Russia’s invasion is wreaking havoc on Ukrainians, their culture and their identity. As the fighting intensifies, Russia continues its flagrant disregard for human rights law, leaving a host of violations in its trail. In response, Ukrainian civil society is documenting the atrocities and gathering eyewitness accounts which could be pivotal in the fight for justice for victims. Human rights campaigner Maria Kurinna provides an insight into this challenging work and the evidence collected thus far.

Jonathan Piron: When you talk about Russian aggression, you refer to “colonial war”. Why do you use this very concrete conceptual term?

Maria Kurinna: I refer to the current war on Ukraine as a colonial war because of its historical context. This term is completely comprehensible for Ukrainians as well as for the inhabitants of neighbouring countries such as Georgia or Moldova, but it now needs to be used more widely. Since the dawn of its imperial age, Russia has made efforts to impose its single vision of society on the nations and ethnic groups it has dominated and obliterate their identities. It partially succeeded in erasing Ukrainian culture, for example by forbidding the publication of literature in the Ukrainian language, the opening of Ukrainian schools, and the use of Ukrainian in the sphere of public administration.

Generation after generation, Ukrainian artists and public officials have fought for our identity, for our choice to be a free nation. In the 1930s, a period known as the “Ukrainian national renaissance” saw artists, writers, poets, and the educated classes assert a unique Ukrainian identity. This converged with the idea that we could be free as Ukrainians, and that this freedom should also enable us to establish our own state. These actions were considered as a threat to Russia’s colonial ambitions.

This colonial weight is not just felt by Ukrainians. We can also see it in Crimea, for example. As a centre documenting the flagrant human rights violations committed in Crimea, we have been starkly confronted by the fate of the Tatars, an ethnic group that has historically lived there. Their story is a genuine tragedy. In 1944, the Crimean Tatars were deported en masse to other areas of the Soviet Union, where they enjoyed very few rights. The full right to return was not granted until almost half a century later, in 1989. Those who actively express their opposition to the peninsula’s Russian occupiers are persecuted, risking sentences of 12 to 17 years — or even more. All because they claim a different identity, have different religious practices, and hold different political opinions.

You come from Luhansk, a major city in eastern Ukraine that has been occupied by Russian forces since 2014. Do you have any information about the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine, which is currently on the front line?

First of all, I haven’t been back home for eight years now. I really miss my home region and my family. We faced not just the hostilities that started in 2014, but also various forms of persecution because of our clearly pro-Ukrainian stance.

On the second day of the Russian invasion, ZMINA helped found a coalition of different civil society organisations, the “Ukraine 5 AM Coalition”, which takes its name from the time of day the invasion was launched. Each of these NGOs has expertise in documenting, monitoring, and tracking human rights violations in eastern Ukraine and Crimea. We decided we had to join forces to document and preserve evidence of the human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in these regions. This essential work will ensure that, once mechanisms for accountability have been established, evidence can be provided that will help bring the perpetrators to justice.

As far as the human rights situation in the east of Ukraine is concerned, we are facing several very worrying trends. The first trend is the forcible expulsion of Ukrainian citizens from occupied areas. Those seeking to leave frontline towns are only permitted to travel to other occupied areas, or to Russia. Russian troops have prevented the creation of humanitarian corridors to other areas of Ukraine, including by international organisations. Several attempts to open safe passages for civilians were met with bombardment. Unfortunately, when Ukrainians try to leave conflict-ridden areas, they do so in an atmosphere of anxiety and threats. You can be arrested simply because you are Ukrainian, or for expressing your opinion. You can also be arrested if you are a teacher, writer, journalist, or activist.

A climate of impunity has developed over the past few years, aided by the fact that society has reacted to abuses slowly or not at all.

We have also documented numerous human rights violations committed by Russian forces during the so-called “filtration” of displaced Ukrainians. There have been reports of cars and phones being searched and of people being forced to undress in the street – both men and women. Some have been subjected to illegal interrogation. Lastly, we have received reports that several so-called “filtration camps” are being used as detention centres for individuals who arouse suspicion, as well as accounts of acts of torture and inhumane treatment.

For those forced to flee, life is very hard. Not only must they come to terms with their separation from their homes and families, many also face massive administrative hurdles as they left without identity documents proving their Ukrainian nationality. People in this situation who were transferred to Russian territory are unable to leave as they don’t have the right papers. Furthermore, some displaced people have been sent to very remote Russian locations. Children who lost their parents and others in the care of the Ukrainian state have also been forcibly transferred to Russia, and it is very hard to gain access to them – even for the International Red Cross and United Nations agencies. So we are faced with a truly dire situation.

Another human rights violation is the forced mobilisation of Ukrainian citizens by Russian forces in the occupied territories. Civilians – some of whom were simply on their way to work or school – have been stopped in the middle of the street and forcibly enlisted to fight for the so-called Luhansk or Donetsk People’s Republics. This is not just a war crime but a tragedy for our nation.

In western Europe, we are confronted with disinformation and misinformation due to not only to Russian propaganda but also a lack of understanding of the current situation. This is being weaponised by pro-Russian individuals and groups. How do you think we can fight against this?

This an enormous problem that we have also encountered. When Ukrainian civil society organisations started defending human rights and spoke with leaders and citizens of Western Europe as the invasion unfolded, we realised that we were confronting a huge wave of misinformation and disinformation as well as a lack of understanding of Ukraine.

What sort of a country is Ukraine, and who are the Ukrainians? Why are they fighting? Why are they so opposed to the concession of territory to Russia? The answers to these questions remain little known in Western Europe. So I think that one of our most important responsibilities is to continue raising awareness, to continue educating the Western public on how to access accurate information as well as on critical thinking and fact checking. The media must also go the extra mile to report real, verified news because Russian propaganda is ever present and very effective. Russian state outlets are unfortunately very experienced in spreading propaganda. We witnessed this during the Soviet era, but the propaganda machine – and Russia’s colonialist and imperialist ambitions in general – have been no less active since Ukraine gained independence in 1991.

Another important aspect of our work is maintaining regular contact with Ukraine’s civil society as well as with individual eyewitnesses. We are doing our best to tell our story and trying to provide information that is as accurate as possible, particularly on human rights. I think that when we are able to make these points, when we are able to have platforms for discussion where different stakeholders – elected officials and activists, ordinary citizens, and journalists – can come and speak to each another and share what they know, this is part of the solution.

To do nothing in this situation is to encourage impunity and condemn us to experience a repeat of such crimes in the future.

When it comes to politics, you talk about the need for information, for evidence to be gathered of Russian atrocities. But what can be done politically? And above all, what do you expect from the European Union?

The question of accountability and justice is absolutely crucial. This is a key focus in Ukraine. A climate of impunity has developed over the past few years, aided by the fact that society has reacted to abuses slowly or not at all. Yet it is fundamental to restore a sense of justice for the survivors and victims of the current conflict. We are therefore very grateful to see that there is a consensus in Europe for the establishment of accountability mechanisms, be it through the International Criminal Court (ICC), the UN, or the European Parliament.

But prosecuting crimes committed in time of war is an extremely complicated process. It is difficult to gather and preserve the necessary evidence, to set up properly constituted courts, and to start working effectively on criminal proceedings. We are well aware that this process will take years, and that we will need to be resilient. But Ukrainian society is ready for this long-term undertaking. We will do everything in our power to prosecute war crimes locally, nationally, and internationally.

We know it’s our duty to do the major part of the work. Our law enforcement agencies, our public prosecutor’s office, and our human rights defenders are especially dedicated and have already done a lot. But we need the support of European experts. We need training for our investigators, our judges, and all those tasked with establishing accountability in Ukraine, because the level of atrocities that have been committed on our territory in recent years is unprecedented in our contemporary history. We are also very grateful for the willingness that some have shown to set up a special international tribunal with the authority to prosecute the Russian crimes against Ukraine, which falls outside of the jurisdiction of the ICC. To do nothing in this situation is to encourage impunity and condemn us to experience a repeat of such crimes in the future.

This interview is published in cooperation with Etopia.

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