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Nobel Peace Prize 2022: The Ukrainian Group Fighting For Civil Rights and Documenting War Crimes

Oleksandra Matviichuk poses for a photo in New York on October 3.
Oleksandra Matviichuk poses for a photo in New York on October 3.

Two of the laureates of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, announced October 7 in Oslo, have struggled for years against police-state repression, systemic rights abuses, abusive legal systems, and authoritarian or near-authoritarian governments.

One, Belarusian activist Ales Byalyatski, has been in and out of prison for more than decade. The other, venerable Russian rights group Memorial, has been forced to close after being hit with the punitive "foreign agent" designation.

But the third laureate comes from a different place: The Center for Civil Liberties is a human rights advocacy group in Ukraine, which has a flawed but thriving democracy and growing civil society sector.

Founded in 2007, the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties is one of a number of human rights and democracy promotion organizations that have played an increasingly vocal and influential role in Ukrainian civil society.

During the 2013-14 Euromaidan street protests, which culminated in the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych, the group's researchers joined an initiative called Euromaidan SOS, which focused on civil rights violations committed by security forces.

After the Russian-instigated uprising in the eastern Donbas region, the group got involved in documenting war crimes and torture committed by Russian forces and their local allies.

Led by lawyer Oleksandra Matviychuk, the center played a key role in advocating for the release of Ukrainians taken captive by Russian authorities, including filmmaker Oleh Senstov and writer Stanislav Aseyev.

In 2016, Matviychuk was awarded the inaugural Democracy Defender Award by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The center's work in documenting evidence of war crimes in the Donbas morphed into more focused research into Russian war crimes after February 2022, when Russian forces launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s government has actively sought to record allegations and evidence of war crimes in places like the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, compiling a growing compendium of evidence to be potentially submitted to the International Criminal Court.

According to its 2021 annual report, the group's main donors include the United States and several European governments as well as nongovernmental organizations in the United States and Europe.

"It was unexpected of course, but it's always pleasant," Volodymyr Yavorskiy, an expert with the center, said in an interview with Current Time, when asked for reaction to the Nobel award announcement.

Yavorskiy also said the award was particularly important for Belarus and Russia, which he described as "authoritarian regimes."

"Freedom is the antidote to this war and the antidote to the Russian regime," he said.

Meanwhile, some critics of the prize decision grated at the fact that the Nobel committee lumped the Ukrainian group together with organizations from Russia, which is waging war against Ukraine, and Belarus, which is supporting the Russian invasion.

"In Belarus and Russia human rights defenders are fighting for the rights of people in dictatorships," Ukrainian-born journalist Anastasia Magazova, wrote on Twitter. "And in Ukraine they document the war crimes of these dictatorships, because missiles fly to Ukraine from Belarus and Russia."

"Ukrainians no longer want the world to perceive them in a direct context with Russia and Belarus," wrote Magazova, who covers Ukraine for the German newspaper Die Tageszeitung. "Despite all the merits of the laureates from Russia and Belarus, Ukrainians do not want the struggle for human rights in the three countries to be perceived equally."

Not long after the announcement of the prize, Matviychuk, who could not be reached for comment, posted a message to Facebook, where she gave thanks for the prize, and called for, among other things, reforming the UN Security Council, including stripping Russia of its status as a permanent council member.

She also called for an international tribunal to try Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

"If we don't want to live in a world where the rules are determined by whoever has the most powerful military, rather than by the rule of law, then things must change," she wrote.

"My entire 20 years of experience in the fight for freedom and human rights has convinced me that ordinary people have far more influence than they think," she wrote. "Mass mobilization of ordinary people in different countries of the world and their joint voice can change the world history faster than the intervention of the United Nations."

In a 2019 profile, Matviychuk recounted her childhood outside Kyiv, and being asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

"I want to be a good person," she replied.