Episode 10 - How are war crimes being documented in Ukraine?
In this episode we speak with Olexandra Romantsova from the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) in Ukraine – the NGO that won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2022.
One of her key responsibilities is working to document war crimes and advocate for victims of human rights violations in Ukraine. We focus on introducing Olexandra and her career, as well as her recommendations for improving access to justice, especially at and via the International Criminal Court, the ICC.
For more on the CCL go to: https://ccl.org.ua/en/
To support the work of the CCL you can:
a) make a donation at: https://flandings.io/DonateCCL/#/
b) join as a volunteer at: https://ccl.org.ua/volunteers/
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Hello and welcome to Just Access. In this podcast series, we talk to some fascinating people, legal experts, academics and human rights advocates to explore ideas about the future of human rights and improving access to justice for all. I’m Dr. Miranda Melcher, a Senior Legal Fellow at Just Access, and in this episode I speak with Olexandra Romantsova from the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine. One of her key responsibilities is working to document and advocate for victims of war crimes in Ukraine. We focus on introducing Alexandra and her career at the Center for Civil Liberties, on her recommendations for improving access to justice, especially at and via the International Criminal Court, the ICC. So you obviously have a really interesting current job and we want to learn about that, but can we maybe start off telling us a bit about your background? How did you come to join the Center for Civil Liberties?Olexandra Romantsova:
Oh, that’s really interesting questions, because I have known my head of our organization, Alexandra Modvichuk from student time. We both was representative of students’ self governments of our university, and we have a connection there and we know each other like proactive students, you know, with strong position about anything. But after university, each of us, we started working in commercial sphere. I working in the BNP Paribas group, it’s international bank, joining like huge group, financial group and working there seven years; Alexandra started working in Association of Bank of Ukraine, but from 2008 she going to like a Director of Center for Civil Liberties, and me I’m till 2013, exactly don’t have any social activity or something like this, you know, position with connection with NGO. But in 2013, when Jewromajdan started, before even November 30 when student was beaten in the Maidan, I was really supported in Eurointegration wave of Ukraine. So I’m started back to my connections with proactive friends who take a part in Maidan and that moment I was exactly need to be one of the person who’s staying in Maidan in the night when police attack student there. But that was little change plan, and I plan to do that next night but in the morning of 30th of November, 2013, I wake up from huge numerous of messages from people who was attacked at Maidan and who stay now in church and that we have this fighting with the police and I go in there. That moment I start to be a participant of huge Euromaidan, like a Revolution of Dignity. But I’m trying to find some possibility be useful in organized way but in evening, because all the day I working in the bank. So I called to Alexandra and ask her do they have any ideas, maybe any initiative which I can be useful? And she told yes, we opened the hot Jewromajdan SOS and that line needed be 24 hours for seven. So if you know someone who prepared to have a duty in the night it’ll be really useful. I told yes, I know that person, it’s me. So all the three months every night I’m going to hotline and from 4:00 AM till 8:00 AM that was my duty time, I’m staying there, accept the calls and all the three months all the volunteers of hotline Jewromajdan we accept more than 16,000 calls. And that was different cases about missing people, about people who was arrested, even from anti-Maidan. People call us, ask about their rights, possibility to left there because they was forcibly bringing to Kiev to be part of such called peaceful demonstration supported by President Yanukovych. So that was my nightly life, three months and I stayed in office and started looking around, you know, so find some books about human rights and all this time understood that that’s my values, my usual values of my life, but they call them human rights. Okay. And I decided to started working here so I ask Alexandra I wanna work with you. And she told, you know, we don’t have like job place, we don’t have a workplace, we don’t have a salary. I say, okay, what I need to do to, to have it. She told no. So we need to have new projects supported by some phones or something like this. And I say, okay, what I need to do for that? She told we have like a form for competition about such grants and that was UNDP, and that moment we feel understanding that we feel that Madan it’s finished like a topic, but main cause for Jewromajdan SOS hotline that was from Crimea and Donbas. Something happened there. That was spring of 2014. We go in there like mobile groups, like just to look what happened there, observe, and we decided, wrote the application about documenting war crimes and monitoring political persecution in Crimea. And that started 2014, my first project and exactly last 9 years I do same. I mean, I working with this and so I am like full cycle employee, you know, I create my job place, I do that, I make a report about that and taking money for that. So it’s look like this. So May, 2014, first May, it’s official day of working here in Center for Civil Liberties.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
Amazing! What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing that path with us. What then, this work that you’ve been doing since 2014, what does that look like on a normal day? What do you do every day in that role?Olexandra Romantsova:
Oh, normal day. It’s complicated to understanding in human rights in Ukraine. But, what does it mean? If I’m at office now, I’m Executive Director, that means that I have team 23 person and all of these people, part of them care about communication, financial process, some of international connections, so our like usual duties and we have 11 projects now. So I have a Project Manager who going their own topic, for example, we have Freedom House Project together with Freedom House about monitoring by Ukrainian citizens different services from Ukraine. For example, now we observe conditions of bomb shelters because it’s responsibility of police and emergency services. So people like, usual ordinary people, we teach them how we observe of such services from state. So it can be observation of police work, it can be observation of court work, and so on and so forth. So our main, one of the main goals that ordinary people need to take such skills, you know, to control their own state. We have a project about prisoners. Before 24 February that was political prisoners. We call them like this because Russian have a political motivation, kept their people in Crimea and Donbas brings into territory of Russia Federation, the jails, and now this much bigger numerous of people because Russian kidnapped by Russian forces civilians and now holding them in Russian jails. And forcibly transformed them from Ukrainian to Russia Federation. So all this, all this topic, it’s every day. That means that we have meetings. We decide to make some public events or communication, prepare some informal campaign, information campaign, or we gather other volunteers and propose and do something. For example, prepare some new cases. We speak with relatives, some of people who dismissed or was captured, so every day it’s a lot of different work. And except that sometimes because we have a lot of invitation from different international levels, from politicians, from some NGOs, from some initiatives to go to some other countries to speak about the situation in Ukraine, to give the understanding, what kind of support we need so on and so forth. And we speak about, first of all, justice, because one of the main goal for organization now, it’s create mechanism of justice for each person who’s suffering from war crimes here. And that’s a lot of work, you know, we call that advocacy work. So we speak with politicians from all the countries around the Ukraine and just give them arguments why need to create Tribunal for Putin that was Tribunal against crimes of aggression. Because in history that’s not so usual to create such Tribunals. So, we speak a lot, I do a lot of mailing, a lot of mailing! Sometimes we speak about some nice or creative things. How need to be looks banners, or what kinds new imagine of… Today, for example, we have our board meeting and they exactly accept our yearly, we have reporting every year, official reporting. So now they’re voting for this report. So it’s look like this, it’s like mix between something really administrative with something really create. But today, for example, in the evening, I have a training for one of state bureau about international humanitarian law.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
So that’s actually something I’d love to ask about. How does the organization interact with the International Criminal Court, the ICC?Olexandra Romantsova:
We really collaborate with them because first of all we collaborate with general Prosecutor Office, and that’s main link with International Criminal Court. But for your information, in 2000 I told you about that we gathering 16,000 calls and we prepared for them first Ukrainian appeal to International Criminal Court because a lot of these calls have information about violence against human rights. That exactly was systematic. And that why we appeal that here. It’s crimes against humanity happened by Yanukovych regime. So we appeal first International Criminal Court after that Ukrainian government appealed to them, like spread the jurisdiction in the territory of Ukraine started from 21st November 2013, and it’s continuing now. So we collaborate with them. Sometimes we have concrete direct meeting with them because we represent Tribunal for Putin. It’s joining of Human Rights Organization of Ukraine who cover all the territory of Ukraine. And we documented war crimes where we have access, we going by field mission. So it’s one, yeah, one usual day for me just going in some Kyiv region village, a few. And speak with people about what they saw, what they feel, how did, what occupation going or so and so forth. So all of this, all of this exactly we share with the General Prosecutor Office. And International Criminal Court really interesting in this database because it’s give them understanding what kinds crimes, what kinds cases can be useful for their cases.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
Hmm. So obviously 16,000 calls is a lot.Olexandra Romantsova:
But for understanding, now we have 32,000.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
So is there a problem of too much evidence? How do you manage that scale?Olexandra Romantsova:
Look, it’s doing not only our organization it’s important, but we are not doing investigations. Need to understood that. It’s not same like police doing criminal investigation, you know, they go in each evidence, they put in the special, you know, pockets, special documents or something like this. No. Documented it’s quite easily processed, I mean, easily in one way. When you heard about something what can be potential war crimes because not all what happened during the war is potential war crimes. So we heard that in some villages that exist hospital and that hospital was shooting. So we go in there, we need to be sure and confirm, have information from three different sources that, that exactly happened, someone shooting in this building. So we go into the object, look at them, observe, find the bullets, or find some rockets tracks and make a photo, video. But after this, we need concrete people. We, because we need be sure exactly what day, what time, how many people saw it. We need exactly three person, like separate, three person who can confirm it that it’s happened, that it’s not like, just from, I dunno, second world war. So it’s really important. And after this we documenting that mean we just have concrete confirmed that it’s happened. So we collect all of this information, put in our database because it’s important to see patterns, to see systematic like this hospital, next village hospital, in Kherson region hospital in Halki hospital, and that we see that a Russian army exactly not respect any human rights or any international humanitarian law like rules about protecting like medicine institutions. So it’s really important to understood that we, we are not made the investigation. It’s take a time, like create one case with, without details, but put hold what we can support. We take contact with these people and when, for example, general prosecutor office come to us and told do you have some information about this village, about this period? Yes, we have 23 cases in this village, during this period that 13 cases. And we have such contacts with people who confirmed that it’s happened and general prosecutor office do like investigation work. So it’s a lot. Yes. Because for understanding like each address, each building was exactly striking and that was residence building and that was not military building. It’s need to be put in separate case. So it’s a lot, it’s true. That’s why so important to have not only international mechanism of justice, I mean international tribunal against crime of aggression and international criminal group because they will take like 20 cases at maximum, but we need mechanism here in the national level, mechanism of judging such case and give the decision and give the solution about who was perpetrator, what kind status, and what kind of reparation need to give to any victims of these crimes. That’s why we think that we need some kind of courts, represented to kinds of judges, prosecutor and lawyers. It’s Ukrainian and national and international and quite a lot. Why so? Because first of all, we don’t have enough hands. A lot of policemen, investigators, prosecutors going to the frontline. At Frontline, you can now find from teacher till deputy, from writer till, I dunno, kindergarten teacher, you know, anything. Like mostly Army it consists from ordinary people like ordinary civilians, and it’s not professional militaries. So same, you can find the lawyers, prosecutors, policemen, like human secret services, people who now just take a service like usual army soldiers or officer. So that’s why we don’t have enough hands. We don’t have enough experience. We even not have really strong legislation about that. So we need to discover all of us from the beginning, all of this. That’s why it’s so important to have support from international level, from judges, from prosecutors who have a lot of experience in different countries against war crimes and crimes against humanity, and they’re experienced to work with genocide episodes, so that’s why we need them.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
And why then, given this need, do you think that Ukraine has not ratified the Rome Statute of the ICC?Olexandra Romantsova:
It’s really important to understood that it’s not so easy. You know that we have a long story about that. From one side, our constitution court, they give the decision that ratify will be wrong against our constitution. After this we changed later our constitution and they told yes, it’s possible, but after four years we will be prepared for that. So now for ratify of Roman Statute one of situation it’s gonna be that we need to change constitution, but during the Marshall Law, you can’t change constitution. From one side. From other side, it’s a big question position of militarians. When you speak about that militarians can be punished by Rome Statute. They thought about, yeah, sure, we don’t have a normal time to make a investigation, so we don’t wanna that Russia started a case against us because they do that not one time they will just pawn international prosecutor office because they have a lot of money, a lot of lawyers, blah, blah, blah. So it’s create more problems than now brings some solutions. So Rome Statute its in the plan. It’s one of the point of European Union join. So, it’s need to be solved but question about do that concrete now it’s have some problems. So you need to change some things which not so easy changed during the Martial Law Act. So as for me, it’ll be really good to have good, strong, informed campaign for Ukrainian militarians. Why Roman Statute need to be. We speak before that when we don’t have martial law, eight years we exactly speak with different kinds of militarians. Just trying to explain them. So with politicians, explain them because Rome Statute bring quite a lot of change in our criminal code and criminal processual code. And we even prepare special legislation, but it’s too complicate start. So as for me, yes, it’s need to be, I think International Criminal Court, it’s exactly, its structure, which Ukrainian need to have a voice. Now we give them possibility. Now, International Criminal Court can work in the territory of Ukraine totally without any measures. So, if someone from Ukrainian army do something which look like war crimes or something like this, International Criminal Court can investigate it. It’s not a problem. But problem that Ukraine don’t have any voice, ukrainian not elect judges, ukrainian, not elect general prosecutors, so it’s specific situation. I mean, we collaborate a lot, we give a lot of information, they do investigation, biggest team in the history of International Criminal Court work here. But, we don’t have any voice inside of this structure. It’s really strange.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
It is strange and complicated. So thank you for explaining all of those pieces that you’re working on and that need to happen. And I guess as my final question, I know a lot of people listening to this might be students or recently students, or people generally interested who want to help, right? Ukraine is something a lot of people are aware of. So, how can listeners help your organization and your work if they want to?Olexandra Romantsova:
Like easiest, if you wanna help just once time, it’s easiest it’s money. I mean, you have a possibility to choose any human right defenders organization in Ukraine and just give them money because on their sites, same like Center for Civil Liberties, you can find the page where you can see whole accounts and can just donate the money. It’s one of the version, if it’s like, you know, one day like impulse. But if we will speak about if we wanna take some times and prepare to spend it for Ukraine, for our struggle here and for situation here because as for me, what happens here, it’s a history. So being part of this, it’s really important to understanding how democracy build near of you, you know, like your neighbors. So we accept, for example, interns. We make a agreement with university and if you decided that it’s place for your internship. It can be distance, I mean, it’s not need to come here, but you can come here, just remember about security issues. But, we have interns by, in distance way. They support us and help with our daily work every day and you can be volunteer for, for example, gathering the evidence and testimonies because a lot of Ukrainians outside the Ukraine, so even your countries, any European countries, and not only European, Ukrainian going to Latin America, Australia, in New Zealand, we have Ukrainians everywhere and some of them even not understood, but they’re victims and witness of war crimes. So you can gather their testimony together with us, speak with them, and give them support. Because a lot of people need to share all what happened with them, just to be easier to feel that, you know, all of this experience. So like this.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
Wonderful. Well, thank you for explaining the many ways that people can help and of course, to continue to follow the work that you and your colleagues at CCL are doing. And of course, across the whole human rights defender space in Ukraine.Olexandra Romantsova:
Thank you. Thank you.Dr. Miranda Melcher:
Thank you so much, Olexandra, for helping us understand your career, your day-to-day work and what you and your colleagues do to document war crimes happening across Ukraine about the systems for justice within Ukraine and at the international level as well as ways that listeners can get involved in this work. And for our listeners, stay tuned for future Just Access interviews.