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Serhiy Movchan (UHHRU): “We must explain to the public what transitional justice is”

UHHRU Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center analyst Serhiy Movchan on transitional justice, documentation of war crimes and national reconciliation

You document war crimes and prepare materials for international courts. How does this help those who suffered from the conflict and occupation?

UHHRU Documentation Center is indeed hard at work documenting the crimes that occur primarily in the east of Ukraine. Our efforts are focused on Donbas. Documentation sounds like you arrive at some place, take notes and that’s that. Many people see it like that. However, this is not just a story you hear and then never use. By arriving and communicating with people, you collect testimonies of the events that happened to them. This helps establish a number of important facts: these are people who were directly involved in the so-called armed forces of the DPR and LPR, this is hard evidence of Russia’s involvement in the conflict in Donbas. The main goal of this is to bring the persons responsible for instigating the conflict in Ukraine’s east to justice. We are talking about the political leaders of the Russian Federation.

These testimonies, given by ordinary people, sometimes without even realizing it, provide important information for the future international tribunal and institutions, as proof of the Russians’ presence in Donbas. The leaders of the aggressor states may deny it all they want, but even one person can provide the necessary information: who, where, when and how. Another aspect is prosecution of the leaders of the so-called people’s republics that exercise effective control over territories beyond the control of the Government of Ukraine. These testimonies are also important for bringing to justice specific persons that committed unlawful actions.

Quite telling are the instances when representatives of law enforcement, mainly military commissariats, ask UHHRU Documentation Center for information about persons that committed criminal offenses. By telling their stories, people lay the foundation of the future proceedings against the perpetrators at all levels: from a simple guard in a penitentiary facility to the head of the state directly responsible for starting the conflict in Donbas. This makes it a very important initiative within the framework of transitional justice, which in the future will help resolve the situation that has arisen  due to the lawlessness and total legal nihilism rampant in territories of Ukraine that are temporarily beyond government control.

Serhiy Movchan, analyst of the UHHRU Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center
Serhiy Movchan, analyst of the UHHRU Human Rights Abuse Documentation Center

Implementation of transitional justice in Ukraine envisages moral and material satisfaction to victims of the conflict. What is UHHRU doing for this?

The issue of moral satisfaction is an interesting one, and everyone understands it differently. For most people, this means bringing perpetrators to justice. This is the main purpose, not material compensation. This way, people seek to defend their rights and interests. This is very important, since in the future these people will be invaluable for the state and will become the driving force behind the changes. UHHRU spends colossal efforts on this, preparing materials for the International Criminal Court and other international bodies in order to ensure that those responsible for today’s events are held accountable.

As for material satisfaction, UHHRU Strategic Litigation Center is doing much in this area, namely preparing a large number of applications from individuals affected by the events occurring in the East of Ukraine for submission to the European Court of Human Rights. Thus, this work is mostly aimed at securing pecuniary damages. This is the priority task before us. Generally speaking, material compensation is what’s important for most people. Especially for those who lost their homes and property. UHHRU also spends a considerable amount of effort in this regard, to help people get compensated for lost property. Unfortunately, these is a great deal of ignoring by the government here, such as failure to comply with court decisions and unwillingness to hear out those that have no place to live, etc.

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

The question is, in what manner this acceptance will happen. Simply making such principles into norms of law will not bring a significant positive effect for ordinary Ukrainians. In any case, for this to play a positive role, we must explain to the public what transitional justice is.

First of all, citizens should realize how important it is for them, and most importantly – to seek reconciliation with those who supported the opposite side. Of course, we are talking here about prosecution of the parties responsible for committing criminal offenses on both sides of the conflict. We should not approach this issue in a subjective and selective manner. Everyone should be held accountable, and I believe, this will be a huge step toward the acceptance of transitional justice principles by the Ukrainian society.

Codification of these principles is probably not even the most important part. It will be the people who will be doing the reconciliation, ordinary people that live near the demarcation line, in territories both within and outside government control, not the politicians or civil servants. It would be great if Ukrainian politicians also did this, but I think it’s about the people first and foremost.

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

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