The ongoing repression of Belarusian society now extends to the banning of literary works by Belarusian writers seen as seditious. The reason can only be that they offer the regime its true reflection, writes one of the country’s leading poets.
Whether defending human rights on an international stage, checking facts from the frontline, processing traumatic experiences over a lifetime, or even questioning the language you have spoken since childhood – all matter in the collective fight for justice.
Invading and absconding with children, indoctrinating them, destroying artefacts and literature, forcibly replacing local political actors – Oleksandra Matviichuk describes these crimes, when seen collectively, as genocide. Speaking at the Institute of Human Sciences, Vienna, after her Speech to Europe, the director of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Center of Civil Liberties stresses how certain definitions within international law don’t match the Russo-Ukrainian war’s reality. She believes it’s time to recognize the gravity of systematically obliterating the cultural foundations of a nation. Could it be that she wants to take colonialism to court?
Myroslav Laiuk, writing about upholding Ukrainian traditions, emphasizes the historic and current ‘repressive colonial politics of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.’ He identifies elderly Ukrainians, who ‘remember the Great Famine, the Second World War, the post-war famine, Afghanistan, the gangster wars of the 1990s,’ as ‘fonts of memory: they recall the queues for basic necessities in Soviet times; know the recipes they cooked during the famine; remember the old cafés located where new apartment blocks stand; recount stories about banned books and censorship; retell how the intellectual elites were arrested.’ In each of these examples, reminiscing about the old days is tantamount to reliving trauma. And those who have survived so far aren’t experiencing a peaceful retirement.
Daily battles with language
Russia’s colonial drive may have found renewed fervour in this war, but it is encountering plenty of resistance. Fabian Baumann, who this week discussed his research on Ukrainian and Russian nationalism in an open forum for the Eurozine Knowledgeable Youth project, sees changes to what was a predominantly bilingual Ukraine. ‘Some Russian speakers have consciously switched to the Ukrainian language for political reasons,’ he writes, reporting the words of ‘a sixty-year-old man who grew up in a Russian-speaking family. He would not speak Russian anymore, he told me in Ukrainian with a discernible Russian accent. He felt almost physically incapable of enunciating the same words as Vladimir Putin.’ As Baumann contextualizes, ‘this development is closely linked to the Putin regime’s instrumentalization of Russian and its spurious claim to be defending the rights of Russian speakers across the globe as justification for its war against Ukraine.’ Could Ukraine as a result be headed for monolingualism after centuries of multi-language cultural exchange?
Given Baumann’s research, if the Russian language is now being abandoned by those in need of cultural distance from aggression, might we also be seeing the identity genocide described by Matviichuk taking effect in the reverse direction? In forcibly attacking Ukrainian-ness and framing its culture imperialistically, is Russia’s leadership reducing its national identity to a shadow of its former self?
Shifting parameters for justice
When Putin cited self-defence as justification for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he included, as Nergis Canefe reports in her overview of international law and war, ‘genocide against Russian speakers’. Putin’s reference to loss of life in eastern Ukraine since Maidan in 2014 belies Russia’s military involvement. As Canefe asserts, ‘at the very outset, Russia’s use of force violated its obligations under the Charter law.’
‘Putin’s war of aggression undoubtedly constitutes a Grotian Moment – in other words, a moment of rapid crystallization of new rules and doctrines of customary international law. … Systemic efforts to isolate and exercise embargoes against the Russian Federation have so far indicated a commitment to fighting Russian imperialism through international law. However, significant gaps still need to be closed in the fabric of international law that prevent the prosecution of the crime of aggression. Such measures must a) affirm the application of the law of neutrality for states that provide material support and assistance to the Ukrainian forces; b) institute a range of unilateral sanctions; and c) systematically exclude Russian membership in international organizations.’
Matviichuk concurs: tackling the ‘accountability gap’ requires an independent international tribunal. She wants Putin and other Russian leaders taken to court, on trial for crimes of aggression. ‘Justice relies on two principles: peace and democratic practices’, she states, ‘rule of law is necessary. We have to have democratic justice.’ She also wants to see a distinct, perhaps hybrid, tribunal to hear the testimonies related to individual crimes.
When asked whether court-admissible evidence might be an issue, Matviichuk answers that there will always be other documentation trails to follow; the ease and variety of means with which crimes can be recorded today suggest that there will be no lack of proof. As Matviichuk and her human rights colleagues have already registered 80,000 proceedings, the greater task may be processing the breadth of evidence available for the amount of crimes committed.
The young editors at Gwara Media would no doubt agree. The selfie, for which Serhii Prokopenko and Olena Myhashko posed but didn’t smile, complete with roadside military debris, featured on the lead page of the online journal’s first print volume, is more representative of their dedication to documenting war in Ukraine than of their proud innovative achievements. Although conceived as a cultural magazine, Gwara Media responded to the need for investigative reporting in Kharkiv, says editor-in-chief Olena when passing through Vienna, visiting Eurozine staff on her way back to Ukraine after time spent on residency with Swedish partner journal Glänta.
In times of heightened instability, Gwara Media’s fact checking activity provides ‘a sense of reassurance’, says Olena. She speaks about the weight of collating evidence for multiple crimes. Kharkiv police when responding to average crime rates take time to investigate individual cases. But one incident rarely exists in isolation now. Compound reports, one from every resident in a housing block, for example, are more common. And, of course, the magnitude doesn’t stop there. Those from other blocks on the same street, more streets in the same district, additional districts of the same city, its region, large parts of an entire country are all reeling from the ongoing invasion – the only perceivable advantage being that once you zoom out that far a scientific calculation based on statistical patterns is possible.
But crimes must be registered within five months of being perpetrated to be considered for prosecution, states Olena. And those where the violation is too traumatic to psychologically process quickly such as rape often go unreported. Knowing that you are not alone in being a victim of crime may ease the trauma, but it is a sense of justice that many seek, the particulars of which can differ from person to person.
Part of Gwara Media’s activity includes following up on documents left behind when troops retreat. Their team digs around for information, uncovering the identity of soldiers, photo-fitting them to their war crimes.
Matviichuk calls for ‘qualified, working hands’ such as these. We have a responsibility to ‘break the cycle’, she says, ‘don’t help Ukraine not to fail, help it to succeed’.
Published 17 May 2023
Original in English
First published by Eurozine
Syria, Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh and now Gaza: connecting all recent wars is disregard for national sovereignty as recognised by international law. Confident of impunity, anti-democratic regimes cite sovereign interests as justification for their politics of annihilation.