Oleksandra Matviychuk, Ukrainian human rights lawyer, head of the «Civil Liberties Center» organization and laureate of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, gave a speech at one of the most famous conferences in the world — TEDWomen. «Everything is as usual, I finished the speech at TED on the plane, I gave the text two hours before the rehearsal, I missed all the sessions with the coaches because I didnʼt have time for them, so I just spoke from my heart», - she wrote on facebook. Forbes Ukraine publishes a text version of her speech.
I have traveled here from Kyiv, where 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.
The war between two systems
As a human rights lawyer, I found myself in a weird situation. When someone asks me how to protect people from Russian aggression, I answer — give Ukraine weapons.
I have one question. How we people, in the 21st century, will defend human beings, their lives, their dignity and their freedom? 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 or Sudan. The answer to this question determines our common future.
Because this is not just a war between two states. This is the war between two systems — authoritarianism and democracy. Russia wants to convince the entire world that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are fake values. Because they do not protect anyone in the war. Russia wants to convince that a state with a powerful military potential and nuclear weapons can break the world order, dictate its rules to 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 work 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, 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.
Because for now the law does not work. Although, I trust that it is temporary.
People are not numbers
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 February 24. 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, and 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, what 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.
Justice must not wait
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.
Yes, this is a courageous step. But we must do it because it is the right thing to do.
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 who supported those in the combat zone; who took people out of ruined cities, who helped 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 are stronger than the second army of the world. That the engagement of millions of people in various countries can change world history faster than the UN intervention.
People in Ukraine survived also because of you. When ordinary people in different countries supported us. Someone is collecting donations, someone is writing about what is happening, someone is holding rallies, demanding their government supply Ukraine with weapons, someone has closed their own business in Russia, because freedom is worth it.
Be that someone. Support our struggle. Make our voice tangible. Take an active position, not just a pose. There are many things that have no limitation in state borders. Freedom is one of them. As well as human solidarity.
When the full-scale invasion started, democratic countries said, «letʼs help Ukraine not to fail». We must instead think about helping Ukraine to win. Because there is a significant difference between «letʼs help Ukraine not to fail» and «letʼs help Ukraine to win fast». Democracies have to win wars. Because only the spread of freedom makes our world safer.
And this is not about Ukraine laying down its arms. People in Ukraine want peace more than anyone else. But peace does not come when the country that was invaded stops fighting. That’s not peace, that’s occupation. And occupation is another form of war. Occupation is not about changing one state flag to another. Occupation means enforced disappearances, torture, deportations, forced adoptions of your children, denial of identity, filtration camps, and mass graves.
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 like never before we are acutely aware what does it mean — to be human beings.
And we have no time. For us time is converted into death.
After all, you donʼt need to be Ukrainian to support Ukraine. You just need to be a human.
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