Kyiv, Ukraine – The head of the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), a Kyiv-based human rights organization that reward the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner on Friday said the award would 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 prize because we have made a titanic effort on the altar of peace, democracy and freedom; an effort that is still ongoing,” said Matviychuk who is currently returning to Ukraine after an event in New York.
The organization was founded in 2007 to fight 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 violations during protests in Maidan Square in Kyiv by security forces under the pro-Russian government led by the President at the time, Viktor Yanukovych. The project also provided legal assistance to protesters.
After a change of government, the CCL began working on legislative initiatives to reform the country’s key institutions, including the security service, the judiciary and the police.
During this period, the CCL also began to document human rights violations committed by Russia, recording multiple cases of torture, kidnappings and murders committed by Russian forces and pro-Russian separatists. in Crimea and the eastern region of Donbass since fighting began in 2014. Russia annexed Crimea in a step seen as a violation of international law.
Matviychuk, the leader of the CCL, told Al Jazeera that war crimes committed during this period, which went unpunished by the international community, resulted in a “cycle of impunity” which continued after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the country in February. 24.
Since then, CCL volunteers have been tirelessly sifting through testimonies, medical documents and other evidence sent in by people who claim to have been victims or witnesses of 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 demand that Russia be removed from the UN Security Council. She also called on the UN and participating states to engage in large-scale reform of the international peace and security system.
Matviychuk, who has studied human rights abuses for 20 years, describes Russia’s war crimes since February 24 as different in their “scale and brutality”.
Negotiate the release of civilian hostages
In the CCL offices on a small, secluded street in the bustling center of Kyiv, the CCL is now busy negotiating the release of civilian hostages held in Russia or in Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russia.
Natalia Yashchuk, National Projects Coordinator at CCL, said the organization has recorded 671 cases of forced civilian abductions, of which 205 have been released. He is currently working with a bilateral Russian-Ukrainian legal team.
Yashchuk, speaking to Al Jazeera, said Russia, in a “major breach of humanitarian law”, failed to single out many civilians held captive in POW detention centres.
Recently, however, the CCL oversaw the successful release of Viktoria Andrusha, a teenager abducted 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 discovered that her brother, husband and friend, who went missing in February, are currently being held in Crimea. The 25-year-old said she received help from CCL.
Speaking from a secure room in central Kyiv, she said Yashchuk’s successful work to secure Andrusha’s release 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, whom she describes as war criminals, to justice.
In May 2022, Matviychuk told Al Jazeera that Ukraine needed more international support to prosecute Russia’s war crimes because its domestic capacity was overstretched. “At the international level, there is only one effective mechanism that can deliver justice, and that is the International Criminal Court,” she said, “but they only review a few cases.”
Since 2013, Ukraine has accepted the jurisdiction of the Court for crimes committed on its territory.
The Nobel Peace Prize was also awarded to Memorial, a Russian organization and to Ales Bialiatski, an imprisoned Belarusian activist.
Matviychuk said the Nobel Peace Prize “will give us more strength and inspiration in our future endeavours.”