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· · T. Joana Rebelo · P. Rights Reserved

Oleksandra Matviichuk

«The moment we stop fighting, we will stop existing»

PMmedia Adv.
Coming from a humble family, Oleksandra Matviichuk started working in the banking sector while finishing university. The plan was to combine her business career with social activity, dedicating some of her time to the Ukrainian people. But fate had other plans for her. Oleksandra has been active in the field of human rights protection for over 20 years and, in a moving interview with V&G Industry she recalls the moments when life brought her face to face with her mission. Today, with the nation living in ruins and pain, the lawyer reveals she is documenting the war crimes committed in Ukraine and, in the course of a difficult conversation, explains the background to the Russia-Ukraine conflict in terms of facts and perspectives. Meet Oleksandra Matviichuk, the Ukrainian whose Centre for Civil Liberties was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and prepared her acceptance speech days before by candlelight due to the bombing of energy infrastructure in Ukraine. 
Tell us a little about your life story.
I come from a poor family, so I began working in the banking sector while still at university. My plan was to combine a commercial career with social activity, for the benefit of the people. Since former president Yanukovych began building a centralised vertical structure and suppressing any uncontrolled civic activities, I have focused entirely on the protection of human rights. I may have a law degree, but you need to master a great range of varied skills and competencies to be a human rights defender in Ukraine. I have been working in the human rights protection field for more than 20 years already. When I was a student, I held various educational seminars on human rights and self-protection; now I am documenting the war crimes in this unleashed-by-Russia war in order to hold Putin and other Russian war criminals accountable.  

What motives led you to becoming an activist? Was there a specific moment that proved the catalyst?
Ukrainian dissidents, who fought against the Soviet regime at one time, greatly impacted my life path. Back then, when I was at school, I met Yevhen Sverstiuk, a philosopher, author, and long-term political prisoner. He took care of me and introduced me to the dissidents’ circle. They were honest people, who said what they thought and lived the way they said they should. In fact, as role models, he and other dissidents taught me the following: though having no other means to fight against injustice, your own word and your own personal stance are always with you. It is not that little after all. 

Which are the main causes you defend?
We fight for freedom and the right to have our own democratic choice. These are our values. Considering any of the sociological surveys made in recent years, one may see that Ukrainians always indicated freedom as a priority. We also fight for people. We will never abandon them to die or suffer torture in occupied territories.  

You are a lawyer specialising in human rights and you head the Centre for Civil Liberties. What is the mission of the organisation you coordinate?
The Centre for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007. The name speaks for itself: we protect civil liberties, such as freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom from torture, and so on. We always flexibly respond to the challenges caused by changes in circumstances. We owe all the results we achieved to the large number of ordinary people, who join our initiatives and campaigns. I know for a fact that if you cannot rely on effective legal instruments, you can always rely on ordinary people. 

What role has the Centre for Civil Liberties played with regard to the wave of Ukrainian refugees?
I have personally communicated with a hundred people who had survived Russian captivity. They have described the way they were beaten, raped, and electrically shocked through their genitalia, and that their nails were torn out, their knees were drilled, and they were compelled to write with their own blood. One lady described the way her eye had been dug out with a spoon. Since the full-scale Russian invasion last year, we have been faced with an unprecedented amount of war crimes. In just 10 months, our joint efforts have documented 31,000 war crime episodes.  

The Centre was awarded the Nobel Prize, together with a Belarussian activist and a Russian NGO. As a result of the bombing of the Ukrainian energy infrastructures, you found yourself forced to write your Noble Prize acceptance speech by candlelight. Can you share with us what you felt in that moment?
The Russian full-scale invasion has completely ruined the notion of «normal life». War imposes its own measurement of time, space, and human pain. We are living a life of permanent threat because, in the entire country, there is no place to escape Russian missiles. As well as a life of complete uncertainty, when it is absolutely impossible to simply plan your day or even your next several hours, because air raids, electricity or Internet outages occur unpredictably. I felt responsible when composing my Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I do not know whether words have the power to stop wars, but I wish people both in Ukraine and all other countries worldwide never ever suffer the experience that we have.

«Only justice can give people their names back»
Has being a Nobel Peace Prize recipient brought you a new level of responsibility? 
For decades, the voice of human rights defenders of our region was not heard. We might have been heard at the UN Human Rights Committee, but definitely not in the halls of political decisions. The civilised world was turning a blind eye to the situation, while Russia was killing journalists, arresting activists, and dispersing peaceful demonstrations in its own country. The civilised world continued to shake Putin’s hand, conduct business as usual, and build gas pipelines. Eventually, Russians believed that they could do whatever they wanted. The Nobel Peace Prize makes the voice of human rights defenders noticeable. Human rights and peace are inextricably linked. A state, which systematically violates human rights, poses a threat not only to its own citizens, but also to the entire world. 

António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, has said that the war shows no signs of ending. Do you share this opinion?
Putin will only stop when someone stops him. This is the authoritarian leaders’ logic of actions. They attack when they can sense weakness. Back in 2007 Putin officially announced his plans to force the restoration of the Russian Empire. Russia has been preparing for this all these years. Putin misjudged when he thought that he could seize Ukraine in three days. He did not expect that people fighting for their freedom could prove to be stronger than "the second army in the world”. However, Russia still has many resources to continue this war. That is why Ukraine is seeking military aid from various countries in order to receive modern weaponry.  

Has there been enough international support given to Ukraine?
Let us also pose the following question: enough or not enough for what? 
For Ukraine to be able to defend itself from Russian aggression, it needs to have resources commensurate with those that Russia spends to destroy us. According to the World Bank, in 2021 the Russian GDP amounted to almost $1.8 trillion, meanwhile, the Ukrainian GDP amounted to $0.2 trillion. This is the 11th economy in the world. In 2022, as a result of Russian aggression, Ukraine lost approximately 40-45% of its GDP. At the same time, the Russian GDP loss officially amounted to 4%, while western estimates show an 8% loss. Russia has already adopted the three-year war budget for 2023-2025, and it has raised taxes. Russia expects to receive an additional $44 billion merely from the oil and gas sector. No doubt, these extra finances will be invested exclusively in the war.

Has the world truly witnessed the unvarnished reality of Ukraine or just seen the tip of the iceberg?
It is difficult to believe in what is happening right now. Russian troops are deliberately destroying residential buildings, churches, schools, and hospitals. They are attacking evacuation corridors, coordinating a filtration camps system, organising forcible deportations. They are abducting, raping, torturing and they are murdering people in the occupied territories. This policy is conscious. Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare. Russia is attempting to break people’s resistance and occupy the country by means of inflicting immense pain on civilians. We are documenting this pain. 

More than 300 days have passed since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began. Has the hope of the Ukrainian people waned?
People in Ukraine desire peace more than anyone else in this world. Yet, peace does not come when the attacked country lays down its arms. In that case, it is not peace but occupation. In this war, we are fighting for freedom in all of its senses. This war is of a genocidal nature. Putin openly states that the Ukrainian people do not exist. The moment we stop fighting, we will stop existing. 

In this scenario of destruction, how do you explain war to Children? And how can you try and provide an even remotely normal life in the chaotic context they live in?
I do not have a simple answer to this question, but an incident recently experienced by my friend may be illustrative. She came out of a shop and saw a little girl, who was standing at the entrance door. At that moment, the air raid siren started wailing, and the girl began crying. Her mother immediately ran out of the shop and asked the girl why she was crying, as her mother left her for only a couple of minutes, simply to buy her some sweets. The girl answered that when the air raid siren had started wailing, she had got scared of dying without her mother being nearby her.

«War imposes its own measurement of time, space, and human pain»
What does «victory» mean for the Ukrainian people?
This war was unleashed in February 2014, not in February 2022. Back then, Ukraine got a chance for a quick democratic transformation after the authoritarian regime had collapsed. In order to stop us on this path, Russia occupied Crimea and some parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Because Putin is not afraid of NATO, Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom. This is not the war of two states, but the war of two systems: authoritarianism and democracy.Ukrainians believe that victory means not only the restoration of the international order, but also the liberation of Crimea and other occupied territories, as well as the expelling of Russian troops from our country. Ukrainians believe that victory means the successful completion of the democratic transformation and building the country, where each person’s human rights are protected, the government is accountable, the courts are independent, and the police do not beat students’ peaceful demonstrations.  

In your Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, you called for the creation of an international tribunal that would judge war criminals. Can you justify this need?
A war turns people into numbers. Only justice can give people their names back. That is why we must ensure justice for all victims of international crimes. Regardless of their identity, their social status, the type of crime or cruelty they suffered, as well as media or society’s interest in their case. Because each person’s life matters. We faced the problem of the gap in accountability. The Ukrainian legal system is overburdened with the quantity of war crimes proceedings. The International Criminal Court shall restrict its investigations to several selected cases, and it does not have jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in terms of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Consequently, we must establish an international tribunal in order to bring Putin, Lukashenko, and other Russian war criminals to justice.

Do you think that the hatred and resentment, nurtured by the attacking country, will spread to future generations? 
Unfortunately, this is not the war of Putin, this is the war of the Russian people. Most Russians support the seizure of foreign territories. Putin rules Russia not only by means of repression and censorship, but also by executing a social contract between the Kremlin elites and the Russian people. This social contract is based on Russian greatness. Most Russians still perceive their greatness to be in the restored, though forcibly, Russian Empire. It means that only Ukraine’s victory can give Russia a chance at its own democratic future. This is the only way Russians will be forced to reconsider their imperial culture and consider the idea that, in the 21st century, it is barbarism to occupy territories of foreign countries and kill people there. 

"We will never let history and tragedy repeat itself,” you told the media. How can you guarantee that this will not happen?
Lasting peace, which liberates from fear and provides long-term prospects, is impossible without justice. During all these decades Russian military has been committing international crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Mali, Libya, Syria and enjoying impunity. We must break this circle of impunity. For the sake of Ukrainians and other people, who have already been affected by Russia’s actions. As much as for the sake of the people, who may become the next target of Russian aggression. And, finally, prevent it this time. 

What message would you leave for the countries fighting other conflicts all over the world?
I am aware that many people are also fighting for freedom and human dignity in various countries worldwide every day. It may sometimes seem that this fight makes no sense because the opposing power is too mighty. Nevertheless, the entire history of humanity convincingly proves that you should not give up. You should continue your fair fight. Sooner or later, you will achieve the outcome. 
I am convinced that we should support each other in this fight for freedom. There are many things which are not limited to any state borders. Human solidarity is one of the most important. We live in a very interconnected world. Only expansion of freedom can make it safe.   
T. Joana Rebelo
P. Rights Reserved