Justice and Accountability for Ukraine

Ukraine in Focus

The Russian Federation has committed and continues to commit countless war crimes across Ukraine; many parties, including the United States, have identified Russian actions as amounting to crimes against humanity. The willful killings, torture, rape, deportations, and family separation across the occupied territories inflict an incredible amount of pain and suffering on the people of Ukraine. Holding Russia accountable and restoring justice is considered the first step toward healing, even as the war still rages on. But what sort of justice will be commensurable with the suffering of Ukrainians? And how can the Russian state be held accountable for its crimes?

As Timothy Snyder notes on Substack, although “the wheels of justice may turn slowly…it is hard to think of many moments when so much legal attention was paid over a short period of time to a single dictator”. He refers to calls for the creation of a special tribunal, an idea championed by leading international lawyer Philippe Sands, which has since gained traction in capitals across Europe.

In the wake of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Sands introduced in the Financial Times and a Chatham House talk the idea of a special tribunal to investigate Vladimir Putin and his subordinates, given the International Criminal Court’s lack of jurisdiction over the crime of aggression. His call was picked up by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and within months, a coalition of thirty states assembled to begin preparations for the special tribunal.

Another international effort, which Snyder identifies as particularly consequential, is the ICC arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and Maria Lvova-Belova for the abduction and unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine. This is the first time that global court has issued a warrant against the leader of one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, according to the Associated Press.

International solidarity and international law play a key role not only in bringing justice and accountability to Ukraine, but also in defining the rules by which we want to live in the twenty-first century. Yet it is not only through international courts and institutions that justice can be served. Just as there are variations of crimes and injustices, so are there many ways people can seek justice and begin healing.

One example is addressing what literary scholar Vitaly Chernetsky calls epistemic injustice, the situation in which Ukraine has long been systematically discounted as a country that generates ideas and in which Ukrainian voices have been overlooked. This was one of the themes of a 2022 Vienna Humanities Festival conversation between Olesya Khromeychuk and Katherine Younger.

Since the beginning of the war, there has been a surge in cultural projects that seek to tell the world about Ukrainian history and culture, in their own voices. Many of these projects are supported by Documenting Ukraine, such as the podcast “Explaining Ukraine” and its French-language counterpart “Ukraine, face à la guerre”. Tetyana Ogarkova from Ukraine Crisis Media Center and PEN Ukraine President Volodymyr Yermolenko bring news to an international audience, “giving voice to the country and its inhabitants and showing the way in which, collectively, we are facing this war”.

Another way in which Ukrainians seek justice domestically is by collecting testimonies and chronicling various aspects of this war. An Online Archive of the Bucha Tragedy collects and systematizes photographic, video, and textual documentary evidence of the brutality of Russian occupation. Chronicles of the Revival produces video interviews in English that tell stories of Irpin residents affected by the occupation. Other Documenting Ukraine projects record ecological destruction, changes in urban life, the effect of war on people of different professions, stories of survivors, defenders, activists, and more. All these projects pursue several goals simultaneously: creating a detailed record of events, including Russian atrocities, for future use; honoring suffering and pain by documenting individual stories; and telling the world about the war.

The use of artistic methods and practices in documenting war crimes is now widely used by journalists. Most recently, IWM alumna Nataliya Gumenyuk presented six short documentary films, produced by The Reckoning Project, at Vienna’s Schikaneder Kino. The six films tell individual stories of war, including the abduction and deportation of children from their father in Mariupol, and the kidnapping and torture of the village council head in Stara Zburiivka, a village currently under Russian occupation. These documentaries serve a twofold function: they show the world individual stories behind the statistics, while also recording witness statements to be used later in courts.

Memorialization is another way in which people in Ukraine are seeking justice. As Ogarkova and Yermolenko emphasized in the latest episode of “Explaining Ukraine”, it is extremely important to honor the memory of those who perished in war. Being able to properly bury family members, constructing memorial sites, or creating digital memorials are all forms of collective remembering, returning dignity to the dead, and paying tribute to their suffering. The writer Stanislav Aseyev, who himself spent three years in illegal Russian captivity in Donetsk, set up the Justice Initiative Fund,a memorial site to preserve the facts of Russian atrocities in the national memory of Ukraine. Kharkiv – my favorite city preserves the memories of Kharkiv’s citizens by charting their favorite places on an interactive digital map.

While the current concern for justice and human rights naturally centers on events during the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is important to remember that Ukraine has a long history of human rights advocacy and discourse. IWM previously hosted a conversation between Sands and Serhii Plokhy, dealing with the questions of historical violence, injustices, and lessons for humanity’s future. Whether it is trying to understand the Holocaust in Western Ukraine or the Chornobyl disaster, both authors are concerned with the dialectic between individual and state responsibility and the entanglements of personal biographies and political contexts.

Politically, the concern for human rights and justice in Ukraine is not new: it has been present way before the full-scale invasion, and even before the Revolution of Dignity. Matviichuk founded the Center for Civil Liberties back in 2007. Raising awareness about human rights, documenting human rights violations in different regions of Ukraine prepared her to step in forcefully when student Euromaidan protesters were beaten by police on 30 November 2013.

One can, however, trace Ukraine’s history of human rights even further. In her interview for The Ukrainians, Matviichuk emphasizes her indebtedness to the older generation of Ukraine’s dissidents, who had a profound influence on her back in school years. Ukrainian human rights defenders, such as Myroslav Marynovych, paid a high price for their activism in the Soviet Union. Marynovych, a founding member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, spent a decade as a political prisoner in Gulag and in internal exile in Kazakhstan. The English translation of his memoir, which focuses on the emerging human rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s in Ukraine, has been published under the editorial guidance of Katherine Younger and is currently available online.