and I know for sure that in addition to restoring their destroyed lives, families, and visions of the future, these people need to believe that justice exists. Even if it is postponed in time. And this is important not only for Ukraine. Because it is not a war between two countries but between two systems – authoritarianism and democracy. It is not NATO that Putin is afraid of, Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom.
These crimes should not remain only in our archives or in the reports of international organizations. War turns people into numbers. The sheer scale of international crimes is so massive that it is impossible to tell all the stories.
‘I work with people who have been through hell, and I know for sure that in addition to restoring their destroyed lives, people need to believe that justice exists’
I will tell you one story. Shortly after the invasion began on February 24, a 62-year-old civilian, Oleksandr Shelipov, was killed by the Russian military near his home. The tragedy was widely publicized in the media only because it was the first trial of Russian war criminals after February 24. In court, Oleksandr’s wife, Kateryna, said that her husband was an ordinary farmer, but he was like a whole universe to her, and now she has lost everything. And that is the key to justice. We must ensure justice for all victims of international crimes. Regardless of who they are, their social status, the type of crime and brutality they suffered, and whether the media and society are interested in their case. We must give people their names back. Because every person’s life matters.
In what ways do you determine a war crime and how do you collect the evidence, especially on an active battlefield?
When the large-scale conflict in the region started, we united other efforts with dozens of regional organizations and we built a Ukrainian network of local documentarians. And that is why we are able to send local documentation for the place of crime when something happens. They made their own photos and videos, speak with people and collect testimonies. It depends on where the crime is being committed because Russian troops deliberately bomb residential buildings, schools, churches and hospitals – attack evacuation corridors, or manage ration camp systems, organize forced deportations and commit murder, tortures, rapes and abductions in the occupied territories. So, when we speak about the controlled part by the Ukrainian government, which is far from the battlezone, it is easier for us to send people to work on the ground, but when we speak about documentation on the occupied territories, it is a very difficult job, because these people who collect information there can be subjected to illegal detention and torture.
What are the barriers while undertaking your work?
We document a tremendous number of crimes that the Russian Federation continues to commit. And it really frustrates us because when you interview a person who survived captivity, and they share with you the horrific things that happened to them, that they witnessed, you realize that at this very second, the same things are happening to other people, and you cannot stop it.
To investigate such a large number of crimes efficiently, Ukraine needs the international community’s support. First, the UN and its member-states should reform the international peace and security system to create guarantees for all countries and their citizens, regardless of their participation or non-participation in military alliances or forces. Russia should be expelled from the UN Security Council for its systematic violations of the UN Charter. Second, the UN and its member-states must address the “accountability gap” and ensure that hundreds of thousands of war crimes victims have a chance at justice. Without this, sustainable peace in our region is impossible. This requires a comprehensive justice strategy and an international tribunal to bring Putin, Lukashenko and other war criminals to justice. I am counting on the support of the legal community in different countries in our bid for justice. After all, it is not only about the future of Ukraine. This war has a value dimension. And Putin is trying to convince everyone that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are fictitious and only physical force matters. We have to prove that the rule of law is a value that works.
The International Criminal Court does not have the authority to try Russia for the crime of aggression. We need an additional international mechanism that would bring the leadership of Russia and Belarus to justice for the aggression. Therefore, Ukraine calls for establishing a special tribunal to address the crime of aggression against Ukraine.
Did you feel satisfied with the issuance of an arrest warrant for President Putin?
I welcome this arrest warrant. This decision of the international criminal court to issue an arrest warrant against Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova is a historical decision because it is the first in the history of the international criminal court – to make such a decision against the person who is currently head of the state, a security council member and has nuclear power – this is a signal for the whole world that rule of law matters and it has to be dominated against the brutal force which Putin tries to spread.
How can we support the victims of the war in Ukraine?
In the 21st century, justice should not depend on the strength of Putin’s authoritarian regime or the end of hostilities. We must not wait. When you work with people, and they recount the heinous crimes committed by the Russian military, it obliges you. It makes you realize that in addition to restoring their destroyed health, families and vision of the future, they also need to restore their faith that justice is possible, even if it is delayed.