Ukrainian Nobel laureate demands new approach for wartime justice

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine.
Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, which won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, outside her office in Kyiv, Ukraine.

KYIV, Ukraine – Ukraine and its global supporters must radically rethink how to secure justice for thousands of victims of Russian war crimes, a co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize said, by expanding the International Criminal Court and overhauling the lumbering, cumbersome system that has often failed to bring accountability after conflicts in Yugoslavia, Africa and the Middle East.

The new Nobel laureate, Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer whose Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) was among a trio of rights defenders awarded the Peace Prize last week, said in an interview with The Washington Post that it is no longer acceptable that only a tiny share of wartime crimes are adjudicated while thousands, or even millions, go unaddressed by the global justice system.

“We have to change our vision,” Matviichuk said in the interview, her first since the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement last week. She said that the world cannot wait until after Russia’s war to seize vast swaths of Ukrainian territory concludes to deliver restitution for victims, as occurred with the Nuremberg prosecutions of Nazi war criminals in Germany following World War II.

Cases at the ICC and stand-alone tribunals like the one set up after the Balkans war proceeded slowly. Some of those indicted or sought for prosecution have remained out of reach for years. In 2006, former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic died at a U.N. prison while undergoing a lengthy trial for genocide.

“We live in a new century and we must go further,” Matviichuk said, adding that Russia should not be allowed to delay investigations and judicial proceedings either by intimidation on the battlefield, or by wielding its veto in the United Nations Security Council. “Justice cannot be dependent on the magnitude of the Putin regime’s power.”

Matviichuk recommended expanding the capacity of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the “Joint Investigative Team” – a European Union-led mechanism by which multiple countries can team up for cross-border criminal investigations. She also called for the creation of a special international tribunal to help Ukrainian courts manage what is expected to be a massive caseload of alleged war crimes by Russia.

Those efforts, Matviichuk said, could serve as “a boost to the national system, like a vaccine.” Eventually, she said she hoped that Ukraine can establish something akin to the truth and reconciliation committees that countries such as South Africa and Peru created to work through their own dark histories.

Matviichuk said that such efforts would be crucial in helping Ukraine close what she called a dangerous “accountability gap.”

Speaking in CCL’s modest office in central Kyiv, Matviichuk described the group’s efforts to document human rights abuses beginning in 2013, when then President Viktor Yanukovych led a crackdown on pro-European demonstrators in Kyiv.

After Russia invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014 and began fomenting a pro-Russian separatist war in the eastern Donbas region, the group pivoted to chronicling kidnappings and abuses in those areas.

That effort accelerated dramatically after Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, subjecting cities like Mariupol to indiscriminate bombing, displacing millions, and seizing control of territories that Russia now claims to have annexed – in violation of international law.

Since then, CCL has recorded details of some 21,000 incidents of alleged war crimes or crimes against humanity, relying on a network of regional groups and volunteers who field reports from across Ukraine.

Matviichuk and her colleagues at CCL are well familiar with the difficulties of trying to achieve justice.

After years of referring alleged incidents of sexual assault, torture and forced disappearances to state authorities and outside organizations including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Matviichuk said she and her colleagues grew frustrated that such abuses continued to occur.

And in the interview she grew emotional recalling the trial of a 21-year-old Russian sergeant who was sentenced to life imprisonment in May for the killing of Oleksandr Shelipov, a Ukrainian man shot in February while pushing his bicycle, unarmed, near his home.

During the trial, Shelipov’s distraught widow confronted the soldier and demanded to know why he had come to Ukraine. “He was an ordinary farmer, but he was her whole universe,” Matviichuk said of Shelipov.

“At that moment I understood that we need to find a way to provide justice for each victim, regardless of who they are, regardless of the type of crime . . . regardless whether or not the media is interested in their cases,” she said.

While that case reflected Ukrainian government prosecutors’ desire to telegraph that Russian war crimes would be punished, experts agree it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for Ukrainian courts to address crimes on the scale of what has already occurred in nearly eight months of war.

CCL was honored with the peace prize alongside Russian human rights group Memorial, which was abolished last year, and imprisoned Belarusian activist Ales Bialiatski. It marked the first time a Nobel has gone to a Ukrainian person or organization.

The awards represented a sharp rebuke to President Vladimir Putin one year after the committee awarded the Peace Prize to the editor of an independent Russian newspaper.

Just three days after the prize was awarded, Russia launched a barrage of missile strikes on central Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, killing some 20 people in an attack Putin said was retribution for an explosion on a strategic bridge. Those strikes hit civilian infrastructure targets, including power plants across the country, which is a potential war crime.

Stephen Rapp, who served as envoy for global criminal justice during the Obama administration, said that even a layered approach involving Ukrainian and international courts would likely fall far short in trying to adjudicate every abuse committed during Russia’s war.

One major challenge, he said, would be securing custody of alleged perpetrators or planners of war crimes who, with the exception of captured soldiers, would likely be in Russia – far beyond those courts’ reach.

“She’s right to demand it,” Rapp said of Matviichuk. “What the political people and the government people that have limited resources have to do is work out a strategy to get as close as possible to that as you can.”

Rebecca Hamilton, who served as a lawyer at the ICC and now teaches law at American University, said the odds of achieving broad accountability might be higher in Ukraine because of the intense global focus on the war, which she attributed in part to systemic racism, linked to the fact the war is unfolding in Europe rather than in the global south.

Ukraine may be the best case scenario for what international criminal accountability can offer,” Hamilton said. “And yet, for many survivors it may still not be good enough.”

Immediately after receiving the news from the Nobel Committee – which she got shortly before boarding a train to Kyiv from Warsaw following a working visit to New York – Matviichuk issued a public call for Russia to be expelled from the United Nations Security Council.

While more than 140 countries voted at the U.N. General Assembly this week in support of a resolution demanding that Moscow reverse its annexation of four more Ukrainian regions, Moscow has used its veto power at the Security Council to block any legally binding measures there.

Ukrainians have frequently called for Russia to be stripped of its seat, which they believe Moscow unjustly inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and because of its use of aggressive military force in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and elsewhere.

“This leads to a situation when Russians start to believe they can do whatever they wanted,” Matviichuk said. “We must break the cycle of impunity, not only for Ukraine, but for other countries.”

While some Ukrainians criticized the Nobel committee for jointly recognizing rights defenders in Belarus and Russia, Matviichuk described a common fight that human rights defenders were waging across the three countries. “This is about humans, not about countries,” she said.

Matviichuk, who described herself as an empathetic person, acknowledged that years of documenting the worst of humanity had taken its own emotional toll on her and her colleagues at CCL. “I believe in human dignity,” she said.

She recalled one attempt to toughen herself up, when in 2014 she jointly wrote a report about abductions and abuses in occupied areas of Ukraine. She volunteered to oversee the chapter on torture, immersing herself in reports of victims who were beaten and raped, their fingernails pulled out, and genitalia shocked with electricity.

“I understood that it’s a long marathon, and I needed to be prepared,” she said. But, she added: “Frankly speaking, you couldn’t be prepared for such kind of atrocities.”