Human rights activists in Ukraine speak to Human Rights First about the immediate impact on them of the Russian invasion and what they want from the United States.
Human Rights First has been conducting research in Ukraine for many years and working with human rights defenders (HRDs) in Ukraine to document how Russia fueled a war in Ukraine.‘s eastern region of Donbass, attacked Ukraine‘s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and expropriation of public and private property in annexed Crimea.
In 2018, Oleksandra Ustinova of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAc) and I wrote an op-ed for Newsweek, outlining how the Russian occupation of the Donbass region, as well as Ukraine’s corruption issues , harmed the country.
She is now a member of the Ukrainian parliament and told me: “It is the moral obligation of all democratic countries to support Ukraine beyond declarations, with concrete actions. Severe penalties must be applied immediately. These should include personal sanctions against the oligarchs of Putin’s inner circle and their family members.
The call to block Russian banks from accessing the SWIFT system was echoed by Kyiv-based activist Nadia Dobrianska. She told me she had taken her parents from Kiev to the countryside for their safety, but even there they were waiting for Russian missiles to arrive within hours of our conversation. “The United States must impose sanctions,” she told me, “Putin’s regime should be sanctioned until the Stone Age.”
Ukrainian civil society leaders appealed to the US Congress with a list of sanctions they want to impose on Russian oligarchs and the designation of “Putin‘s Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Iryna Fedoriv of the anti-corruption and good governance NGO Chesno Movement called on the international community to impose a “total embargo” on Russia. “We are tired of reading promises of sanctions, we are losing people right now. Some countries have given us guarantees, and their promises mean nothing. We want to see real action. We need more support military.
Tetiana Shevchuk of the Anti-Corruption Action Center said: “We are busy relocating our staff and trying to make our international contacts understand that we don’t just need prayers and solidarity, we need real action, including military support. So far, it feels like we’re fighting this battle alone. Ukraine is resisting and will prevail, but the human cost is getting higher every day.
Some of those working in NGOs also fear that international financial support for their human rights work will now be cut off, and donors from the US government and elsewhere should reassure local HRDs that support will continue. .
Lyudmila Yankina of the NGO ZMINA Human Rights Center sent me a video at 4:30 a.m. from the Kiev air-raid shelter where she was spending the night. “There are strong explosions above us now,” she said. “We‘We will try to continue working and documenting civilian casualties across the country. Putin says he will punish anyone with an anti-Russian narrative, and maybe we will need some extra physical security.
Inna Ivanenko is executive director of Patients of Ukraine, an anti-corruption NGO that Human Rights First has worked with for many years. She told me she had escaped to a village 90 miles from Kiev with two young children. “I do not have any‘I don’t know if we‘are safe here, you‘I don’t know if a rocket will hit your house or not. We will have to hide in the basements if we are attacked.
If human rights activists want to flee Ukraine, the United States and other governments should help them. In his 2020 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, recommends that governments support HRDs in conflict zones and “facilitate national, regional and international relocation initiatives…including through flexible procedures and visa policies”. , [and] ensure that these are equally accessible to defenders, regardless of gender, and take into account their family situation or other circumstances.
The Polish government has so far responded positively to the prospect of Ukrainian human rights activists and others fleeing the Russian invasion. Marta Gorczynska, prominent Polish human rights lawyer tweeted that the Polish authorities have ensured that people fleeing the border from the conflict in Ukraine will be admitted to Poland and are directing people who have nowhere to go to reception centres. They promise to provide temporary accommodation, “a hot meal, drink, basic medical assistance and a place to rest”.
It is at least a practical thing, but what Ukrainian human rights defenders want is a large-scale, immediate and coordinated international response to save their country.