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«We need to get access to prisoners and give people clarity» — CEO of Amnesty International Ukraine

Veronika Velch, CEO of Amnesty International Ukraine, discussed the role of international human rights organizations in advocating for the release of civilians unlawfully detained by Russia in an interview with Hromadske Radio.

«We need to get access to prisoners and give people clarity» — CEO of Amnesty International Ukraine
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Amnesty International is a non-governmental organization founded in 1961 in the UK with the aim of investigating and preventing gross human rights violations and providing assistance to those whose rights have been violated.

Motivation as CEO of Amnesty International

Veronika Velch: My motivation is clear. Firstly, I spent many years away from Ukraine, living in Washington for almost 10 years. During that time, I was involved in advocacy and corporate crisis communications. However, in recent years, my focus has shifted more and more towards human rights work.

I worked with the family of Paul Rusesabagina, a well-known Rwandan case involving a man who saved many people during the genocide there. I also collaborated with Paul Whelan, who was wrongfully convicted of espionage in Russia. Despite his innocence, Russia is holding him as a hostage. Human rights activities are increasingly becoming integrated into corporate social responsibility.

Furthermore, human rights work holds critical importance in Ukraine. When Ukraine, unfortunately, withdraws from active engagement, we lose our voice in the international arena. I wouldn’t want us to resemble our eastern neighbors, where not a single active Amnesty office exists. Reopening the office in Ukraine became my goal. I believed it should be located in Kyiv because physical location shapes perspective. Just as we discuss the rotation of military personnel at the front, I find it fair to rotate professional Ukrainians who have worked abroad for an extended period and have the opportunity to return home.

And I would add that this is a family story. My husband is a former political prisoner, a Crimean.

Amnesty International and release mechanisms: do they exist?

Veronika Velch: The human rights movement was founded on the principle of conducting research. These studies must be objective and balanced. This way, the international community, within the framework of International Humanitarian Law and the UN Charter, can make informed decisions about the aggressor.

The next goal is for Amnesty to develop an advocacy movement with a common vision. That is why we are currently working on a report related to civilian prisoners.

First and foremost, this report is being produced to give us an independent voice in the international community. Amnesty is part of an advisory body to UNESCO. Twice a year, we speak and add to the agenda what we think is necessary. For example, UNESCO does not currently consider illegally detained civilians a priority. Nevertheless, we still bring it up for discussion because it provides a significant platform and reach to numerous countries where we can be heard.

We have offices at the Council of Europe in Geneva and in New York. When a report like this comes out, it provides us with a seriously reasoned position. We can emphasize that these are real people and their fates—these are not just numbers.

What is happening in the Kharkiv region is particularly painful for me now. The world is watching in confusion, not understanding what will happen next because there is no clear mechanism yet. All we can do as human rights activists, both Ukrainian and international, is to develop a common vision and help the Ukrainian voice be heard and not forgotten, which is critically important.

Read also: Labour rights of illegally detained civilians — a legal perspective

«Today we operate within the existing framework»

Veronika Velch: I can refer to the previous report. The situation is not improving yet. However, the most important goal is to recognize «civilian hostages» within the framework of international law. In our last report, we initiated a conversation about the fact that people who are captured and transported from one place to another against their will, without due process, are victims of Russian war crimes.

We can discuss extensively how the international legal framework and the architecture of international relations should be changed. However, as of today, we operate within the existing framework. Our main goal is to ensure that people who are prisoners in the occupied territories receive legal support.

We demand constant access to these people in the occupied territories, which Russia completely ignores. This once again confirms the violation of International Humanitarian Law. This forms the basis for explaining to international partners exactly what is happening.

In any case, no matter what happens or what Russia claims, these people are considered innocent until proven guilty. This principle forms the basis of human rights activity.

Amnesty International’s annual report on the human rights situation in Ukraine for 2023

What can we do about it? We need to publicize these cases on the international stage and demand that our partners become more involved. We may need to involve third parties. This is a way to solve the problem together. The key is to ensure that no one turns a blind eye.

Read also: Sexual violence as a war crime of the occupiers

Is the concept of «political prisoner» still relevant?

Veronika Velch: We have ceased using the term «political prisoners» because every person, irrespective of political, religious, or any other biases, has the right to protection. The international community is increasingly moving away from this terminology, although I acknowledge that such situations can exist at the state level.

Indeed, the trend of distinguishing between prisoners of war, civilian prisoners, hostages, and others is concerning. The primary focus should always be on protecting individuals, regardless of their status.

Presently, it’s mainly our authorized state bodies that compile such lists (lists of political prisoners – ed.). I’m not even sure if any civil society or international organization in Ukraine has the access or expertise to undertake such tasks. The situation is similar regarding civilian hostages.

We can receive and distribute individual cases. Our approach is that one case can help others. Gaining access to one or two prisoners of war or hostages enables us to gain access to others.

«We are in a vacuum»

Veronika Velch: Amnesty needs to be engaged not only in Ukraine but also internationally. While organizing actions in Ukraine is important, it is not the primary method of influence. Holding such actions globally is critically important.

When we speak with other Amnesty directors, they are shocked to learn that we don’t have any access to these individuals. Thus, we need to dispel the myths that exist even among our colleagues. There is often a lack of understanding that Ukrainian military prisoners, civilian hostages, and even Ukrainian children are completely losing contact with their homeland, which is illegal. It’s crucial to highlight the risks these individuals may face.

We are currently in a dire vacuum. Russia, the aggressor, is disregarding all established norms of the international legal order. I often tell my international partners: there was once a chessboard upon which we all played, and it was called diplomacy. Now, Putin has overturned the board and is simply using it to beat everyone over the head. Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to suffer. Yet, others insist on returning everything to the way it was and continuing to play.

Read also: For them, people are a propaganda tool: the story of a civilian hostage Oleh Bohdanov

On the importance of access to prisoners

Veronika Velch: We need to start considering our options for the possibility of a protracted war. Ideally, we should work towards rewriting the security architecture and establishing a tribunal for Putin. However, a crucial question is how we can ensure that Ukrainians are informed about what is happening to their relatives.

If we are unable to secure their immediate release or establish a clear mechanism, then we must consider what actions we can take now to provide clarity to people, facilitate access for a group of people, and possibly reduce instances of torture. It would be incredibly important to ensure that letters can at least reach them and that communication flows both ways—from us to them and from them to us.

Why does Russia not allow access? I spoke extensively with the families of Azovstal’s defenders who were in detention. Everyone unanimously expressed that, in addition to physical torture, the lack of information was the most dreadful aspect. Soldiers were informed that Ukraine had long since vanished from memory, that everyone had forgotten about them, and that they would be tortured indefinitely. When a person is unaware of what awaits them, it is highly demotivating.

Action in support of prisoners of war / Photos: Coordination Centre

About the preparation of the report

Veronika Velch: The report is already available and is undergoing proofreading by our Law and Policy Team. This process is highly intricate, and it’s crucial for us that all parties participate and comprehend it.

However, even as we finalize one report, Russia is once again occupying new territories.

This only underscores the urgency of persisting in our efforts and prioritizing individuals from the vast pool of those we can address.

Read also: How to release journalists-hostages of the Putin regime?

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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