A little over a year after the Russian invasion, thousands of war crimes committed by Vladimir Putin’s troops in Ukraine have already been documented. Despite international condemnations and investigations against him, the Kremlin chief has already warned that he will not stop his brutal advance on Ukrainian soil. He is also aware that the way the international scene is currently set out, it is difficult for him and his close circle to be held accountable before international justice in a short time.
Oleksandra Drik is a human rights expert and activist with the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL), the Ukrainian non-governmental organization that last year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to document what the Ukrainian people are going through.
Last week he was part of a delegation that traveled to Brazil and Argentina to hold meetings with civil society actors from those countries, with political officials, think tank and media. olexiy haran (professor), Anna Liubyma (Head of the Department of International Cooperation of the Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and Industry), and Ihor Shaban (Head of the Commission for Dialogue and Ecumenical Affairs of the Greek-Catholic Church), were the other members of the delegation.
During his time in Buenos Aires, Drik spoke with infobae, within the framework of an event held by the Ukrainian Cultural Association (PROSVITA), which also included members of that country’s society in Argentina, politicians, diplomats and ambassadors. The activist spoke about the actions they carried out in South America, she recounted firsthand the atrocities that the Russian troops are committing in her country, and stressed the need to create a special court to try Putin and his close circlean initiative that the CCL has been promoting for a few months, which to date has documented more than 34,000 crimes.
“There is no legal system in the world that can deal with this number of crimes on its own (…) The ICC can only cover a very limited number of episodes and crimes, and in the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity it can be extremely difficult to bring the case to the top of Russia’s political and military leadership. This means that five, seven or 10 years from now, when the investigations are concluded and the court hears the cases, it is possible that only low- and mid-ranking Russian soldiers will be prosecuted and that Russian political and military leaders will go completely unpunished.” explained the Ukrainian activist, who described Putin as a “bloody dictator” who “has this very sick idea of restoring the Russian Empire”.
-I would like to start by talking about the reason for the delegation’s visit to Brazil and Argentina.
-This is a delegation made up of four people representing different areas of civil society in Ukraine. I’m the one who covers human rights, on behalf of the Center for Civil Liberties, which is a human rights organization that has focused primarily on documenting the crimes committed by the Russian military in Ukraine during the last year of the invasion. For our efforts, the organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year. We have been seeing a great effort in the defense of support for Ukraine in all the areas that it required, but also, and in particular, with regard to accountability for the set of crimes that have been committed against Ukraine and the establishment of a special court on the crime of aggression. This is precisely the objective of these visits. We speak with governments, legislators, civil society organizations, the media, think tank… We tried to address some of the narratives of Russian propaganda; we try to provide as much information as possible on the ground and we also try to explain why certain decisions have to be made in support of Ukraine. Like, for example, why Ukraine needs military support. This should help decision makers to base themselves on first hand information.
-I imagine that it is also a way to combat the Russian disinformation campaign…
– Exactly, you are absolutely right. Since we all live in Ukraine, in particular in kyiv, we ourselves experience all the consequences and, basically, the Russian aggression itself. And because I belong to an organization that has been documenting crimes, I have been to the territories that were previously occupied and then liberated by the Ukrainian forces. I have seen what the Russian army has done to the Ukrainians, both territorially and with the destruction of civilian infrastructure, and the attacks on the people themselves: murder, torture, kidnapping and all the crimes they have committed. Therefore, it is extremely important that we share this experience.
-In this year of the Russian invasion, many Latin American governments were criticized for their position on the war. Do you feel that there was support from the region or, on the contrary, do you consider that the condemnation of the Putin regime should be more forceful?
-If one looks at how the Latin American countries voted for the resolutions of the UN General Assembly regarding territorial integrity and condemning the simulated referendums that Russia has carried out in the occupied territories, the majority condemned Russia. They supported the struggle of Ukraine and Ukrainians for freedom, sovereignty and independence. And we, of course, appreciate it very much. A little different was the situation with decisions. For example, about the suspension of Russia from the human rights commission. Argentina, for example, voted in favor, and we are very grateful for that, because it is very important. The country that is committing gross violations of human rights and violates the UN charter cannot continue to participate in decision-making and must be expelled.
However, this is not enough for what we are currently facing. I understand that the perception of many Latin American countries may be that this is a very distant conflict and that it has nothing to do with them. But I don’t think everyone understands that it’s been directly affecting the people here as well. There was a UN analysis that calculated that 1.6 billion people in 94 countries have been directly affected by the factors triggered by the Russian aggressions against Ukraine, such as food security, the financial crisis and the energy crisis. Many of those effects that I felt here are also direct consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and it means that the people here have to pay the price for Putin’s imperialist ambition, because that is what this aggression is about.
Furthermore, it sets a very dangerous precedent with respect to international law, because it basically means that the existing instruments of international law are not capable of protecting countries from such flagrant violations, such as invasion. It’s not just about Ukraine, it’s about international law, and whether we continue to develop a world where rules matter; We are not going back to the era when only weapons and nuclear weapons were the only thing that mattered and could protect one country from invasion by another. It is basically a struggle between democracy and democratic values, and the imperial state and imperialist ambition. And it is in the interest of all democracies to protect these democratic values.
-In this international context, another important actor that is also accused of human rights violations and that has avoided condemning the Russian invasion is China. Do you worry about the role of Beijing?
-If you look at the results of how the countries voted for the resolutions in the UN General Assembly, you will see that only five have aligned themselves with Russia. Many abstained, which means that they may have their own interest in it to decide, but they obviously do not support the actions of the Russian Federation. And what is required at this time is to make sure that the efforts that have already been put into getting Russian troops out of the territory of Ukraine, and to make sure that there is accountability for these crimes and that they make up for all the damage that they have committed, they continue to push forward. We cannot tell countries what to do, how to act and what decisions to make. But what we can do is continue to explain why this is important and why the entire world is now paying the price and suffering for this aggression.
-Last year you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. What are the activities carried out by the Center for Civil Liberties and what does this initiative to create a special court consist of?
-The Center for Civil Liberties has basically been documenting Russian crimes since 2014, which was Russia’s first invasion in Crimea, then in Donbas and finally carried out the full-scale invasion. What we have started is an initiative called “Tribunal for Putin”, consisting of dozens of organizations covering the entire territory of Ukraine, which has documented more than 34,000 crimes to date. All of them are war crimes and crimes against humanity, and against the Rome Statute. We have verified murders, torture, kidnappings, deportations, leaks, destruction of civilian infrastructure… Basically everything that can be seen in the news, in the images and videos published on social networks and in other media, regarding what is currently happening in Ukraine. This is exactly the type of atrocities that we have been documenting. We do this not to become historians, but to ensure that all those responsible are held accountable and justice is served. To do this, we cooperate with the national authorities, who have the main responsibility for investigating these crimes. But there is no legal system in the world that can deal with this number of crimes on its own, so we have been using all the international tools available, including the International Criminal Court, the UN Commissioner, regional organizations like the Court European Human Rights… However, this is not enough. We have also been advocating for the establishment of this special court. It is an initiative of the Ukrainian government, which was supported as an organization and basically now asking the governments of the countries of the world to support this initiative.
-And have you received support from the international community?
-Well yes. I am sure that if this court is not created and the crime of aggression is not addressed, it will open a Pandora’s box. It will set an extremely dangerous precedent because it would basically mean that it is okay to invade another country to carry out all these crimes and there will be no punishment for the leadership of the country that has made this decision and carried it out. Why is this also extremely important? Because the ICC, the International Criminal Court, which has been established with the jurisdiction to investigate these particular types of crimes, does not have this jurisdiction at this time. So we have no other choice. We have consulted with many experts, including those who have been working in other courts, and they all confirm that this seems to be the only solution. And we have the idea, the model, of how it can be organized. What is basically needed now is to make sure that whenever this comes up in the UN system, we know that it is going to have the support of countries. And we are not talking about European countries, this is a global issue. That’s why we try to persuade the countries and the people of the countries of the world, that’s why we’re here. These are exactly the topics that we are dealing with during the meetings that we have.
-This week it was learned that the ICC will open two cases against Russian officials for war crimes in Ukraine. Although Putin will not turn anyone over, should they be convicted, do you think this is an important step to hold Russia accountable for human rights violations?
-Of course, it is important that the ICC investigates these crimes. That is why we say that the special court should only deal with one crime. There are four serious international crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression. Three of them, the first three, can be investigated by the ICC. The role of the ICC is basically designed in such a way that it is a complement; it cooperates with the attorney general’s office, and an agreement has been reached on the specific cases that the ICC should investigate. Of course, this is good, and we eagerly await the results of these investigations. However, the ICC can only cover a very limited number of episodes and offences, and in the case of war crimes and crimes against humanity it can be extremely difficult to bring the case to the top of Russia’s political and military leadership. This means that five, seven or ten years from now, when the investigations are concluded and the cases are heard by the court, only low- and mid-ranking Russian military personnel may be prosecuted and Russian military and political leaders may go completely unpunished. This is another reason why it is important to make sure that the crime of aggression is addressed and dealt with by the special court, because the nature of this crime is different from other crimes and it specifically targets leaders. We are talking about Putin and about 20 people. And the establishment of this court can be very fast, literally in months. Because, as I have said, the nature of this crime is different; the main victim is the State, so it is not necessary to go to the field to collect evidence. You don’t need to be in kyiv or anywhere in Ukraine, you can be anywhere in the world. You don’t need a lot of people or a lot of funding either. A model charge has even been developed for the crime of aggression. Therefore, I think it is extremely important what the ICC does, and the national authorities in Ukraine, in cooperation with civil society actors. In this way, we can ensure that all four serious crimes are held accountable and that all those responsible for these crimes are punished.
-You commented that more than 34,000 crimes were documented. I imagine you must have experienced heartbreaking situations. Of everything you experienced, what shocked or moved you the most?
-I have been in the recently liberated territories and I have seen what the Russians do when they drop a bomb that falls on a house, and it is completely destroyed. I remember well the first time I went to document and it was a small town called Moshchun, near Bucha, which has become synonymous with Russian massacres, and I spoke to a lady who witnessed her husband being shot three times by Russian soldiers and her neighbor two, just because they happened to be outside when the soldiers passed by. We have also documented all the stories of people being tortured, horrifying stories where, for example, they used electricity, gouged out their eyes with spoons, and used the blood to leave these marks on the walls… So when you listen and when you read all those creepy stories and when you see and talk to those people yourself, everyone who has been through it keeps asking the same question: why are they so violent? Because the Russian soldiers are being extremely violent and all these horrible stories of raping the elderly, of children being murdered for no reason… These people seem to have been brainwashed for a long time by Putin and the state controlled media. ; they do not believe that Ukrainians are human beings, and that Ukraine can exist as a separate state. For them it must be destroyed. This is what makes this work with a genocide. Russia has been attacking the energy infrastructure, so there are blackouts for days, and whenever the electricity is off there is no heating. Communication is bad; and there’s that air alarm that goes off every day, which means every time it goes off you have to go to the shelters. No one can be safe or feel safe, because the shelling is going on as we speak, and people are dying every day. Therefore, the nature of this war, the inhumanity of the Russian army, the way they treat Ukrainians as if they are not human at all, this is the most shocking.
-How do you think Putin will be remembered in history?
-I’m sure Putin will be remembered, I’d rather he wasn’t remembered, but I’m sure he now has a reputation as a bloody dictator, and he has this very sick idea of restoring the Russian Empire. He lives in the last century, and he has completely lost his connection with reality and does not understand that he is not only ruining the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world – in Ukraine in particular, but all over the world as well – but that it is actually acting against the interests of Russia itself. You can look at the polls they have in Russia: it’s clear that both socially and economically, in terms of reputation, this has been detrimental to Russia itself as well. I think it is in everyone’s interest, Ukraine in the first place, but the whole world, that we prevent him from committing this particular crime. Also for the sake of him not committing future crimes. And I’d like to remind you that this is not the first: Georgia, Mali, Syria, all these places where the Russian government, or Russian-affiliated groups, have committed war crimes.
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