Human Rights Activists in Ukraine Call for Swift Response
By Brian Dooley
Human rights activists in Ukraine are telling Human Rights First about the immediate impact on them of the Russian invasion, and what they want from the United States.
Human Rights First has for many years conducted research in Ukraine and worked with human rights defenders (HRDs) in Ukraine documenting how Russia has fueled a war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, attacked Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expropriated public and private property in annexed Crimea.
In 2018, Oleksandra Ustinova of Ukraine’s Anti-corruption Action Centre (AntAc) and I wrote a Newsweek op-ed, outlining how Russia’s occupation of the Donbas region, plus Ukraine’s corruption problems, were damaging the country.
Now she’s a member of Ukraine’s parliament and told me “It is the moral obligation of all democratic countries to stand with Ukraine beyond declarations, with real actions. Strong sanctions should be applied immediately. These should include personal sanctions against oligarchs from Putin’s inner circle and their family members.”
The call to prevent Russian banks from accessing the SWIFT system was echoed by Kyiv-based activist Nadia Dobrianska. She told me she has taken her parents from Kyiv into the countryside for their safety, but even there was waiting for Russian missiles to arrive in the hours after we spoke. “The US must impose sanctions,” she told me, “Putin’s regime should be sanctioned into the Stone Age.”
Ukrainian civil society leaders have issued an appeal to the U.S. Congress with a list of sanctions they want imposed on Russian oligarchs, and the designation of “Putin’s Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
Iryna Fedoriv of the anti-corruption and good governance NGO Chesno Movement called on the international community to impose a “total embargo” on Russia. “We are tired of reading about promises of sanctions, we are losing people right now. Some countries gave us guarantees, and their promises mean nothing. We want to see real deeds. We need more military support.”
Tetiana Shevchuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center said, “We are busy relocating our staff and trying to make our international contacts understand we don’t just need prayers and solidarity, we need real action including military support. So far it feels like we are battling this battle alone. Ukraine is resisting and will prevail, but the human cost is getting higher and higher every day.”
Some of those who work at NGOs worry too that international funding support for their human rights work might now be cut, and donors in the US government and elsewhere should reassure local HRDs that support will remain.
Lyudmila Yankina of the NGO ZMINA Human Rights Center sent me video at 4.30 am from the bomb shelter in Kyiv where she was spending the night. “There are heavy explosions above us now,” she said. “We’re going to try to keep working and document the civilian casualties all over the country. Putin says he will punish anyone with an anti-Russian narrative, and maybe we will need some extra physical security.”
Inna Ivanenko is Executive Director of Patients of Ukraine, an anti-corruption NGO that Human Rights First has worked with for many years. She told me she has escaped to a village 90 miles from Kyiv with two small children. “I don’t know if we’re safe here, you don’t know if a rocket will hit your house or not. We will have to hide in the basements if we are attacked.”
If human rights activists want to flee Ukraine, the United States and other governments should help them. In his 2020 report to the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, recommend that governments should support HRDs in conflict zones, and “facilitate domestic, regional and international relocation initiatives… including through flexible procedures and visa policies, [and] ensure that these are equally accessible to defenders irrespective of their gender and take into account their family situation or other circumstances.”
The Polish government has so far responded positively to the prospect of Ukrainian human rights activists and others fleeing the Russian invasion. Prominent Polish human rights lawyer Marta Gorczynska tweeted that the Polish authorities assured that people escaping across the border from the conflict in Ukraine would be admitted to Poland, and are directing people with nowhere to stay to reception centers. They promise to provide with temporary accommodation, “a hot meal, drink, basic medical assistance and a place to rest.”
It’s something practical at least, but what Ukrainian human rights defenders want is a large-scale, immediate, and co-ordinated international response to save their country.