Leading Rights Activist Joins Ukraine’s Army and is Taken Prisoner
By Brian Dooley
It’s an agonizing decision for human rights defenders: is there a point where they switch from peaceful resistance to take up arms? For some defenders who are pacifists, non-violence is a principle. For others it is a tactic most likely to secure rights, but as contexts change, they rethink how to respond.
When Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the country’s human rights defenders were confronted with the dilemma of how best to serve their country. As we’ve documented over the months from Ukraine, many are part of the effort to document war crimes, or are providing medical care.
One of the country’s most prominent human rights activists, Maksym Butkevych, decided to join the Ukrainian army. Last month, he was captured by Russian forces in the Luhansk region and is now a prisoner.
He explained in a radio interview in April that “I have been an anti-militarist all my conscious life and remain so by conviction… I will do as much as I can to protect what is most valuable.”
I met Maksym in the middle of Kyiv during the Maidan Revolution in 2014. He was a leading anti-fascist and anti-racist figure in the country. Thousands of protestors filled the streets as he explained to me how the demonstrations were organized, and how the importance of Ukraine’s far right had been exaggerated and mythologized, something I reported on at the time.
Now he is held by the Russians, reportedly captured with a dozen other soldiers, one of an estimated 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russian forces. A video of his interrogation was published online by Russian forces, and then Russian-language websites began describing Butkevych as a far-right nationalist, an allegation I – and anyone who knows him – can guarantee is absurd.
He’s a board member of Amnesty International’s Ukraine section, a former journalist for BBC radio, and a founding member of the Ukrainian human rights organization ZMINA. For decades he has been a leading voice for the rights of asylum-seekers in Ukraine.
“Maksym Butkevych has been helping those left behind for two decades, always ready to lend a hand to refugees, internally displaced persons, people in difficult life circumstances,” said Maria Kurinna of ZMINA. “He is always attentive to people and has stronger antimilitarism values than anyone I’ve ever met, and always believed in dialogue over violent conflict resolution. To see this perverted reality when here is now portrayed as a Nazi would just be nonsense if we didn’t know how Russian propaganda influences public opinion in Russia.”
What happens next is unclear. There is some evidence the Russians might consider Butkevych a “high value” prisoner. The dilemma for his friends and family was whether to draw public attention to his capture, or wait quietly and hope for him to be released in a prisoner swap. But now the Russian forces have singled him out and identified him as a prominent far-right figure, those close to him decided it’s best to go public to remind people of his human rights credentials.
“The local human rights community is really worried about his destiny now,” said Kurinna. “Russian propaganda seems to be inflaming the situation to possibly accuse him of terrorism or some other politically-motivated crime. He has already been called ‘a big fish’ by the Russians. The Ukrainian government cannot ignore this really worrying situation and should provide his family and the other families of POWs with more information.”