Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk on accountability for war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Head of the Center for Civil Liberties, Oleksandra Matviichuk, led a discussion to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict at an event hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security and the Embassy of Ukraine at Ukraine House. The discussion focused on international accountability for war crimes and conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in Ukraine. Matviichuk highlighted the gaps in the international justice system to hold Russia accountable for crimes committed against the Ukrainian people.

Documenting human pain

Forcibly taking Ukrainian children to Russia; banning the Ukrainian language; and sexually violating Ukrainians. Matviichuk recounted the crimes Russia continues to commit, two years after its initial invasion of Ukraine. Dozens of organizations have worked collaboratively to document over 72,000 episodes of war crimes. 

“We are documenting something much more than violations of Geneva and Hague conventions; we are documenting human pain,” said Matviichuk.

Matviichuk said the scale of war crimes has become so large that it is difficult to recognize the stories of those affected by war; the war turned people into numbers. Her work aims to “return people their names,” and ensure justice for all victims of the war.

“Oleksandra exemplifies everything we know about Ukrainians: how relentless we are in the fight for human rights and for dignity, and also how she personally shows such great courage and leadership by example,” said Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who also stressed the need to continue supporting Ukraine against Russia’s unprovoked assault.

Ambassador Oksana Markarova gives opening remarks.

Conflict-related sexual violence

A specific war crime Oleksandra focuses on is CRSV in Ukraine. During a moderated conversation with GIWPS Executive Director, Ambassador Melanne Verveer, Matviichuk explained the difficulty of documenting cases of CRSV due to stigma and how it separates a community. 

“Survivors of sexual violence feel shame. Their neighbors, their families, their relatives feel guilt because they could not stop it; other members of the community feel fear because they can be subjected to the same treatment,” she said.

However, Matviichuk asserted that the survivors of CRSV and the Ukrainian people are much more than victims of Russian crimes, they are fighters for freedom and democracy.

 How to hold Russia accountable

Russia has yet to be held accountable for these crimes and Matviichuk believes this is partly due to insufficient tools in the international justice system.

“I am a human rights lawyer…but I and other Ukrainian human rights lawyers find ourselves in a situation where the law doesn’t work,” she said. 

According to Matviichuk, Russia has committed four international crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression. The International Criminal Court does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in this case, and that is why she and other Ukrainian civil society members are advocating for an international tribunal on aggression to hold Russia accountable. 

Matviichuk also discussed the gap in international law regarding the crime of genocide, specifically cultural genocide, which was left out of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. If you want to partially or completely destroy a group, you do not need to kill all group members, she explained. Rather, you can forcibly change their identity, which Russia is doing in Ukraine today, and the group will cease to exist. 

The role of the US in addressing human rights abuses in Ukraine  

Christian Levesque, Director of the War Crimes Accountability Team and Lead Prosecutor for Ukraine, Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section affirmed that the US remains committed to doing all it can to end the human rights abuses occurring in Ukraine. Levesque said that the US does “not accept conflict-related sexual violence as an inevitable cost of armed conflict.” As a result, the Prosecutor General’s Office established a conflict-related sexual violence unit to investigate these crimes. 

“Each of the…war crimes in Ukraine is not just a number…behind them are human lives and suffering, and our main duty collectively is to do everything possible to support those affected by war crimes and their pursuit of truth and justice,” added Levesque.

On the same day as our event, the Biden-Harris Administration announced actions to address conflict-related sexual violence which includes new funding to document cases of CRSV and support survivors in Ukraine.

The future of recovery and justice in Ukraine 

War and human rights abuses in Ukraine continue. However, efforts for Ukraine’s recovery are already underway. Just a week before this event, Ambassador Verveer and Matviichuk participated in the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Berlin. Ambassador Verveer highlighted how short and long-term recovery solutions were discussed during the conference. Verveer and Matviichuk advocated for a gender-inclusive response in recovery and the need to involve women fully in the process. They discussed how women are already involved as diplomats, advocates for justice, and providing humanitarian support, and they must also be included in decisions about recovery. 

Despite the immense difficulties she faces, Oleksandra Matviichuk keeps going knowing her work has purpose. As Ukraine continues on its path to peace and recovery, it needs to make justice independent of when and how the war ends. As she says: if we want to prevent wars in the future, we need to punish the states and their leaders who start such wars.

“Ukrainian women are fighting for our daughters,” said Matviichuk, “so they will never have…to prove to someone that they are also human beings.” 

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