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Oleksiy Bida (UHHRU): “Transitional justice will allow Ukraine to become a country that is free of the remnants of the Soviet authoritarian regime”

Oleksiy Bida, head of the Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, talks about the advantages of transitional justice, the reform of Ukraine’s security sector and difficulties with documenting war crimes.

What does transitional justice offer Ukraine?

Most importantly, transitional justice will allow Ukraine to become a country that is free of the remnants of the Soviet authoritarian regime. Transitional justice is an effective mechanism not only during the transition from conflict to peace, but also during the state’s transformation from the authoritarian governance model to democratic one. Corruption and extractive institutions are still widespread in Ukraine as a post-colonial country. Now, due to the efforts of communities, we have a chance to become a state where human rights are respected, where the law governs all, instead of powerful clans or individuals, and where law enforcement protects the people, not the system.

Oleksiy Bida, head of the Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union
Oleksiy Bida, head of the Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

If Ukrainian politicians accept the principles of transitional justice, how will this affect ordinary citizens?

First of all, transitional justice principles will allow people to count on a fair trial that will prosecute those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Should the reform of the judicial system fail, an international tribunal may be formed.

“Should the reform of the judicial system fail, an international tribunal may be formed”

Secondly, people will be able to hear a more truthful version of the events related to the armed conflict. The political theater often manipulates figures and statistics, distorting reality to suit its ambitions and deceiving the voters. That is why UHHRU Documentation Center has created and continues to develop the Memorial Map project, where we aim try to identify by name each person that died. With the same purpose in mind, we are reconstructing the events of military operations in specific settlements in the series of publications entitled Story of a City. Thirdly, the security sector reform will reduce the threat to ordinary citizens of becoming victims of a repressive mechanism.

Transitional justice is particularly interesting because its implementation requires mandatory reforms that would prevent a repeat of the conflict in the future. Which reform do you think is the most important?

The reform of the security sector is the most important for me. In post-Soviet countries, security and law enforcement agencies still remain a part of the oppression machine, it is a system designed to protect the ruling class.

“When reforming the security sector, it is necessary to completely overhaul the management and reporting structure, while the corrupt bodies, the legacy of the NKVD, should be disbanded”

In democratic states, law enforcement safeguards the security of citizens and the sovereignty of the state. I doubt we can break the old system just by hiring new people. The system is more likely to break them. Some will resign, and others will accept the old rules. It is necessary to completely overhaul the management and reporting structure, while the corrupt bodies, the legacy of the NKVD, should be disbanded.

You document war crimes and prepare materials for submission to international courts. How does this help the victims of the conflict and occupation?

Documentation of war crimes will help us restore the full picture of the conflict, identify its participants and prosecute war criminals. First of all, it is important to record an incident and gather as much information about it as possible. After the victims are identified, we thoroughly interview them, seek out witnesses of violations as well as other evidence that shows what happened, and identify the perpetrators if possible. The victims should keep all documents issued to them by occupational authorities. They should also undergo a medical examination and file a complaint with the police and the prosecutor’s office. After preparing a lawsuit’s case file, our lawyers sent it to international courts. In the future, victims will be able to receive compensation from the occupying power at the court’s order. In addition to pecuniary damages, we also should not forget about non-pecuniary ones. The guilty will be punished, and justice will be restored.

Monitoring visits to the conflict zone provide a large amount of information. Not all violations get noticed by the media, and the only chance to learn about them is by talking to the residents of the front-line zone in person. Such visits are potentially dangerous and require special training in the field of physical, psychological and digital security.

Inquiries also provide an opportunity for data collection. However, it should be noted that only about 10% of the replies from authorities provide useful information. Many local government administrations are either incompetent or not computerized.

“It should be noted that only about 10% of the replies from authorities provide useful information. Many local government administrations are either incompetent or not computerized”

The bulk of information comes from interviews with the victims. This requires good communication skills. Victims of violence are not always ready to talk about it or take steps to restore their rights through the domestic or international judicial system. Due to low legal awareness, the victims do not submit complaints or document marks of violence in time, which makes the work of lawyers more difficult and lowers the chances of proving that the crime had been committed. We need a large-scale awareness raising campaign to clarify the nuances of legal norms.

Interview prepared by Tayisiya Kylba, Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv

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