Meet Oleksandra Matviichuk from Ukraine
“Unfortunately, our government and authorities are not in favour of human rights”, says Oleksandra Matviichuk, with a voice that has been trained in explaining complicated topics in a simple way. She is a human rights defender working on issues in Ukraine and the Eurasia region with a focus on creating horizontal structures that increase civic involvement in human rights activities to protect rights and freedoms. The importance of her work grows daily.
Matviichuk was born in 1983, when Ukraine was still part of the USSR. She has witnessed first-hand the struggles of her country, which gained independence at the end of 1991. At present, Ukraine still faces major challenges in establishing a healthy democracy, overcoming poverty, dealing with civil unrest, introducing much needed reforms, and navigating a particularly tense relationship with Russia, which annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. That event was preceded by mass protests a year before against Ukraine’s former President, Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Vladimir Putin.
Though this region has few obvious answers to how its many riddles can be solved, people like Oleksandra are part of the solution.
Standing up for the oppressed
“I didn’t have very specific plans when I was in school. I wanted to be a producer in theatre but decided to study law to protect human rights”, Oleksandra says. Eventually, the activist in her took hold. “I was always very sensitive to injustice”, she says and explains this by citing her background, part of Ukraine’s often turbulent and traumatic history as part of the USSR.
At present she heads the human rights organization Centre for Civil Liberties (CCL). She started working for the organisation in 2007, when it was established.
Currently, CCL is engaged in introducing legislative amendments to assist the democratic transformation of the country and help the public control law enforcement agencies and the judiciary. It also leads international campaigns for the release of political prisoners in Russia, occupied Crimea, and the Donbas.
Would she say her life today is split between before and after the events of 2013-2014, when the Euromaidan protests peaked?
“It was one of the most crucial moments in our history since independence”, she says but notes at the same time that she had already been engaged with human rights and activism. What changed was how the Centre for Civil Liberties became even more active in providing legal support.
In 2016, Oleksandra received the Democracy Defender Award for “Exclusive Contribution to Promoting Democracy and Human Rights” from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). In 2017, she became the first woman to participate in the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program of Stanford University in the US. Through the years, she has been the author of a number of reports on violence.
One focus of her work is the updating of Ukraine’s Criminal Code, a topic she has been particularly interested in since the 2013-2014 events. She has been documenting the different kinds of violations inflicted by the armed forces on hundreds of people, including abduction, killings, beatings, rapes, and the mutilation of bodies.
Ukraine’s national investigative body and its associated prosecutors don’t have access to the occupied territories and, at the same time, she finds that the way the relevant laws and regulations are drafted is insufficient to kick start any legal process on international crimes. “In contrast to international laws, here there are deadlines for certain investigations and when a deadline expires, the case simply closes. This is a path to impunity.”
Matviichuk and her team have kept busy during the pandemic. “Ukraine also imposed a lockdown. We were worried that there would be rights violations once the government started setting limitations.” This was no guarantee that restrictions can be carried out in the best way possible. “According to the constitution, the government can’t limit freedom of movement or other human rights, it doesn’t have the laws to do that. And laws must be created to secure the legitimacy of the process and the rights of people.” This means that many restrictions are unconstitutional and gives room for the authorities to go unchecked.
Gender-based and domestic violence is also a topic she has been concerned about because during the lockdown those living in abusive conditions continue to live with their partners. “The COVID-19 pandemic adds fuel to old problems so they ignite again.”
A further complication is that Ukraine has yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. As in several other East and Middle European countries, this treaty has attracted controversies and conspiracy theories.
For over half a year now, a draft law on international crimes has remained unsigned by the current President, Volodymyr Zelensky. “There hasn’t been any explanation for his silence. Journalists have also inquired but received no answer. The system in Ukraine requires total loyalty to the President. If he stays silent on a subject, the whole system is silent.”
Pushing the invisible ceiling away
“A lot of women here will say there is no discrimination against them but that is because prejudice only starts when you reach a certain level. I started to feel it a bit later in life”, says Oleksandra who confides she has faced inappropriate situations. “There’s a glass ceiling which limits one’s development.”
Being a woman has also created situations where she hasn’t been taken seriously enough by people in power. A former Minister of Internal Affairs once commented on her beautiful dress. "Well, thanks for the compliment but it’s not like he would say to a man that he has a beautiful suit just to avoid answering a question.”, she adds.
She hopes that women will experience a “revolution of dignity” and that society in general will move closer to European values. “Sooner or later, I hope that women in Ukraine will not see the glass ceiling to their professional development that I’m seeing right now.”