A Case Study of Human Rights Defenders in War

A fresh wave of lethal Russian attacks on Ukraine’s northeastern region of Kharkiv has increased the danger to local human rights defenders (HRDs) already working under enormous pressure. They have responded to the dangers despite a lack of resources and immense risk, evacuating people under fire, taking them to safer areas, and providing medical care.

On May 10, 2024, Russia launched a new offensive campaign in the Kharkiv region, resulting in Russian soldiers taking a series of villages on the road between the Russian border and the major city of Kharkiv, which is about 25 miles inside Ukraine.

Intense fighting is under way between Ukrainian and Russian forces in and around villages and towns such as Vovchansk, Lyptsi, and Kupyansk. The Institute for the Study of War reported on June 19 that the Russian army is aiming to get within artillery range of Kharkiv city, as Ukrainian forces continue counterattacks north and northeast of Kharkiv.

From early May, local HRDs have been taking enormous risks to evacuate civilians living in communities under attack near the front line. By early June around 12,000 people had been moved away from the border communities of Kharkiv Oblast.

Those evacuated are taken to the relative safety of Kharkiv city, Ukraine’s second largest. Similar in size to Philadelphia and around 300 miles east of the capital Kyiv, it is far from a safe haven; dozens of civilians have been killed by Russian missiles in the city since early May. Many people have left Kharkiv in recent weeks, and very few children remain in the city.

Human Rights First visited Kharkiv city and region in June 2024 to document firsthand the work of HRDs undertaking evacuations from villages under fire, and to report on how the latest Russian advances have impacted the work of local activists.

These activists express frustration that international observers, claiming fears for their safety, rarely visit the region and that the work of local HRDs often goes unreported and ignored. They say this makes it difficult to raise the money and access other resources they desperately need.

Other difficulties include daily air raid alerts, regular missile strikes, electricity cuts, and immense psychological pressure. Following the introduction of new conscription laws, some activist organizations fear their male staff will be drafted into the military in the coming weeks.

This report is a case study of HRDs working in war, detailing the prolonged and intense danger facing activists in northeastern Ukraine. It aims to highlight the experiences of a range of HRDs operating in an extremely unsafe context, hundreds of miles from the capital city, and to contribute to the wider international discussion about enabling and protecting HRDs working in conflict areas.

Human Rights First has reported from the city of Kharkiv since 2017. Following Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, Human Rights First has made over a dozen research trips to the Kharkiv region, producing seven reports and dozens of articles on the work of local HRDs.[1] In May 2022, we reported from Kharkiv on the work of local activists while it was under almost constant bombardment and its suburbs under Russian occupation. We have since continued to document how Kharkiv’s activists and the public have resisted Russian aggression.



  • Brian Dooley
  • Maya Fernandez-Powell

Published on June 26, 2024


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