war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

The values and principles of work of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and today’s human rights defence: an attempted comparison

Yevhen Zakharov

An address to a conference on the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group

The Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords (the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, UHG) was created on November 9, 1976. 

The Helsinki phase of the dissident movement in Ukraine involved the acceptance by the national movement of human rights methods and forms. The idea of human rights was one that the Ukrainian non-conformist intelligentsia related to.  For those who came to the dissident movement through literature and art, and who could not accept the regime, in spirit resisting it, this idea was organic. Those same dissidents who from the very beginning set themselves political goals and tasks, used the language and form of human rights ideology understandable to the West to draw more attention and support for Ukrainian national issues.

The Soviet regime brutally persecuted the UHG.  At the beginning of the 1980s its activities were totally paralyzed, with almost all its members imprisoned. Vasyl Ovsiyenko estimates that of the 41 members of UHG, 39 spent 550 years in prisons, labour camps, exile and psychiatric hospitals. Four men died in captivity – Oleksiy Tykhy; Yury Lytvyn; Valery Marchenko and Vasyl Stus.  Mykola Melnyk killed himself on the eve of his inevitable arrest. Many UHG members joined while serving sentences in the camps or in exile on one or other politically motivated charge. UHG continued its existence in the camps right up to the freeing of political prisoners in 1987-1988.

These days the period in which UHG existed seems like far distant history.  Nonetheless, the 40th anniversary encourages one to compare the values and principles of the human rights defenders of the 1960s-1980s and modern human rights protection.

The vast majority of the ‘old’ human rights defenders were religious, mainly Christians for whom the Ten Commandments were the greatest value.  Some contemporary human rights activists have retained this attitude. In the 1960s-1980s human rights were considered a means of public monitoring of the state, a language with which you could talk about social relations, no more.  However contemporary human rights protection is practised by a much greater number and is much more diverse.  There are any representatives of other religions, as well as agnostics and atheists. Some academics consider that human rights has created something close to a new religion, a new philosopher. For example, Professor Butkevych, Ukraine’s former judge at the European Court of Human Rights has even called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights his ‘Bible’.

The activities of the Ukrainian dissidents were based on the traditions established by Ukrainian regional societies back in the post-War Stalinist labour camps.  Valery Marchenko wrote that it was “they who took the main weight of the struggle against the lawlessness of the Stalin – Beria period and are now a model which inspires and unites those who were not prepared to relinquish the convictions of people of honour and duty”. Most participants in the Norilsk and Kengirov uprisings in Stalin’s Gulag were Ukrainians.  “The virus of disobedience”, the striving for freedom prompted political prisoners to defend their honour and dignity, without, it seemed, deterred by certain death.  This ‘virus’ inspired dissidents of the 1960s-1980s in their wish to “call things by their names” (Yevhen Sverstyuk).  It was this that at the end of the day which brought people out onto Maidan on Nov 21, 20014 and 2014 It was the driving force for victory of the two Ukrainian revolutions and is today the main defence of the country against Russian aggression. Thus the main value of human rights defence was and remains freedom, that is a synonym for the entire complex of human rights.  To have freedom means to act of own free will. There is nothing more terrible than to depend on the will of another person or the will of state institutions.

Dignity was and remains the other key value of human rights defence. We mean here general human dignity due to all, from infant to criminal, and not personal dignity (like honour or reputation) which grows as the result of good deeds and is lost as a result of bad actions. Dignity is the best indicator of the violation of freedom. The sense that one’s dignity has been denigrated always shows the injustice, arbitrary violence or even criminal nature of the actions of the person who has aggrieved the other.

Human rights defenders of the 1960s-1980s rejected the principles of underground or armed activities typical of the period of liberation struggle. Their activities were peaceful, open and appealed to the law. Their slogan then was “Obey your own laws!”.  There were still attempts to create underground anti-Soviet organizations (such as the first and second ‘Ukrainian National Front’ and others.)  The arguments then on this subject are now anachronistic, since all contemporary human rights organizations are open, non-violent and based on the law, including international. The use of mechanisms of European law, such as the European Court of Human Rights, has particularly developed. In the 1960s-1980s that was something you couldn’t dream of.  Then even the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was viewed as an anti-Soviet document and removed during searches.

An important value for human rights defenders has always been independence – from a political position, from public opinion, from the state. In their attitude to the state, the ‘old’ human rights defenders were guided by a slightly adapted version of Varlam Shalamov’s code of a Stalin-era prisoner (“Don’t believe, don’t be afraid, and don’t ask for anything”).  It was: Don’t believe agents of the state, don’t be afraid of them and don’t ask for anything.

Today independence is even more important since it is much more in danger than in the 1960s-1980s, since there are many temptations. Independence means non-party affiliation on principle, the rejection of support from any political force, the rejection of any a priori agreement with established public stereotypes, and of support in any form from the state. However independence should not turn into confrontation.  The prosecutor tones taken by many civic activists regarding the state, their wish to blame the authorities for everything is disturbing.  The source of human rights violations is people themselves, and those structures that they create.  We have the state we deserve since we were unable to create a different one.  It is better to espouse the philosophy of guilt, than that of insults – it is much more constructive to seek the source of one’s woes in oneself, and not in others. Yet a considerable number of the ‘new’ human rights defenders don’t realize this.

The principles “Don’t fear”, and “Don’t ask” remain relevant for contemporary human rights work, however “Don’t believe” is unacceptable. Since human rights are aimed at obliging the state to observe and safeguard these rights and the Ukrainian state declares this to be its main duty, human rights activists should hold dialogue with the state while the latter is willing, with the topic being the real observance by the state of human rights.  Therefore the old formula of human rights defence in the 1960s-1980s – “defence of human rights from organized violence, carried out by the state” must today be supplemented by the words “and the state supported in safeguarding and defending human rights”. The principle of interaction between human rights organizations and the state was formulated in 1988 by Sergei Kovalev as “Honest cooperation between those who don’t think alike”.  In all areas where I agree with the state, I am prepared to honestly cooperated, and where it makes mistakes, I will counter it, using the legal methods available. Interaction with the state demands a certain level of mutual trust and respect.

Justice is also a topic of dialogue between human rights activists and the state. We need to differentiate between two aspects of this – ‘procedural’ justice which pertains to the result of applying a correctly constructed legal mechanism, and moral justice when they appeal to values which are not enshrined in law or insufficiently covered by the law.  In this sense they speak of social, political, economic justice, etc.  The idea of the inevitability of punishment for a crime and that evil must be punished is first and foremost a demonstration of the sense of justice.  

The values of impartiality and tolerance are far more under threat now than in the 1960s-1980s.  For a human rights activist, it is of fundamental importance that all positions should be represented in public discourse. In civil society left-wing, right-wing, centrist and all types of political thought and social activity should be reflected. Human rights activists should be tolerant of other views, including those contradicting their own. They should respect differences in thinking, diversity of civic associations and their aims. A ban on certain positions only impoverishes the information input on political decision-taking. If we imagine the three-tier system of information – politics – law in the form of a tree, with the roots, trunk and crown, then restriction of freedom of information means a ban by the crown on the roots feeding the trunk. Such a tree will dry up and die. However we are talking here about tolerance to views and ideas or, more broadly, to any expressions of symbolic reality. In physical reality, tolerance to violent acts, to lawlessness is not permissible. In conditions of Russia’s military aggression and the inundation with lying Russian propaganda, these values, together with freedom of views, expression and information clash with the values of national security and territorial integrity, as well as with national-patriotic sentiments. There was nothing like that in the 1960s-1980s.  This conflict of values needs to be considered on each specific, individual case since there cannot be a single solution for all cases.

With the values of humanism and mercy there are problems which were not around in the 1960s-1980s. The ‘old’ human rights defenders were, a priori, humanists whom the Soviet state had brutally mistreated and there was no sense in talking about mercy with it. At present such conversations are also not very effective because of the military conflict with Russia.  What is more, in conditions of mounting violence and hatred, these values do not enjoy the support of a significant percentage of civil society who are gripped by the desire for revenge. Unfortunately, this has not been avoided by some organizations which call themselves human rights NGOs, although in general terms for a human rights activist, mercy ought to be of higher value than justice.  The sense of pity for victims of violence should be more important than the justification for the state’s actions in seeking justice. A human rights activist cannot be indifferent.

In the 1960s-1980s human rights defence was a voluntary unpaid activity which earned the person long terms of imprisonment. Then the crucial features for human rights defenders were courage, sacrifice and commitment.

Now human rights work is mainly paid with the work carried out by hundreds of civic organizations, and several thousand people.  This work is welcomed by the public and is generally speaking safe. It is natural that the high moral qualities of the human rights defenders of the last century are unattainable for all those working in this sphere.  Some of them think more about themselves in human rights work, than about the human rights work itself, with PR more important to them then the interests of human rights abuse.  There are even organizations which can be considered in it for the grants, for whom the pay is more important than the result.  The employees of such organizations will typically say that for such funding they won’t work.

I hope that contemporary human rights groups will overcome such growing pains and uphold the freedom of the individual in today’s difficult conditions. 

 Share this