Normalization of evil

Vladimir Putin

In the face of Putin’s aggresssion Oleksandra Matviichuk asks how do we defend human rights and freedom in the 21st century?

I am a human rights lawyer. For many years I have been applying the law to defend people and human dignity. Now I am in a situation where the law does not work.

Russian troops are destroying residential buildings, churches, museums, schools, and hospitals. They are shooting at the evacuation corridors. They are torturing people in filtration camps. They are forcibly taking Ukrainian children to Russia. They ban the Ukrainian language and culture. They are abducting, robbing, raping and killing in the occupied territories. The entire UN architecture of international organizations and treaties cannot stop it.

Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, we have faced an unprecedented number of war crimes. We have joined our efforts with dozens of organizations in the regions and built a national network of documentators throughout the country, including the occupied territories. We have an ambitious goal to document every criminal episode that has been committed in the smallest settlement of every oblast of the country. Working together, we have already recorded and contributed over 62,000 episodes to our database.

Russia uses war crimes as a method of warfare. Russia tries to break people resistance and occupied territories with inflicting the immense pain on civilian population.

We are documenting more than just violations of the Geneva or Hague Conventions. We are documenting human pain, like in the story of Illia Matviienko, a 10-year-old boy from Mariupol.

Russian troops surrounded the city and did not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to open the green corridor and evacuate civilians. Hence, Illia and his mother hid in the basement of their house from the Russian shelling. Like many people in the city, they melted snow to have water and made fires to cook at least some food. When the supplies ran out, they were forced to go out and consequently they became exposed to shelling. His mother was wounded in her head, and the boy’s leg was torn. With the last of her strength, his mother dragged her son to a friend’s apartment. There was no medical assistance. Prior to this, the Russians destroyed the maternity hospital and the entire medical infrastructure in Mariupol. That is why in the apartment they lay down on the couch and just hugged each other. They were lying like that for several hours. Ilya told that his mother died and froze right in his arms.

I have one question. How we people, in the 21st century, will defend human beings, their lives, their freedom and their dignity? Can we rely on the law – or does only brutal force matter?

It is important to understand this not only for people in Ukraine, Syria, China, Iran, Nicaragua or Sudan. The answer to this question determines our common future.

I don’t know how historians in the future will call this historical period. But we happen to live in rather challenging times. The world order, based on the UN Charter and international law, is collapsing before our eyes. The international peace and security system established after the Second World War provided unjustified indulgences for certain countries. It did not cope well with global challenges before, but now it is stalling and reproducing ritualistic movements. The work of the Security Council is paralyzed. We have entered a period of turbulence, and now fires will occur more and more frequently in different parts of the world because the international wiring is faulty and sparks everywhere.

Samuel Huntington predicted that new global conflicts would arise between different civilizations. I live in Kyiv, and my native city, like thousands of other Ukrainian cities, is being shelled not only by Russian missiles but also by Iranian drones. China is helping Russia circumvent sanctions and import technologies critical to warfare. North Korea sent Russia more than a million artillery shells. Syria votes at the UN General Assembly in support of Russia. We are dealing with the formation of an entire authoritarian bloc. However, Russia, Iran, China, Syria, and North Korea are different civilizations according to the Huntington classification. However, they poses a crucial common feature. All these regimes that have taken power in their countries have the same idea of what a human being is. Therefore, this is not a conflict of civilizations. This is a conflict of anthropologies.

Authoritarian leaders consider people as objects of control and deny them rights and freedoms. Democracies consider people, their rights and freedoms to be of the highest value. There is no way to negotiate this. The existence of the free world always threatens dictatorships with the loss of power. Because human beings inherently have a desire for freedom.

Therefore, when we talk about Russia’s war against Ukraine, we are not talking about a war between two states This is the war between two systems – authoritarianism and democracy. This becomes more obvious when we consider its causes. Because this war was started not in February 2022, but in February 2014.

This was just after the Revolution of Dignity had ended in Ukraine. Millions of people had bravely stood up against a corrupt authoritarian regime. They took to the streets across the entire country. They fought for the chance to build a state in which the rights of each person are protected, the authorities are accountable, the courts are independent, and the police do not beat peaceful student demonstrators.

When the authoritarian regime fell, Ukraine got its chance for democratic transformation. And to stop Ukraine’s progress towards genuine democracy, Russia invaded. Russia occupied Crimea and part of eastern regions in 2014, and then in 2022 it expanded this war into a full-scale invasion. Because Putin is not afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom.

Russia wants to convince the entire world that freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are fake values. Because they do not protect anyone in the war. Russia wants to convince the world that a state with a powerful military potential and nuclear weapons can break the world order, dictate its rules to the international community and even forcibly change internationally recognized borders.

If Russia succeeds, it will encourage authoritarian leaders in various parts of the world to do the same. The international system of peace and security does not protect people anymore. Democratic governments will be forced to invest money not in education, health care, culture or business development, not in solving global problems such as climate change or social inequality, but in weapons. We will witness an increase in the number of nuclear states, the emergence of robotic armies and new weapons of mass destruction. If Russia succeeds and this scenario comes true, we will find ourselves in a world that will be dangerous for everyone without exception.

Unpunished evil grows. Russian military committed terrible crimes in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia, Syria, Mali, Libya, other countries of the world. They have never been punished for it. They believe they can do whatever they want.

I talked to hundreds of people who survived Russian captivity. They’ve told how they were beaten, raped, packed into wooden boxes, electrically shocked through their genitalia, and their fingers were cut, their nails were torn away, their knees were drilled, they were compelled to write with their own blood. One lady told me how her eye was dug out with a spoon. There is no legitimate reason for doing this. There is also no military necessity for it. Russians did these horrific things only because they could.

War turns people into numbers. The scale of war crimes grows so fast that it becomes impossible to tell all the stories. But I will tell you one.

This is the story of 62-year-old civilian Oleksandr Shelipov. He was killed by the Russian military near his own house. The tragedy received huge media coverage only because it was the first court trial since the large-scale invasion. In the court, his wife Kateryna shared that her husband was an ordinary farmer, but he was her whole universe and now she’s lost everything.

People are not numbers. We must ensure justice for all, regardless of who the victims are, their social position, the type and level of cruelty they’ve endured, or if the international organizations or media is interested in their case. It’s possible. New technologies allow us to document war crimes in a way that we could not even dream of 15 years ago. The experience of Bellingcat and other investigators convincingly proves that we can restore the picture of events without even being on the spot.

People are not numbers. We must return people their names. Because the life of each person matters.

International humanitarian law regulates how people must kill each other in wars without providing excessive suffering. If we want to prevent wars we have to punish states and their leaders who start such wars. Because all atrocities which we and other people in different parts of the globe document during the war, like war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide it’s the result of someone’s leadership decisions to start the war. In the whole history of humankind we have only one precedent of punishment for the crime of aggression. It was the Nuremberg Trials.

We still look at the world through the lens of the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazi war criminals were tried only after the Nazi regime had collapsed. But we are living in a new century. Justice should not depend on how and when the war ends. Justice must not wait. The global approach to war crimes justice needs to be changed. We must establish a special tribunal now and hold Putin, Lukashenko and other war criminals accountable.

When the international community deal with wars there is a great temptation to avoid solving difficult problems, hoping that they will just vanish. But the truth is that they only get worse.

People in Ukraine want peace much more than anyone else. But peace does not come when the country which was invaded stops fighting. That is not peace, that´s occupation. Occupation is another form of war.

Occupation is not about changing one state flag to another. The occupation means torture, deportations, forced adoptions, ban of identity, filtration camps and mass graves.

Russia unleashed terror in the occupied territories to keep them under control. The Russian military exterminates local activists – mayors, public figures, journalists, volunteers, priests, artists, etc. People do not have any opportunity to protect their freedom, property, life and their loved ones.

I have a photo of one of the unmarked graves in the forest near Izium after releasing this territory. The murdered children’s writer Volodymyr Vakulenko was found in this grave under number 319. He wrote beautiful stories for children and entire generations grew up with his “Daddy’s book”. During the Russian occupation, Volodymyr disappeared. I know his family. His family hoped to the last that he was alive and, like thousands of other people, was in Russian captivity. It is difficult for them to accept the results of the identification.

We can´t leave people alone for torture and death in the occupied territories. People’s lives cannot be a “political compromise”. Calls for Ukraine to stop defending itself and to satisfy Russia’s imperial appetites are not just wrong. They are immoral. Putin will not stop.

Public intellectuals say that we live in an era of post-truth. As for me, we live in an era of post-knowledge. People with access to Google, who can get the formula for aspirin in a second, forget that this does not make them chemists. People around the world are demanding quick and simple solutions. Perhaps in more peaceful times, we could afford it. You can treat a runny nose with squats, and at least it will not harm the body. However, if we are already dealing with cancer, the price of such simple solutions and actual therapy delays will be high.

The problem is not only that the freedom space in authoritarian countries has narrowed to the size of a prison cell. The problem is that even in developed democracies, forces calling into question the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are gaining weight.

There are reasons for this. The coming generations replaced those ones that survived the Second World War. They have inherited democracy from their parents. They began to take rights and freedoms for granted. They have become consumers of values. They perceive freedom as choosing between cheeses in the supermarket. Therefore, they are ready to exchange freedom for economic benefits, promises of security or personal comfort.

Yet, the truth is that freedom is very fragile. Human rights are not attained once and forever. We make our own choices every day.

We must defend our values. It is the determination to act that defines a civilization that has a future.

I have been working with the law for many years, and I know for sure that if you cannot rely on legal mechanisms, you can always rely on people. We are used to thinking in categories of states and interstate organizations. But ordinary people have much more impact than they can even imagine.

Immediately after the invasion, international organizations evacuated their personnel, and so it was ordinary people in Ukraine who supported those in the combat zone; who took people out of ruined cities, who helped them to survive under artillery fire; who rescued people trapped under the rubble of residential buildings; who broke through the encirclement to deliver humanitarian aid.

Ordinary people started to do extraordinary things. And then it became obvious that ordinary people fighting for their freedom and human dignity are stronger than the second army of the world. That ordinary people can change the history quicker than UN intervention.

I would never wish anyone to go through this experience. Nevertheless, these dramatic times provide us an opportunity to reveal the best in us – to be courageous, to fight for freedom, to take the burden of responsibility, to make difficult but right choices, to help each other. Now more than ever, we keenly feel what does it mean to be a human.

Yes, the future is unclear and not guaranteed. Nevertheless, we have a chance to fight for the future we want for us and our children. There are many things that have no limitation in national borders. Freedom is one of them. As well as human solidarity. We live in a very interconnected world. Only the spread of freedom makes our world safer.

This article is based on a talk by Oleksandra Matviichuk to the Cambridge Union in February 2024.

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