Human rights defenders from Belarus, Russia and Ukraine will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Saturday afternoon.
Oleksandra Matviichuk (39), the head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Kyiv, is the only one of three co-laureates still able to document human rights abuses in the country where they are being committed.
Matviichuk spoke warmly of the others, the imprisoned Belarusian pro-democracy activist Ales Bialiatski, whose wife, Natallia Pinchuk, will receive the prize on his behalf, and Jan Rachinsky, the chair of the Russian group Memorial, which for more than three decades preserved the memory of victims of Soviet totalitarianism, until it was shut down by Vladimir Putin.
“I know them personally and they are good colleagues and friends,” Matviichuk says.
I interview Matviichuk by video link from Stockholm, which she visited earlier this month to receive the Right Livelihood Award, known as the alternative Nobel.
Matviichuk then travelled to Washington DC, where she received a Hillary Clinton Award at Georgetown University, along with three other Ukrainian women, including first lady Olena Zelenska.
Before returning to Kyiv, where she often has no water, electricity or internet, Matviichuk will on Saturday afternoon deliver a Nobel Lecture about the meaning of peace and the connection between peace and civil rights. This evening, she, Pinchuk and Rachinsky will salute a torchlit procession from the balcony of the Grand Hotel before attending the Nobel Banquet.
Matviichuk sees the Nobel as a unique opportunity to convince wavering Western leaders, who she says crave peace more than justice, that there can be no lasting peace without justice.
She is haunted by what she calls “the accountability gap”, the fact that Ukraine’s justice system cannot possibly prosecute all Russian war crimes. Working with a network of local and regional human rights groups, her centre has since last February documented 26,000 episodes of alleged war crimes.
If a special tribunal is established to try Russian war crimes, it will investigate only a few cases. “Who will provide justice for all the victims of this war who will not be lucky enough to be selected by the International Criminal Court?” Matviichuk asks. “This question is urgent for me, not only as a human rights lawyer, but as a human being. War turns people into numbers. Justice is a way to restore names to them.”
Only accountability alone can end Russian impunity, Matviichuk argues. “Atrocities in Ukraine are the result of the total impunity that Russia has enjoyed for decades. In Syria, the [mercenaries from the Russian] Wagner group recorded a video of themselves torturing, burning and beheading a man. They didn’t hide their faces. It was truly horrible.” Her Russian colleagues tried unsuccessfully to initiate criminal proceedings.
“Human rights defenders from Chechnya, Georgia, Syria and Libya told me, ‘Maybe you will be able to break this cycle of impunity. We failed. But maybe you can stop them.’”
Matviichuk credits Russian dissidents she met as a student in Kyiv with her political awakening. “They lived according to their principles,” she says. “They took on the Soviet machine and were persecuted and jailed. It had a huge impact on me.”
Matviichuk initially led a dual career, running the Center for Civil Liberties and acting as a lawyer for the Association of Ukrainian Banks. Repression under pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych convinced her that human rights were more important. She abandoned commercial law in 2011.
After Russia’s 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine, Matviichuk spent years documenting abuses there. “People were beaten, raped, crammed into wooden boxes. Their fingers were cut and their nails were torn off. They were tortured with drills and electricity.”
Painstaking documentation of such crimes went nowhere. “We sent numerous reports to the UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and the EU. Nothing changed ... International organisations did not work properly, so we relied on people, as we had during the revolution of dignity (the 2013-2014 Maidan protests). Ordinary people have more power than they imagine.”
Matviichuk and her team built an international network called Save Oleh Sentsov, after the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker, which held demonstrations in 35 countries. “It’s a success story, because the Russians released Sentsov and 34 other prisoners,” Matviichuk says. Sentsov is today fighting Russian invasion forces in eastern Ukraine.
We find genocidal intent when we listen to Putin and the propagandists who surround him. They openly say that Ukrainians have no right to exist, that we are the same people as Russians, that there is no Ukrainian language or culture— Oleksandra Matviichuk
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s assertion that Russia is carrying out genocide in Ukraine has prompted debate in the West. It is difficult to prove the intent to wipe out an entire people, Matviichuk admits, adding, “but we find genocidal intent when we listen to Putin and the propagandists who surround him. They openly say that Ukrainians have no right to exist, that we are the same people as Russians, that there is no Ukrainian language or culture”.
It is urgent, she says, “to find a way to stop the atrocities before even the most sceptical observers become convinced that Russia is committing genocide in Ukraine”.
On October 23rd, the Russia Today television presenter Anton Krasovsky said that Ukrainian children who saw Russians as occupiers in Soviet times should have been “thrown straight into a river with a strong current” and drowned. He also spoke of pushing children into huts and burning them, and joked about the rape of Ukrainian women. Krasovsky later apologised, but Ukrainian officials labelled his statements incitement to genocide.
Pavel Gubarev, a pro-Russian official in Donetsk, addressed Ukrainians in a video in October, saying, “We aren’t coming to kill you, but to convince you. But if you don’t want to be convinced, we’ll kill you. We’ll kill as many as we have to: one million, five million, or exterminate all of you.”
In all Russian-occupied territories, the modus operandi is the same, Matviichuk says. “First Russian tanks roll in. Then they fly banners quoting [the Russian poet] Pushkin, saying ‘This is Russian land’. They ban the Ukrainian language and the teaching of Russian history.”
Putin issued a presidential decree last April to honour the Russian 64th Motorised Brigade, which the Ukrainians blame for atrocities at Bucha, northwest of Kyiv. “It sent a strong signal to Russian troops that they can do whatever they want to,” Matviichuk says.
In Bucha, human rights workers and international media documented evidence of beheadings, dismemberment, rape, torture and indiscriminate killing of civilians.
“We found the same rape and torture chambers in Izyum and other cities of the Kharkiv region,” Matviichuk says. “We are finding horrible things now in Kherson. We cannot imagine the level of atrocities in Mariupol, which is still under occupation.”
When I tell her she seems a terribly sad and serious person, Matviichuk smiles. She could not have worked in human rights for more than 15 years if she were not an optimist, she says. “But now we are going through an enormous amount of pain ... Sometimes I feel worn down by it.”
Matviicuk speaks proudly of her husband Oleksandr, “the best specialist in Ukraine on local self-governance”. He criss-crosses the country, helping municipalities to cope with war.
Matviichuk postponed pregnancy for eight years while she focused on torture in eastern Ukraine. “But now, in this war, you understand that there are lots of things that have no importance in your life, and that there are only a few which are extremely important.”
She is thinking about having a child, “because I do believe that life has to prevail over death”.