Committing war crimes have become an integral part of how Moscow wages war and Kyiv shouldn’t wait to bring alleged Russian perpetrators to justice, argues Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the organization that jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize this year.
“For decades, Russia has used war as a method of achieving its geopolitical interests and war crimes as a way to win these wars,” Matviychuk, who heads the Center for Civil Liberties, told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in an expansive interview. “They learned that they can do whatever they want because they weren’t punished for war crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, or in Syria. Therefore, until we can bring justice, there will be no sustainable peace in our region.”
Matviychuk, a lawyer by trade, says she wants to use the organization’s elevated stature to call for international action against human rights violations and the growing list of evidence pointing toward war crimes committed by Russian forces since the Kremlin’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine.
“We see that all these crimes have a systemic nature,” she said. “It’s clear that this is not done by any specific unit of the Russian armed forces but that it is part of the culture of how Russia conducts war.”
Founded in 2007, the Center for Civil Liberties was established with the goal of pressuring Ukrainian authorities to turn the country into a full-fledged democracy and ensure that it was governed by the rule of law. But that mission shifted in 2014 when Moscow forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula and fighting with Russian-backed forces broke out in eastern Ukraine, which saw the group begin documenting abuses from the conflict, as well as the disappearances of Kremlin critics, journalists, and activists.
Since Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, the organization has worked closely with national and international partners to document potential Russian war crimes against Ukrainian civilians. So far, they’ve documented more than 21,000 examples of war crimes committed by Russian forces since 2014, many of which have taken place since Moscow’s February invasion.
“For eight years we have been talking about the fact that Russia is committing war crimes…and for eight years the world has not paid attention to this criminal practice,” Matviychuk said. “The Nobel Peace Prize gives us a platform to make our voices heard.”
The Search For Accountability
Matviychuk says her growing focus is to gain momentum for efforts to bring perpetrators of alleged war crimes to court.
She points to the Nuremberg Tribunal as an example often brought up as a template. However, unlike those trials that only began to hold Nazi war criminals accountable following Germany’s loss in World War II, Matviychuk argues a similar effort for accountability toward Russia could begin immediately.
“We don’t have to wait for Russia to lose. Why do we make people’s demands for justice dependent on this?” Matviychuk asks. “We must create an international tribunal now and begin all necessary procedures to bring Russian war criminals to justice.”
Doing so will be no small task.
The Center for Civil Liberties had long campaigned for Ukraine to become affiliated with the International Criminal Court. It is currently a full member, but Kyiv has accepted the court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory since 2013.
Ukraine also needs to navigate the complicated politics at international organizations like the United Nations, where Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council and can veto resolutions brought to the body.
Matviychuk is critical of the UN, which she says is “not fulfilling its functions” and is currently hijacked by militarily powerful states. Still, she acknowledges that it remains the best instrument available for an international tribunal that can deliver accountability.
With the Security Council blocked, Matviychuk says Kyiv should concentrate its diplomatic efforts on winning votes at the UN General Assembly, where support from two-thirds of the countries would be needed to pass such a measure. This means Ukraine will need to win over countries like Brazil, India, and many in Africa that have complex and historic relationships with Moscow.
“We need to build support with countries for this idea because this tribunal shouldn’t be created only [because] we gathered five states together and then set up a tribunal,” Matviychuk said. “We need legitimacy for this tool…and the best [way to do that] is within the framework of the UN.”
Written by Reid Standish in Prague based on reporting by Sofia Sereda for RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service.