Humanitarian Aid: Nobel Laureate Oleksandra Romantsova on Why We Need Human Rights Defenders

АвторОлена Тищук
27 Березня 2023

Humanitarian Aid is the series of offline charitable events in Kyiv by Ukrainian magazine Platfor.ma aimed at those whose school lessons on History, Ukrainian Studies, and Art were insufficient. Each week, we invite the top experts in the humanitarian field, offering them to share their expertise on certain matters. This time we talked about human rights defense and its role in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Oleksandra Romantsova, a human rights defender, Executive director at the Center for Civil Liberties, and Nobel Peace prize laureate not only explained what the human rights defenders’ work is all about, but also shared how it feels to be awarded a Nobel.

🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here 🇺🇦

Being a democracy, we know that the reason we elect our officials is that they do our bidding. However, it has not always been like that.

A long time ago, people believed that authority was Godsent, bestowed upon some specific king or pharaoh; upon someone who seems supernatural and unique. Revolutions in Europe, the French Revolution, and the First American Revolutionary Warall those events transformed the social contract, and being selected by some supreme force was no longer enough to gain power. 

Russia, however, got stuck in that primeval habit of thought, so Vladimir Putin, a grey blur of a man, managed to create that system of mystical belief that he was chosen to have power for his ability to do things the rest of his people are unable to do. Whatever the terrorist state might pretend to be, their social contract is of that primeval type, with the chosen one selecting his close associates to join his aristocracy, most often the military one, so that he had someone to defend and protect him.

Because, historically — why were some people knighted, and why were they given lands to own? They were pretty good at warfare, that is why. It was later that they were romanticized and attributed some Code of Honor, while what they really were was part of the system protecting those in power, part of the coercive system over their people — a system where the plebs obediently knew their place at the very bottom of the pyramid.

Over time, however, the plebs started asking questions. For instance, in the 13th century Britain everyone was so pissed off by prince John (John Lackland) continuously introducing new taxes that the feudal lords — the aristocracy that was supposed to protect him — turned against him. They held him hostage in a cellar for a while, and he agreed to sign the Magna Carta. That was a different type of social contract, stating that the authority has to be obeyed not just because it was Godsent and unique and all, but because that authority also gave people something in return.

The Scandinavian countries came to that second type of social contract almost from the very beginning, with the rulers being chosen among the best and the most competent, those who could take care of their people because they were pretty smart and knew how to wage a military campaign against, say, Kyiv.

Thus, the authority was charged with some duties, and people were obedient when those duties were performed. Then came revolutions, with people proclaiming that God blessed the peoples, not just their rulers, and that the people have the power in its entirety, appointing rulers as their managers. This is what democracy is about.

We evaluate different people and elect them as politicians if they implement our position. Because we don’t want to reinvent the Constitution on a daily basis, we rather want to somehow accumulate it. The Guarantor of the Constitution is called that for a reason: that person guarantees compliance with the said social contract.

In Ukraine, about 20 million people carry the burden of responsibility for the entire country’s existence (as for the rest of the nation, we do not ask their opinion as they are either still too young or temporarily incapacitated). The power is ours, and so we are exercising it. This is what we are fighting for now. In the Russian Federation, responsibility for the country is borne by Putin and his constellation of supporters: the revenue service, the FSB, the police, and the army.

So where do the human rights defenders fit in that scheme, then? Those are the people who point out that Russia lives in virtual reality. Does Putin like those people? Of course not. They are the ones causing unrest, the ones getting in the way.

Executed for Wearing Glasses, Beaten Up for Cycling

After they first came to power in the 1990s, the Taliban decided that every political opponent over 19 years of age had to be killed, as they were unfit for re-education. By doing so, they turned Afghanistan into the only country in the world where over 50% of the entire population were under 14 years old.

Once upon a time, green-eyed redheads who had freckles were deemed witches and wizards. Over 50,000 people, the majority of them male, were accused of witchcraft and executed.

Until 1856, a woman caught cycling along a street in Britain was to be pulled off her bicycle by a policeman, beaten up, and handed over to her husband — and any policeman was in their full right to do so. Up until the late 19th century, a man in Britain could divorce his wife by selling her at an auction in a cattle yard — which was perfectly legal. That was the only legal means of transferring the ownership of a woman from one man to another without church-granted divorce or death of the previous husband.

During the Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia, you could be killed for wearing glasses. Their logic had been as follows: if you wear glasses, you know how to read — if you know how to read, you are educated — if you are educated, you are an accomplice of the imperialists who took over Cambodia. In just four years, the Khmer Rouge physically eliminated over 3 million people, which made up 30% of the entire population.

All of the above listed are examples of when people who think of themselves as a majority come to believe that they have more rights. Today, we all are forbidden by the Russian Federation — for speaking a different language, having different views, and upholding a different social contract than them. This is a typical restriction of human rights. Basic human rights are there regardless of the current political system or the political party you support, and human rights defenders are the ones upholding that framework.

Eight Billion Minorities on the Planet

There’s a lot of decision-making that we have delegated to the State: to give us guidance in certain matters, to resolve conflicts, to restrict us when we constitute a danger to others. It is we who fund the State out of our pockets so it can perform those functions. Nevertheless, there are certain rules for delegating those functions, and that is why we have laws that are put in writing. When some of the delegated functions misbehave, we have the obligation to rebel.

The ruling elite, however, comes in force, and Russia, instead of applying it to securing human rights, directs that accumulated force toward repressing specific citizens. The whistle-blowers get targeted primarily. Human rights advocates from the Memorial organization started raising the alarm about the atrocities taking place in Chechnia as early as 20 years ago. To Putin, those people are a sore in the eye.

Human rights defenders are everywhere. They say that as an individual, your rights should be exercised and you should be protected. The whole point is protecting the world’s tiniest minority — an individual person makes a unique minority. Eight billion minorities on this planet.

Some rights are negative, defining the things a state has no right to do, like killing, dispersing rallies, banning free speech, and torturing. And there are positive rights that have to be provided for. Say, to exercise the right to a fair trial, it is necessary to ensure that the judges are trained, that they are allocated premises, that the cases are archived, and that there are professionals appointed to investigate the case — all this is called the right to effective legal protection.

While Ukraine is not known for frequently violating negative human rights, the country sometimes contributes to the violation of positive rights. For instance, it’s been eight years since we had our first IDPs, yet they still aren’t offered any legally-defined procedure for voting in elections. The Russian Federation is known to violate human rights in both dimensions.

Renowned Human Rights Defenders

Martin Luther King defended the rights of Black Americans — a period sometimes referred to as the Second American Civil War. Back then, a huge number of US citizens did not have rights on their own and thus couldn’t exercise them, and Martin Luther King, being an educated man, indeed challenged the worldview of many with his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Malala Yusufzai stood for the girls’ right to school education in Pakistan, so some radicals boarded the school bus and shot her in the head. However, the girl was saved and ended up becoming the youngest Nobel Prize winner at the age of 17.

Andrei Sakharov was a theoretical physicist and the “father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb” who dedicated his entire life to ensuring that no one used it. It was physicists who made the core of the Soviet human rights movement. Sakharov was a co-founder of the Moscow Helsinki Group, the first human rights organization in the Soviet Union. Sent to exile in Gorky, he was banished from listening to the radio or using a telephone. When the Soviet Union underwent Perestroika, Sakharov was released and became a member of parliament. His opinions on what to look for and how to build bridges with the capitalist world weren’t popular.

Astrid Lindgren stood for children’s and animal rights. It was with the Moomin-trolls that the Scandinavian gender equality in childrearing, security, and overindulgence for children were born. Before that, a child was just a handy human being, while Astrid got her point across that children were exceptionally vulnerable humans who needed protection. It was Astrid who made a lasting impact on children’s rights in Scandinavia and all over Europe.

Angelina Jolie is a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Whenever there is a thorny issue in the world, the UN dispatches there some universally-likable person, usually a Hollywood star with considerable social capital and thus the ability to highlight those thorny issues. This is exactly what Angelina Jolie, amongst others, is doing, creating an emotional connection with certain territories and their problems.

Harvey Milk stood for the LGBT rights. He was the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in America, and the first one to publicly defend the notion that one can be a professional and valued member of their community, while also expressing an alternative sexual orientation.

What all those people have in common is their ability to influence others — be it through emotion, creativity, science, or simply a post on Instagram. Should the human rights defense team fail to keep the system in check, any country would sooner or later decide that it would be convenient if the people just stayed in their individual glass cubes and pedaled, while a small group of equals among equals enjoyed their freedom. To prevent that from happening, we need human rights defenders.

If Putin took the power from you, you allowed it to be taken — and that is what human rights defenders never fail to remind us of, too. While we make certain allowances for the people of Belarus, because a year ago they demonstrated at least some will to resist, in Russia, there’s not even a bit of a critical mass of people who understand their responsibility for what is happening.

Human Rights Defenders from This Year’s Nobel Selection

We do not why the Center for Civil Liberties was chosen, and by the rules, will not be able to find that out for another 50 years.

We document war crimes and mold templates for international mechanisms. As of today, we demand that Putin faces a tribunal for waging a war against us back in 2014, and everything that has transpired ever since. In addition, our human rights defenders respond to various cases of human rights violations. Besides, we monitor the operation of government agencies. For instance, we monitor both Pride Processions and Processions of the Cross, making sure that the police always do their job properly. Human rights advocates also spread information on discrimination tendencies in society, hold direct action campaigns, do picketing, develop framework draft laws and programs, and teach human rights standards.

We shared the Nobel Peace Prize with two other organizations that are sores in the eyes of Putin and Lukashenka. Viasna, or, specifically, this human rights group’s President Ales Bialiatski, also got that Prize. Ales is imprisoned (it’s his second time in jail), along with the rest of the leadership of his NGO. What they did was that they consistently, year by year, demonstrated that elections in Belarus are but a hoax and that Lukashenka is not a legitimate President. They documented torture, consistently revealing the actual lack of guaranteed human rights in the country.

Memorial is an international network. For instance, four of its branches operate in Ukraine, and they were the ones to bring the Solovetsky Stone right from Solovky [special prison camp] and installed it as a memorial to the victims of the said camp; they were the ones to collect a comprehensive archive listing every victim of the Soviet system. It is due to Memorial’s work that we know about Ukrainians that were executed, specifically in Sandarmokh [a forest in Karelia where thousands of victims of Stalin’s Great Terror were executed]. The person who initially discovered Sandarmokh and most of the graves there is now imprisoned [by the Russian regime].

People only know Memorial as an organization from Belarus and Russia, however, up to 2016, it was Memorial that helped us collect information in Crimea and the occupied parts of Donbas where we had no access. The reason we know about war crimes committed in those areas is that they [human rights defenders from Memorial] took personal risks and went there.

Human rights defenders are the people working for the entire world. The central plank of human rights advocacy is that there are no dead ends and no “not-my-wars.” Should the world pay more attention to what transpired in Transnistria, Georgia, and Chechnia, the current war in Ukraine would never have happened. Any impunity always escalates.

Life After the Nobel

With our workload increasing day by day, we document war crimes so that the war doesn’t erase the things that transpired. As of today, the caseload is just overwhelming. Having the Nobel gives you opportunities to meet decision-makers — I, for instance, met the President of Ireland — and to all those officials, everything that we’ve been saying for eight years by now sounds like a fresh idea. This [having the Nobel] includes us on the global agenda, and we really have to change the workings of the system for the entire world.

A Few Films That Help You Understand Human Rights Advocacy:

Milk — a film based on the life of Harvey Milk.

The Butler — a film about a real-life butler serving at the White House from the era of segregation up until Barak Obama was elected President.

Suffragette — a film about the dawn of the suffragette movement and women’s legal rights for their children.

Amazing Grace — a film about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire,

Pride — a film by BBC depicting a real-life story of how miners came to showing solidarity with the LGBT cause.

🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here 🇺🇦

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