Defending human rights in Ukraine: an interview with ZMINA’s Tetiana Pechonchyk
Since the Russian full-scale military invasion began, Pechonchyk and the ZMINA team have conducted the essential, extraordinarily brave work of documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.
As we mark one year since Russia’s authoritarian regime launched a full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Freedom House conducted an interview with Tetiana Pechonchyk, head of Ukraine’s ZMINA Human Rights Center.
When ZMINA was founded in 2012, Pechonchyk and her team focused on promoting human rights reforms through monitoring, studies, and rights education and advocacy. After the invasion of Crimea and eastern Donbas in 2014, they had to pivot to documentation of rights abuses and other persecution in the occupied areas. Since the full-scale invasion began on February 24, 2022, Pechonchyk and the ZMINA team have conducted the essential, extraordinarily brave work of documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity in order to bring to justice the direct perpetrators, their commanders, and the senior leadership of the Russian Federation that ordered the war.
As we mark one year since Russia’s authoritarian regime launched a full-scale, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, what do you want the world to know about the situation in the country?
People should understand that this large-scale invasion was possible because of Russia’s imperial ambitions and impunity for its previous attacks. Russia began its aggression in Crimea back in 2014, and after that, it continued in Donbas. However, many international organizations, including the United Nations, stubbornly refused to admit Russia’s presence in Donbas. They called Crimea an “occupied territory,” but the Donetsk and Luhansk regions “non-government-controlled areas.” In Ukrainian legislation and for Ukrainians, these were all territories occupied by Russia.
The decision to grant Ukraine European Union (EU) candidate status reflects the bravery of Ukrainian people defending their country as well as a greater understanding of what Russia has done and how Russian interference has destabilized our region for decades—first in Transnistria in Moldova, and then in Chechnya, then in Georgia, where Russia provoked conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In Ukraine, massive war crimes by the Russian security company Wagner Group are now known worldwide. Wagner Group has also committed murders, executions, tortures, and rapes in other countries, like the Central African Republic and Mali. Russian troops were heavily involved in committing war crimes in Syria.
All this went unpunished for years. Russia has destroyed the entire system of international law. There is no effective human rights instrument to hold it accountable for what it has done. And this probably would have remained if the Ukrainian people had not bravely stood up to fight against this tyranny.
President Zelenskyy often states in his speeches that the result of the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine will define the future of the international rules-based order and democracy in the world. Do you agree?
Yes. It is important to understand that this war is not just between two countries. It is a war between two systems, between democracy and authoritarianism. It is an attempt by the Russian Federation to reconstruct the past—the Soviet Union, which died a long time ago.
Putin calculated that he already got away with it twice in Ukraine alone, and he would get away with the all-out invasion launched on February 24, 2022. It is important to understand that Ukrainians protect not only their territorial integrity and their freedom, but also the freedom of other European countries that Russian authorities would invade if Ukraine did not resist: Moldova, the Baltic countries, and Poland.
When Ukraine wins this war, it will signal to other authoritarian countries to think ten times before launching an attack. It could also be a signal for China. After all, the Russian Federation and its president, Vladimir Putin, obviously did not expect such severe sanctions to be imposed.
I would also like this war, and the tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilian and military lives that have been lost, to result in a restructuring of international organizations so that such great wars are impossible in the future. They turned out to be completely ineffective in preventing this war, and also in implementing direct mandates to help those who suffer the most from the consequences of the armed conflict. Russia remains on the UN Security Council and blocks all opportunities for the United Nations to influence the situation in Ukraine. The United Nations agencies and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) evacuated their personnel from Ukraine when the war started. Ukrainian organizations, civil society, and journalists, and ordinary people became the backbone of the national relief effort.
What was your role as a human rights defender in Ukraine before the full-scale invasion?
On the one hand, we dealt with the situation in the occupied territories. We worked in occupied Crimea, documenting human rights violations, the persecution of journalists and activists, and helping small local initiatives to continue their work there. We also worked with Ukrainian authorities to promote resolutions and laws in the interests of victims of Russian armed aggression, and to protect the rights of internally displaced persons and the rights of people living in the occupied territories.
On the other hand, we were also dealing with issues unrelated to Russian armed aggression. ZMINA promoted human rights–related reforms, conducted studies on human rights–related issues, and engaged in human rights education, especially for journalists. We monitored detention facilities. We fought against discrimination and torture in Ukraine.
Since the full-scale invasion began, our focus—along with more than 30 other organizations in the Ukraine 5AM coalition, shifted to documenting war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Russian armed aggression so that we can bring to justice the direct perpetrators, their commanders, and the senior leadership of the Russian Federation that ordered the war. We work with open sources and save information according to the Berkeley Protocol so it can be used later, including in courts. We can already see that some of the information we documented and saved in the spring is no longer available on the internet.
ZMINA also conducts interviews with victims and witnesses of war crimes and conduct field missions in territory that was liberated by the Ukrainian army. Two weeks ago, our mission documented torture cases in the Kharkiv Region, together with the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT). Our colleagues collect this evidence under the Istanbul Protocol, which guides practices for in-depth torture documentation. Prior to it, we were in regions near the Russian border—in particular, in areas near the village of Lyptsi—documenting forced deportations. All this is in service of overcoming impunity and bringing the guilty to justice.
How has Ukrainian society and government changed over the last year? How did ZMINA respond to war- and martial law–related challenges and adjust to these changes in society?
First, I should say that during such critical moments in the history of our country, we observe unusually high rates of trust from people toward the government. During the Orange Revolution, and EuroMaidan (the Revolution of Dignity), sociologists documented anomalous high indicators of support and trust in government. Later, when these situation stabilized, those indicators dropped again. Because historically, Ukrainians are pretty critical of their government.
Right now, we see remarkable unity in the country. The number of movements that exist at the moment! It looks like half of the country’s population became volunteers, many of my colleagues and myself included. In my experience, it is incredible. A month ago, I was collecting funds for a car for one of the Armed Forces of Ukraine battalions. I announced a call for donations and collected the necessary amount to buy this car in a day and a half. We bought it the next day, and then, on the next day, it was on the front line.
This incredible speed is dissimilar to how quickly [the military] gets tanks [from allies abroad]. It takes months. In Ukraine, people understand that the lives of their loved ones, relatives, brothers, sons, daughters, and acquaintances depends on how fast they can mobilize. Here, everything goes at a much faster pace.
The work of our organization has changed too. At the beginning of Russia’s invasion, when Russian troops attempted to circle Kyiv and there was heavy fighting on the capital’s outskirts, we supported evacuation of most of our team to the western part of Ukraine, or abroad. Now, almost all have come back and continued their work. Our organization also doubled in size over the last year.
But we cannot handle it all. Given the unprecedented scale of this catastrophe, our generation has to adapt to run not a sprint but a marathon psychologically. We must understand that we will work with these issues for decades—until the end of our lives. I think that acknowledging this truth will help us more resiliently accept the challenges we encounter every day.
Governments worldwide often refer to “national security” to justify restrictions on fundamental freedoms. Is there a contradiction between protecting human rights and national security interests?
There is, of course, a contradiction. The more security we get, the fewer rights and freedoms, and vice versa. The situation of war objectively demands stricter security measures.
Let’s take a curfew, for example. It is a reasonable and legitimate restriction of a person’s freedom of movement to limit the ability to walk around the city at night: curfews are needed to keep individuals safe during blackouts or to guard against hostile activity. In another example, parliament sessions are no longer broadcast online. This limits the right of citizens and journalists to obtain information. But on the other hand, such a decision to withhold information about the operations of parliament can be justified in light of the risk that Russia could target a session of parliament with missiles. The country is at war. We all understand these restrictions.
It’s also notable that not all restrictions are enforced. Since February 24 of last year, peaceful assemblies have been banned. But still, they are happening, and no one disperses them.
Still, various governmental bodies have tried to use the situation to disproportionately restrict human rights and freedoms. For example, last spring, there was a draft law that would punish insulting a police officer or a military officer. It is clearly a disproportionate measure. Even during martial law, it was hard to justify. What was the goal of this measure, and to whom will it serve? How can such decisions strengthen our security? Our organization is one of those watchdogs that tries to monitor and hold this line.
Another problematic development was the introduction of criminal liability for collaborationism, with a very broad interpretation of what constitutes a violation. One result, against which our organization spoke, was the deprivation of accreditation of several Ukrainian and foreign media workers who covered the first days of the de-occupation of Kherson and the joy of Kherson residents that the Russian army left the city. People greeted the Ukrainian military with tears in their eyes.
Still, authorities decided that the journalists covering these events should be punished because they violated established rules by traveling to Kherson. This is not only a restriction of freedom of speech, but it is unreasonable from the point of view of the national interests of Ukraine. After all, the ability of foreign media to show the sincere joy of Kherson citizens who took to the streets en masse dispelled the myth that Kherson really wanted to be occupied by the Russian Federation, or that most people in the so-called referendum voted to join Russia.
As a leader of a prominent human rights organization, what are the key challenges you’re facing right now?
The most important challenge is keeping the team safe. During field missions, people must have bulletproof vests, first-aid kits, and helmets. It is also psychological safety in addition to physical safety. We hold psychological retreats for our team every six months or at least once a year. We are also concerned with digital security and continuously improving our policies for working with digital sources and resources.
Work was especially difficult for our team in October and November 2022 when part of the power plants and power generation facilities were destroyed by Russia’s constant shelling of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. And the capital, where most of our team and our office is located, was subjected to particularly brutal attacks. If there was no electricity, there was no internet, and there was no mobile phone connection. It was very difficult to buy charging stations and energy-saving devices because they simply were not on the market, or the prices were too high. It destabilized our work a lot.
Now the situation has become better because Russia has already fired most of its missiles with which it wanted to destroy Ukraine’s energy system. And, through the supply of Western models of air defense systems, Ukraine has increased its ability to shoot down these missiles. We expect that when the Patriot missiles arrive in Ukraine, we will be able to shoot down types of missiles we’re not able to so far.
What should be a priority for Ukrainian society after the end of Russia’s brutal war?
In my opinion, there will be two main priorities.
The first will be overcoming the consequences of Russian armed aggression: restoring the rights of victims of the terrible things that happened here, and rebuilding our country. This will involve documentation, investigations, and legal proceedings, including in judicial procedures abroad; and the confiscation of Russian money to fund reconstruction and sustain compensations for victims. All processes are generally related to society’s rethinking of what happened and how to live on.
The second is the democratization of our country and undertaking reforms related to joining the European Union. This includes the fight against corruption, the establishment of the rule of law, judicial reform, the reform of the police and the law enforcement system, and the improvement of environmental standards. It also involves further strengthening of the country’s defense capabilities and our entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to guarantee us that Russia will never think about attacking us again.
These reforms combined should make our country strong, independent, and attractive for the return of Ukrainians who went abroad during this year of full-scale invasion.
What role should the international community, including governments, international organizations, and international NGOs, play?
They should encourage the Euro-Atlantic and European integration movement of Ukraine. But, they should also be meticulous when it comes to Ukraine’s fulfillment of its obligations. It is very important that we come out of this war as winners, not only by liberating our territories but also by carrying out deep internal reforms so that Ukraine becomes a successful, prosperous, democratic, European country.
Tetiana Pechonchyk founded ZMINA Human Rights Centre in 2012. She has been the head of the board since its establishment.
ZMINA Human Rights Centre has educated policymakers and the public about key human rights issues since 2012. Through extensive collaboration with traditional and new media, educational and training programs, and domestic and international human rights advocacy, ZMINA has expanded knowledge of and respect for human rights across Ukraine. Since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and military aggression in the east of Ukraine in 2014, ZMINA has documented the impact of the armed conflict on civilians. Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, ZMINA co-founded the Ukraine 5AM Coalition, a prominent network of Ukrainian human rights organizations, to document evidence of war crimes and genocidal tactics. It leads advocacy efforts to push for accountability and justice on national and international forums.
In 2020 Tetiana Pechonchyk was awarded with the Human Rights Tulip award by the Embassy of Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ukraine.
In 2022 ZMINA received a Democracy Defender Award from the OSCE and the Ukraine 5AM Coalition was awarded the Open Society Prize from the Central European University.
Source: Freedom House