Ukraine Update: Pursuing Justice in Wartime with Nobel Peace Prize Recipient Oleksandra Matviichuk

Tuesday, October 24, 2023
Yves Herman/Reuters

Human Rights Lawyer based in Ukraine; Head, Center for Civil Liberties; 2022 Nobel Peace Prize Recipient


Chief Executive Officer, PEN America; CFR Member

Human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk discusses her vision for ensuring international justice and accountability for Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Matviichuk accepted the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of Ukrainian human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties (CCL). Since its founding in 2007, CCL has monitored political persecutions, documented war crimes and crimes against humanity, and advocated for victims of war crimes in Ukraine.

NOSSEL: Hello, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Oleksandra Matviichuk, head of Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties and recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize.  

I’m Suzanne Nossel. I’m the executive director of PEN America, and it’s a real privilege to preside over this session.  

So, Oleksandra, just to begin, I would love it if you could tell the audience just a bit about yourself and your extraordinary trajectory as an activist, how you were drawn toward human rights and civil liberties and affected by the extraordinary events in your country that kind of coincided with your coming of age.  

MATVIICHUK: When I was in school I was acquainted with Soviet dissidents, its intellectual movements in Soviet Union and as a child I was inspired by the example of people who bravely stood up against the whole totalitarian Soviet machine.  

These people were jailed. These people were subjected to forcible psychological treatment. These people were killed. But they didn’t stop. And they showed me very important lessons learned; that when you have no other tools, just your words and your own position, you have to use it. And this is a very significant instrument to change the reality. So that is why I decided to study law and to fight myself for freedom and for justice. 

NOSSEL: And how did you get started after you had received your degree? What year was that and how did it kind of coincide with how events were unfolding in Ukraine and the Euromaidan movement? 

MATVIICHUK: I was born in a poor family. That’s why I had an idea that I will combine my supposed successful commercial career and my work for society and that is why I started to work very early from the first class of university and I lately understood that I have to decide because when I finished my university I established the human rights organization Center for Civil Liberties in 2007 and we were concentrated mostly on educational programs, on human rights and democracy, and parallel I was working in Association of Ukrainian Banks.  

But then I witnessed that authoritarian regimes tried to build a centralized vertical in my country and suppress any dissent. And the last drop was when the head of our Association of Ukrainian Banks made a public press conference and he criticized the financial policy of the government. He told that it is a disaster for the country. And the next day, the tax police came to Association of Ukrainian Banks and made a false fine for millions, millions of hryvnias. This was the last drop for me. I understood that maybe I have to refuse of my goal to be a successful commercial lawyer because in such a country it’s difficult and dangerous not just to make business but to live in such a country and I have to—devoted all my knowledge, energy, and time for fighting for human rights.  

NOSSEL: And so when—in 2014 can you sort of walk us through your organization a little bit about what you were doing then? And then I want to come to the present and the war. 

MATVIICHUK: As I told, in 2007 when we established the Center for Civil Liberties we concentrated mostly on educational program and then 2013 came. For that moment I’m monitoring the political persecutions in the country of lawyers, journalists, writers, activists, different active people in society, because as I told then-Yanukovych regime tried to build this vertical and control the whole society.  

And then the Euromaidan started and it was the, like, choice and I emphasize it was civilizational choice of millions of people who stood up their voice against corrupt and authoritarian Yanukovych government and they peacefully protested against a stop of the integration process and they faced with enormous persecutions because the Yanukovych regime decided to destroy the peaceful process even physically.  

In that time I, together with my team, established initiative which is called Euromaidan SOS and we brought up thousands of people to provide legal and other assistance to persecuted protesters. It was a day when every day we have to help hundreds and hundreds of people who were beaten, who were tortured, who were arrested, who were accused in fabricated criminal or administrative charge, all these people—(inaudible)—would become their only one window to all persecuted protesters throughout the country.  

And I think it was a very dramatic time, but it provides me a very huge life experience which I want to share with you because it was also a time when we are faced against the whole state machine. The paramilitary groups, situshki (ph), cooperated with police. Police cooperated with persecutors. The court, the government, the former president, and the vast majority of parliament were against peaceful protests. They want to liquidate us even physically. 

In such circumstances it was so easy to say but what I can do when the law doesn’t work. But because our lawyers and our volunteers worked and fight very honestly for each person, for each procedures/measures, suddenly we started to work not on legal but on symbolical level where ideas and senses are merged and the main sense which we bring through Revolution of Dignity was that, OK, we live in a world without any guarantees. You can be beaten. You can be arrested. You can be even killed. But there are people who will fight, who will never left you alone, who will do everything what they can to help you, to protect you and your family, and this understanding, which we produce with our work of Euromaidan SOS provide a courage to people to overcome the fear and continue our struggle.  

So my main lessons learned which I want to share is that sometimes—maybe not even sometimes—maybe very often when you fight for human rights and human dignity you face with so enormous opposing power that all your efforts may seem has no sense. But you have to continue to fight honestly. And result, even unexpectedly, will be achieved. 

NOSSEL: Thank you so much. I mean, it’s very moving to hear about how you encountered all that and how your movement came to respond and kind of define this human-to-human identity, and it’s very resonant with my own work at PEN America, I think a very similar idea of trying to let people know that there is a backstop, someone is looking after them, that they won’t be alone when they take these risks.  

So let’s fast forward to the last couple of years and I’m curious, you know, for you with the full-scale invasion what the lead up to that was like. Did you think this was going to happen? What was your movement sort of anticipating at that point and what took you by surprise? 

MATVIICHUK: Maybe I will return to the beginning of this war because this war started not in February 2022 but in February 2014 when authoritarian regime collapsed due to Revolution of Dignity and Ukraine obtained a chance for the quick democratic transition, and in order to stop us on this way Putin started this war of aggression.  

Russia occupied Crimea, part of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and last year extended this war to the large-scale invasion. It’s very important to emphasize because this shows very clearly that Putin is not afraid of NATO. Putin is afraid of the idea of freedom and in this regard is not just a war between two states. This is a war between two systems, authoritarianism and democracy, and Putin tries not just only to punish Ukrainians for our democratic choice, which were made during the Revolution of Dignity nine years ago. 

Putin wants to convince the whole world that democracy, rule of law, and human rights are fake values because they couldn’t protect you during the war.  

So returning to our activity, we were the first human rights organization who sent mobile groups to document war crimes in February 2014. We worked in Crimea, in Luhansk and Donetsk region, and we focus on the practice of illegal detention, sexual violence, torture and killing civilians in the occupied territory by Russia as well as political motivated criminal persecution.  

I personally interviewed hundreds of people who survived Russian captivity and they told me horrible stories—how they were beaten, raped; how they were—(inaudible)—in the wooden boxes, electrically shocked through their genitalia; how their nails were torn away, their nails were drilled, their fingers were cut; how they were compelled to write with their own blood. 

One woman told me how her eye was dug out with a—(off mic). It’s real horror. And when someone asks me why Russians have done this horrible thing, I can only answer because—(inaudible). Because Russia committed horrible war crimes not just in Ukraine but in Chechnya, in Moldova, in Georgia, in Mali, in Syria, in Libya, in other countries of the world.  

They have never been punished. They believe they can do whatever they wanted and that is why I and my colleagues want to break the circle of impunity not just for Ukrainians, not just for people from other countries who have suffered from Russian atrocities, but also to prevent a new Russian attack to a new country and new nation.  

So when large-scale invasion started we faced with unprecedented numbers of Russian war crimes and now we document these crimes with joint efforts or initiative which we created, and this initiative is called Tribunal for Putin initiative. 

NOSSEL: Three billion. What is it? 

MATVIICHUK: Tribunal for Putin initiative. 

NOSSEL: So Tribunal for Putin. OK. Thank you. 

MATVIICHUK: Yes. Yes. And working together we jointly documented only for this eighteen months of large-scale invasion more than 54,000 episodes of war crimes. Fifty-four thousand. It’s a huge amount but still a tip of the iceberg because Russia use war crimes, the methods are for fear. Russia instrumentalized the pain. This is the way how Russia tried to break people of resistance and occupy the country. That is why it’s very important to understand that we document not just violations of Geneva and Hague Conventions; we document human—(off mic). 

NOSSEL: Oleksandra, how do you assess, now having done this extraordinary work of documentation, what the mechanisms and prospects are for accountability? I know there are multiple efforts on multiple fronts and different paradigms that are being explored and, obviously, major questions about how the war is going to unfold and, you know, what really are the prospects for accountability.  

So when you look ahead to sort of what shape such accountability takes what do you see?  

MATVIICHUK: Very good question, which I start to ask to myself from the March last year. I started to ask to myself for whom do we document all these crimes for. I have a huge respect to the work of historians. But I’m not a historian. I’m a human rights lawyer and we document this crime that so sooner or later all Russians who commit these crimes by their own hands as well as Putin, Lukashenko, and senior political leadership and high military command of Russian state will be brought to justice. 

But we face with accountability gap, which have two dimensions. First, there is no international court who can persecute Putin in his surroundings for the crime of aggression and all these atrocities which we document it’s the result of their leadership decision to initiate, to plan, and to start this war of aggression.  

Unfortunately, even International Criminal Court have no jurisdiction over the crime of aggression in the situation of Russia’s war against Ukraine and that is why it’s so important to establish a special tribunal on aggression and hold all those people accountable and the United States can play a significant role in it.  

This March the State Department made a very important statement that they support the idea of the creation of such a tribunal in the form of hybrid tribunal, which means this court will be a part of national system of Ukraine, and we welcome that United States supports the idea to persecute for the crime of aggression.  

But there is a very important detail in this statement. When you create a tribunal not in the form of international court but as a hybrid court such tribunal have no power to overcome immunity, which head of a state at a court of international law. This means that such a tribunal can’t prosecute Putin, and to establish a tribunal which have no power to prosecute Putin, the main responsible person for the crime of aggression, it sounds a little bit absurd and that is why we strongly believe that such a tribunal is not to be hybrid.  

Such a tribunal has to be established as international court. But we have a second dimension of this accountability gap and I will describe it as a person who directly work with victims who survived the hell and I know that these people they need to restore not just their broken lives, broken families, broken vision of the future, but their broken belief their justice is possible, even though delayed. 

And what I see for current moment this war turned people into the numbers because the scale of war crimes grows so large that it becomes impossible to recognize all the stories. But I will tell you one.  

This is a story of sixty-two-year-old civilian Oleksandr Shelipov . He was killed by a Russian soldier near his own house and this tragedy received a huge media coverage only because it was the first court trial after the large-scale invasion. On the court his wife Kateryna told that her husband was an ordinary farmer but he was her whole universe and she lost everything. 

This is the essential meaning of justice, that we have to provide justice for all people affected by this war regardless who they are, their social position, the types of crime they endured, and whether or not media or international organizations are interested in their cases.  

We must return people their names, because the life of each person matters. And for current moment, only official Ukrainian prosecutor office registered more than one hundred thousands criminal proceeding. It’s impossible to investigate actively even for the best national system in the world. Ukraine is not the best national system in the world. 

We can’t rely on International Criminal Court. It will limit its investigation only to several selected cases, which means that 98 percent will still a burden of responsibility of Ukrainian legal enforcement and judicial bodies. And we need international support to provide a chance for justice for hundreds and hundreds of victims.  

NOSSEL: Listening to you recount that, a question I wonder, you know, as someone—you spoke so eloquently a few minutes ago about the recognition when you were defending prosecuted protesters during Euromaidan, that, you know, the legal system wasn’t about what you could achieve in the legal system. It was about demonstrating to people that, you know, they had someone in their corner and on their side and ready to defend them.  

Do you see an avenue where, you know, where justice is defined a little differently? Is justice just prosecutions in the traditional sense? Is there sort of a testimonial element? You know, you’re talking about the farmer’s wife and just how important it was for her to have what she endured and lost kind of recognized. You know, is that something to be entertained or do you feel like by even entertaining that one is sort of surrendering this more fundamental imperative of justice?  

MATVIICHUK: I will try to answer to the question from different angle. First, because I work with victims of this war I know that people describe justice for themselves very differently. For some people justice means to see their perpetrators under the bars. For another people justice means to know a truth what happened with their beloved ones.  

For some people justice means to get compensations and without compensation that they will feel unsatisfied. But for others justice means just a chance to get a decision, to be heard officially, and to get this public recognition that something which happened with them and their family is not only immoral, it’s illegal.  

So it means that we have to build a comprehensive justice strategy to fill and to reach all these different needs of people. And maybe I will also focus why we have to do it and why it’s so essential.  

I mentioned before that this culture of violence which we now face in Ukraine it’s the result of total impunity. It’s long-lasting tradition. It started from the Soviet Union because when the Second World War finished the Nazi war criminals were tried on the Nazi—on the Nuremberg trials. But Soviet gulag had never condemned or prosecuted for the crimes against humanity they committed against their own people.  

So it’s a very long-lasting tradition of impunity and now we see that unpunished evil grows. Russia uses the war as a tool how to achieve their geopolitical interests for decades. Russia uses war crimes as a tool how to win the wars for decades.  

Russia—when Russia destroyed a half-million city, Grozny, in Chechnya, and haven’t punished; then Russia bombarded civilians in Aleppo, in Syria, and never punished; so no surprise that last year Russia destroyed from—to scratch, and we was a witness how they destroyed one residential block next to another residential block in Ukrainian city Mariupol, because unpunished evil grows. This means that justice, it’s a precondition to peace in our region because we have to break this culture of violence. We have to break this culture of denial of human dignity, and this is not just a Ukrainian problem. 

But second why justice is important especially for Ukraine in this regard, because justice is precondition to democratization of the country. Because when we speak about transformation, it’s not enough to adopt quality laws or build formal institutions; values of society always prevails. And this means that people have to believe that rule of law is effective mechanisms. So if we will not provide them justice it will be very difficult to make this transition very quickly. 

And maybe I will also allow myself to tackle the last point, why justice is so important for the world. Putin wants to convince that country with a strong military potential, a nuclear weapon, can break international order, can dictate the rules to entire international community, and even forcibly change internationally recognized borders, and if Russia succeeds it will encourage other authoritarian leaders in different parts of the world to do the same.  

The international system is not working. Now it’s obvious not only for people in Syria, people in Iran, people in Afghanistan, but for everybody. This means that democratic governments will invest their money not in education, health care, development, or culture, not in solving global problems like climate change or social inequality but in weapons and we will witness an increase of the number of nuclear states, the emergence of new weapons of mass destruction and robotic armies.  

If Russia succeeds and this scenario comes through we’ll find ourself in a world which will be dangerous for everyone without any exceptions and that is why it’s so important to demonstrate justice, to demonstrate that democracy has to win the wars and people who started aggressive wars has to be punished.  

NOSSEL: I’m going to ask one more question of my own and then I’m going to open it up. I have more questions, you know, and maybe some will be asked or we’ll have a little more time. 

I want to talk about culture because this has been sort of the angle for PEN America in Ukraine. I went with a writers delegation to Ukraine December of last year where we released a report on cultural erasure as both a motivation of the war and a method of war, looking at all the crimes against culture that have taken place over the preceding ten months.  

What I’ve witnessed in the ensuing period—we work very closely with PEN Ukraine, which is our local sister organization of writers—is also this extraordinary kind of resiliency that is being derived from culture and it was very apparent being in Ukraine just as we were there in December with winter closing in. We were there for the opening of a big new exhibition in the Ukrainian city center on a philosopher and it was beautiful, and it was, you know, a cultural event that people were celebrating in the middle of this war. 

And I would love to hear from you. Thinking about the fight between democracy and authoritarianism what is the place of culture in that? You know, is culture a resource? Should we be focused on it? How important is it and why?  

MATVIICHUK: Thank you for this question. There are so many things which I want to cover. I will try to be brief, but I will laugh myself, because you mentioned this winter and we expected a more harder winter, to tell you my personal memory.  

Last December I found myself in a flat without heating, light, electricity, water, internet connection, and then mobile connections was disappeared and told to myself, oh my God, I’m in the Middle Ages. I have never lived there but I have such a feeling, and my husband bring home two bricks and put it on the kitchen and I asked, my dear, what are you doing? Why we need bricks in our kitchen?  

And he told, I will try to put them on the gas oven and we will see how long they can keep the warmth. Like, can you imagine? I live in a modern country in a modern city. Like, we had completely everything before large-scale invasion started, and then everything which we called normal life disappeared in one moment and now I am in a kitchen during the winter, and winter is very cold in Ukraine, with the two bricks which have to provide warmth.  

So, like, it’s obstacles in which millions of Ukrainians now live and fight for freedom and for our dignity in the current moment. And maybe when I start to answer about the role of culture I will—I will allow myself to start with a more broader meaning what culture is. 

In 2014 I got a call from my friend and colleague, Russian human rights defender, and I must admit that we closely worked with Russian human rights defenders before the war started 2014 and even intensified our cooperation when the war started in 2014 and we now work on daily basis because we have thousands of illegally detained civilians in Russia and our brave Russian human rights colleagues help us just to find where they are and do what they can to, like, help in this awful situation.  

And this colleague told me our—(inaudible)—of death came to Ukraine. And I was so shocked because, first, it’s a very experienced colleague. He—now he uses words—(inaudible)—of death like literature in Orwell. It’s not legal wording. It’s not something which I expect to hear and then later I understood what did he mean. 

So I work now with the result of Russian culture because culture is not just ballet. Culture is not just beautiful Dostoevsky books or other famous Russian writers. Culture is stances, which is, like, transferred in the society. It’s patterns of behavior which society found for themselves appropriate.  

So Russian culture for me is dead bodies of civilians which you find on the street in the Bucha and those dead bodies lay scattered around the street until the liberation. This means dead bodies which we found in the garden of their own households, the dead bodies of civilians, men, women, and children, which we found in mass graves, in shooted columns of civilians’ car by Russian troops when these people tried to escape and evacuate their families and children from the danger zone.  

This means Russian culture for myself, and the problem is that Russia use the culture in more narrow meaning. I mean, the poems, the language, the other thing as a weapon and no surprise at first the Russian tanks appeared in Kherson and then banners with Russian poet Pushkin appears in Kherson because Russia is empire and empire always use their culture to colonize and to assimilate another nations.  

So what also wants to be add to this regard that empire has a center but has no borders, which means if we’re not be able to stop Putin in Ukraine it will go further.  

And returning to the—your question about Ukrainian resilience, I think it’s not Ukrainian. It’s human resilience.  

What do I mean? When large-scale invasion started the international organizations evacuated their personnel but ordinary people remained and ordinary people started to do extraordinary things. It were ordinary people who took people out from the ruined cities, who helped to survive under terrorist fires, who broke through the encirclement to provide humanitarian aid. 

Ordinary people have much more impact that they can even imagine and suddenly it become clear that ordinary people who fight for their freedom and for their democratic choice are much more stronger that even the second army in the world and I think that this is the root of Ukrainian resilience because the war is awful and I would never wish any nation to go through our experience but these dramatic times provide us the opportunity to reveal the best in us, to be courageous, to fight for freedom, to make difficult but right choices, to take burden of responsibility, and to help each other. 

Ordinary people started to risk their lives to save others who they never met before. My friend lost her husband. When large-scale invasion started he returned to the country because he worked abroad, and he tried to evacuate people for one city which was surrounded by Russian troops, and he was hit with something so heavy that my friends told that they have to put the remains of his body in one package because there was no even single body. So he lost his life just for a chance to save people whom they never met before. And this is incredible because when we help each other, when we fight for each other, in this time we have a(n) acutely aware what does it mean to be human beings. 

NOSSEL: OK. I want to open it up to our audience and I think there’s a mic that can come around. Maybe we’ll start in the back there. And then we also have an audience online and we’ll turn to questions there as well.  

Q: Hi. Thank you so much.  

NOSSEL: If you can introduce yourself.  

Q: I’m Anya. I work—I’m a research associate in the Russia studies department.  

So I was curious—you talked about an international tribunal but we see the ICC, which is nothing and would require Russia to surrender Putin anyway. So what model of an international court or tribunal would you imagine? Slava Ukraini. Thank you.  

MATVIICHUK: Yeah. Heroyam slava. 

First, I want to share my opinion about International Criminal Court. I think that activity of International Criminal Court is—(off mic). When International Criminal Court published this news about arrest warrants against Vladimir Putin and his child commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova, for the war crime of illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia, it was a very significant step which will have long-term and short-term perspective. 

A long-term perspective even skeptics have to look to the history of humankind, which convincingly proved that authoritarian regime collapse and their leaders who think that they are untouchable can appear under the court. And Milošević is a huge example, because Serbia didn’t want to transfer Milošević to The Hague but did it. 

But in short-term perspective this decision was important because even now there are a lot of politicians in different countries who want to return to business as usual with Russia and now they have to be aware when they’re shaking Putin’s hands like Orbán did recently in China they shake hands with the biggest child kidnapper in the world and officially accused war criminal. And this is a fact and I’m very grateful for International Criminal Court that they did it.  

Yes, it’s a first step. It’s not the full investigation. It’s not a verdict. But it’s important because even now, like, Russia as a Security Council member demonstrate that they can do whatever they want and International Criminal Court provide a message that we don’t care that you are a Security Council member. We don’t care that you have a nuclear weapon.  

If you committed war crimes we’ll persecute you and this is a future in which I want to live. It’s much more safer future for everyone. And to your point, such a special tribunal have to be established in the form of international court because only international court according the judgment of U.N. Court of Justice can overcome immunities of troika—the head of the state, the head of ministry of foreign affairs, and the head of government.  

NOSSEL: OK. I think we have one question online.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Dina Temple-Raston.  

Q: Hi there. Thank you for taking my question. This is actually a follow-on—sorry, my name is Dina Temple-Raston and I’m the managing editor of a podcast called Click Here, and I just got back from Ukraine.  

And my question I have for you is are you then suggesting that the form of justice would be something like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda but instead of ICTR it would be ICTU? Or what do you think the advantages and disadvantages are of that? And then sort of a follow-on to that would be is how much are these cases changed by the fact that you’re not going to have to depend on people’s memories to talk about, say, for example, what happened in Bucha because there is digital evidence of it? 

MATVIICHUK: Great question. Thank you very much.  

We have four international crimes: crime of aggression, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. And Russia can meet all these crimes. When we speak about tribunal in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, they are prosecuted for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.  

We speak about a tribunal which has to prosecute for the crime of aggression and this will be the main difference because it will be the second international court which was created after the Nuremburg trials.  

But I will allow to go beyond because this question provides me opportunity to speak about crime of genocide and I want to speak about it because it’s not visible for international community that this war has a visible, genocidal character. And it’s not only because Putin and top political officials of Russian state publicly tell that there is no Ukrainian nation—we are not exist.  

There is no Ukrainian language. There is no Ukrainian culture. We are all Russians. Then if you know Russian language and you can hear how it’s interpreted in the TV in Russia, Russian propagandists very clearly speak that Ukrainians has to be either reeducated as Russians or killed.  

And when you see there’s, like, a plan, there’s genocidal intent, you understand that this illegal deportation of Ukrainian children to Russia is not just war crimes. It is an element of this genocidal policy because they take children from one national group. They put these children to another national group. They reeducate them as Russians and this plus to another element which we document complete this crime of genocide. 

Because what we document? We document how Russia prohibit Ukrainian language and Ukrainian culture in the occupied territories and teacher from occupied Berdyansk told that first what Russian soldiers demand from them when they came to their school to provide them history Ukrainian books and books of Ukrainian language were destroyed.  

Also, Russians deliberately exterminate all active local elite. It’s not only mayors or local deputies. It’s journalists. It’s writers. It’s a priest. It’s any active people of community who help communities to self-organize and to (suppress ?) even peacefully with Russian occupation.  

So all these plus together is a genocidal plan, and I know as a lawyer it’s very difficult to prove on the legal ground. But as a human being you have no necessity to be a lawyer to understand if you want to destroy totally or partially some national group there is no necessity to kill all representatives of their group. You can just forcibly change their identity and that entire national group will disappear, and this is what Russians try to do. 

NOSSEL: Larry in the back.  

Q: Hell. Thank you—thank you very much for coming and we pay tribute to your courage and resilience.  

I wanted to come back to what you mentioned about why a domestic court could not indict Putin and that only an international tribunal can do so. That makes sense in sort of classic international law. But when you’re dealing with an international armed conflict it comes back to—it makes—to me, it makes no sense if you can take out Putin because there’s a valid military objective under international—under the laws of war, right. 

He’s a commander. Russians would say the same with Zelensky. They’re valid military targets. If you can take him out why can’t you indict him and try him in a Ukrainian court? This is not Belgium. This is Ukraine and Russia as two parties to an international armed conflict and it seems to me this head of state immunity, which the Americans love to bring up as to why they don’t want the international to preserve their own head of state immunity, why a Ukrainian court could not indict him.  

MATVIICHUK: Thank you very much. If I understand your question clearly, I will—can answer that because of the judgment of U.N. Court of Justice, which clearly states that troika has immunities and only international courts has a power to overcome this immunity, which means that Ukrainian investigation bodies and Ukrainian court can prosecute other people but not Putin. 

NOSSEL: Please. 

Q: My name is Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist. I served on the board of PEN for twenty years from 1974 to ’94 and at that time I was also very active on the Freedom to Write Committee. But when I left I became a member of the Council.  

And my question is for the executive director of PEN. The most important journalist political prisoner in the world is Julian Assange and he’s in jail because of the U.S. government in collaboration with the U.K. government. 

NOSSEL: I’ll answer that. I don’t want to take away from this event. 

Q: Why has PEN, unlike—for example, German PEN made him an honorary member? American PEN has declined, refused to run a campaign— 

NOSSEL: I’m going to ask you—I’m going to ask you—this is— 

Q: —for freedom for Julian Assange. Why doesn’t American PEN campaign for freedom for Julian Assange?  

NOSSEL: Thank you. Thank you, Ms. Komisar. Thank you, Ms. Komisar. 

This event is focused on Oleksandra Matviichuk. I really—I don’t think it’s the right thing to get into PEN’s policies.  

Q: I think it is and I know—(off mic)—you’re on the wrong side of this. You are defending his imprisonment on behalf of—(off mic). 

NOSSEL: OK. We have not defended his imprisonment. We have raised—I’ll say the same in a sentence and then I’m going to move on. We have— 

Q: Tell us what you have done to—(off mic). 

NOSSEL: We have raised concerns about the prosecution of Julian Assange on the basis that the crimes for which he is being prosecuted cannot be distinguished from the work of journalism. 

I’m going to turn to Richard Hurowitz in the front row.  

Q: Where have you done that? It’s never been in any media. 

NOSSEL: Thank you. Thank you. Richard, go ahead. 

Q: And there’s nothing in all of your—I get all of your newsletters. There’s nothing there. You’re not—(off mic). 

NOSSEL: Please go ahead.  

Q: Hi. Sorry. 

Q: We’ve raised it—(off mic). 

NOSSEL: It’s in our website, and that’s as far as we’re going to go on that point. Thank you. 


Q: Hi. I’m Richard Hurowitz. I’m a writer and a(n) investor and a lawyer by education.  

I was curious—the Rwanda tribunal was brought up. I actually volunteered when I was in law school for Telford Taylor, who had been the prosecutor at—lead prosecutor at Nuremberg, and I understand your point about war of aggression and, you know, holding Putin to account. 

But the—I also just wrote a book on the Holocaust and kind of the lesson that I think some of the—that comes out of that is that at least at the end of the war when commanders and people in the field who feel that they might be held accountable for the other three crimes—you mentioned war crimes and genocide and crimes against humanity, which, as you described, you seem to have documented quite extensively.  

Do you think that there’s a role for some sort of informal tribunal there and for that to work is there a way of getting a message to those Russian commanders who may suddenly feel that they might actually be captured and then held accountable? Because even the Nazis at the very end of the war that did happen and sort of that’s, in addition to justice, one of the roles of war crimes could be deterrence and the prevention of, you know, future crimes.  

MATVIICHUK: Thank you for the question. The truth is that we don’t know. Either we are in the middle of the war, in the end of the war, or just in the beginning of the war. So we have to find the answers to the complex questions now, not to postpone it to the postwar period.  

And for me personally, the main—one of the main lessons learned from this attempt of—judiciary attempt and other kind of attempt—(inaudible)—situation in Rwanda is that genocide is not started unexpectedly. There were so many signs. And when you read the memories to Shake Hands with (the) Devil, which was written by the head of U.N. peaceful corps which was sent in Rwanda, they described that there were so many signs, warning signs that it can happen. And my one—the main here is that if we will not stop Russians, we can reach situation when even the severe skeptics will have no doubt that there is a genocide. And, frankly speaking, I want to avoid such a situation.  

And that is why justice can have a very important role because one of—what I witness when I speak with people who survived from Russian captivity they told that their perpetrators were so confident that they will avoid any kind of punishment. This means that if we start all legal procedures now, not waiting when the war—and how the world will end, it can provide a frozen effect for some part of Russia’s troops and Russian commanders and in the context of war if even part of Russians start to be worried about their future it can save thousands of lives. So we must do it.  

And I return to the previous question. I forget—I’m sorry, I forget to answer about the digital instruments. It was very important detail because this were maybe the best documented war in the modern history because the digital technologies provide us enormous possibilities.  

One example. It was a very famous photo from Balkan war. You can Google it. In this photo a Serbian military kick the elder woman who lay on the earth and near this woman also lay two other civilian men and there is a pool of blood near them and when you look to this photo you have an impression that probably all these three people are dead and the Serbian military kicked their dead bodies.  

So this photo was made thirty years ago and last year a group of international journalists started to investigate what is beyond this photo was a story and they used only open data and they revealed the Serbian military. They found that this Serbian military have never been punished. He made a successful career as a DJ and still— 


MATVIICHUK: DJ. And still performs in concerts and festivals. What I want to tell with this example now we live in digital world where ordinary people with their ordinary smart phone can make essential photos and videos and sooner or later we will have access to at least part of them, and now we have such digital instruments which we can’t even dream thirty years ago to restore what’s happened, to document war crimes, and to identify perpetrators.  

The work of Bellingcat and other investigators convincingly proves that in order to restore the picture of events there is no necessity to even be on the spot. What is not so developed such quickly as digital technologies is international law and national law on investigation and prosecution of international crimes. And as a lawyer who know that law is a dynamic—(inaudible)—it’s not something conservative—I understand what the reason. The reason is in our way of thinking, in our perception of the world. 

There is two problems. First, we still look to the world through the prism of Nuremberg trials where Nazi war criminals were tried but only after Nazi regime had collapsed. But we live in a new century. Justice must be independent from the way how and when the war will end. It cannot wait. We must establish a special tribunal now and hold responsible for aggression the person accountable.  

And second problem is that people still think that it’s sad but normal that when you have the wars or other types of human rights crisis they were a lot of—there will be a lot of victims who have no chance for justice because of enormous amount of human rights violations.  

We have digital technologies. Theoretically, it is possible to track, OK, not all but the vast majority of stories. If justice is universal value we have to make justice as a universal service. 

NOSSEL: OK. I think I’m being told we need to wrap, and I just want to say when we were chatting for a moment inside before coming out Oleksandra said, you know, her experience has really showed her the international system has to be transformed and that it’s not working in Ukraine, it’s not working in the Middle East, and that we need a fundamental overhaul.  

And I thought to myself as someone who’s worked at the U.N. including with some of you just how hard that is. But listening to you speak and listening to your clarity and your vision and your passion on what you’ve seen and what you’ve taken on I do feel a sense of hopefulness that you will go forward and if anyone can make it happen it’s probably you. 

So thank you so much, Oleksandra. (Applause.)  


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