Nobel prize will give us ‘strength’, says Ukraine NGO head

Kyiv, Ukraine – The head of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), a Kyiv-based human rights organisation that was awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, says the prize will give them “more strength” in their efforts to fight for human rights.

“We were shocked; even this morning, we knew nothing,” Oleksandra Matviychuk told Al Jazeera.

“We are grateful for this award because we have made a titanic effort at the altar of peace, democracy and freedom; an effort that is still ongoing,” said Matviychuk who is currently returning to Ukraine from an event in New York.

The organisation was originally founded in 2007 to tackle the high levels of corruption and promote democratic rights in Ukraine.

In 2013 and 2014, the CCL set up the EuroMaidan SOS project, which recorded human rights abuses at the demonstrations in Kyiv’s Maidan Square by the security forces under the pro-Russian government led by then-President Viktor Yanukovych. The project also provided legal assistance to protesters.

After a change of government, the CCL began to work on legislative initiatives to reform the country’s major institutions, including the security service, judicial sector and police force.

During this period, the CCL also began documenting human rights abuses committed by Russia, recording multiple instances of torture, kidnapping, and murder committed by Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Crimea and the eastern Donbas region since fighting began in 2014. Russia annexed Crimea in a step considered a violation of international law.

Matviychuk, the head of the CCL, told Al Jazeera the war crimes committed during this period, which went unpunished by the international community, resulted in a “cycle of impunity” that continued after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country on February 24.

Since then, CCL volunteers have been tirelessly sifting through testimonies, medical documents, and other evidence sent in by people who say they have been the victims of or witnessed crimes committed by Russian forces.

In light of the recent media attention the CCL has received since the award was announced, Matviychuk took to social media to call for Russia to be excluded from the UN Security Council. She also called for the UN and participating states to engage in large-scale reform of the international peace and security system.

Matviychuk, who has researched human rights abuses for 20 years, describes the war crimes committed by Russia since February 24 as different in their “scale and brutality”.

Negotiating the release of civilian hostages

At the CCL’s offices in a secluded back street in Kyiv’s bustling centre, the CCL now has been working towards negotiating the release of civilian hostages held in Russia or Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russia.

Natalia Yashchuk, co-ordinator for national projects at the CCL, said that the organisation has recorded 671 cases of forced civilian kidnappings, of which 205 have been released. It is currently working with a bilateral Russian-Ukrainian legal team.

Yashchuk, speaking to Al Jazeera, said Russia, in a “major violation of humanitarian law”, has failed to distinguish many civilians held captive in detention centres from prisoners of war.

Recently, however, the CCL oversaw the successful release of Viktoria Andrusha, a teenager adducted from the Chernihiv region in March 2022 after being accused by Russia of sharing information about troop movements with Ukrainian authorities.

Olga Scherba said she recently found out that her brother, husband and friend, who went missing in February, are currently being held in Crimea. The 25-year-old said she has received help from the CCL.

Speaking from a secure room in central Kyiv, she said that Yashchuk’s successful work in getting Andrusha released had given her “new hope” that the three men would also be allowed to return home.

In the social media post, Matviychuk also called for the creation of an international tribunal that would bring Russian and Belarusian Presidents Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko, who she describes as war criminals, “to justice”.

In May 2022, Matviychuk told Al Jazeera that Ukraine needed more international support in prosecuting war crimes committed by Russia as its domestic capacity was overwhelmed. “At the international level, there is only one effective mechanism that can provide justice, and that is the International Criminal Court,” she said, “but they only look at a few cases.”

Since 2013 Ukraine has accepted the court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory.

The Nobel Peace Prize was also awarded to Memorial, a Russian organisation and Ales Bialiatski, a jailed Belarusian activist.

Matviychuk said that the Nobel Peace Prize will “give us more strength and inspiration in our further efforts”.

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