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Talking about collaboration we need to focus on the great harm caused, not just the people who were in a vulnerable position — human rights defender Rachel Denber

Rachel Denber, who is a deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, and Julia Gorbunova, who is a senior researcher for Ukraine for Human Rights Watch, tell about the bullet points of their reports in Ukraine.

Talking about collaboration we need to focus on the great harm caused, not just the people who were in a vulnerable position — human rights defender Rachel Denber
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Estimated Reading Time: 23 minutes

Andriy Kulykov: Hello. Welcome to Ukraine Calling, the English language podcast, from Hromadske radio. Rachel said before we started recording: «It’s a beautiful day in Kyiv, but it was also marked with three and a half hours of air alert». Have you gotten used to such things?

Rachel Denber: Well, the weather is beautiful in Kyiv. The city looks beautiful, and it’s a very surreal contrast to what is happening in the country and has been happening in the country since 2014 and more intensively since obviously since February 2022. So It’s a stark contrast. I don’t live in Ukraine. I live in New York, but I think even from the many thousands of miles away of the distance between me and Ukraine, I am still in a state of shock every day. Likewise, I can only imagine what it must be like for people who live and experience this war every day of their lives.

Julia Gorbunova and Rachel Denber

Andriy Kulykov: For people, who live here and experience the war every day in their lives it is a great encouragement and reinforcement that thousands of miles away in New York or Toronto live people who care, and human rights watches of course, and organizational people, who care individually and as a reputed international organization. But what do you pay attention to first while regarding the Ukrainian situation?

Rachel Denber: So Human Rights Watch is a global human rights organization and our mission is to improve human rights in the countries that we work in and to give a voice to ensure that there is a voice for survivors of human rights violations and victims, the families of the victims. We do that through careful, robust documentation of violations, and we document and put out reports like the one that we published yesterday.

And for Ukraine, because this is a country at war, our overriding concern is for the protection of civilians in the armed conflict. So that’s the full range of protections to which civilians are entitled under the Geneva Convention and that parties to the conflict are obligated to uphold. It’s to protect civilians from indiscriminate or deliberate attacks during hostilities, to protect them from situations of occupation, to protect them from summary execution detention, arbitrary detention, torture and forced disappearance, sexual violence, and any other kind of you know bodily or in any kind of violation of personal integrity. It’s protection against things like force transfers, force deportations, and things like that. The main area under the Geneva Convention’s attention is also focused on the protection of POWs.

«We don’t come to a place with a ready conclusion about what happened»

Andriy Kulykov: I think that we’ll talk about the report in detail a bit later. But before this, I want to ask Julia, obviously, there’s research preceding every report and you are a researcher. What do you research specifically where Ukrainians are concerned? What is your role and maybe there are other researchers as well who took part in preparing this report? 

Julia Gorbunova: Sure. At our organization, we have thematic and geographic divisions. So, I belong to a geographic division that covers Europe and Central Asia region, and I’ve been working on Ukraine for a number of years now, but we also have experts, who work specifically on separate issues related to Human Rights: children’s rights, women’s rights etc. We have arms experts and every piece of research that we do in Ukraine and elsewhere. It’s usually a combination of expertise and research that all these people kind of put together. And that’s why it sometimes takes a really long time to produce something, which can be frustrating. 

Andriy Kulykov: What was your really long-time case?

Julia Gorbunova: Well, it can be sometimes quick to, for instance, a particular attack. One example is an attack on the Kremenchuk shopping mall Amstor, which happened in the summer of 2022. We were on the ground actually doing research for this report, and we were not far driving distance from where the strike happened and the nearby road transportation facility. We were able to get there very quickly and do research on the ground very quickly. So that was an example of something we published in like two to three days. But usually, a large report like the one that we presented in Kyiv this week can take up to a year and several months. 

Andriy Kulykov: And that’s probably connected to the need to verify the facts…

Julia Gorbunova: Exactly. 

Andriy Kulykov: What is the procedure?

Julia Gorbunova: Field research is straightforward. We go to a place where something happened, and then we talk to as many witnesses, victims and relatives as possible. We talk to local officials. Not only that, but we have to collaborate on each account. So we cannot just take one story, and you know, include it as evidence of something. We have to connect the dots by gathering all these pieces. If it’s research into an attack using a certain type of weapon, we basically have to build the picture from the ground up. So we don’t come to a place with a ready conclusion about what happened. We build it from pieces. We find weapon fragments and identify by the size of a crater or direction where, according to witness accounts, a missile came from if it’s possible. Not always it can be possible. Sometimes it’s just listening to people talk and then understanding the picture. 

And then in other research, it’s interviewing experts or understanding practices around the world in terms of particular issues to do with whatever area we’re working on. So it really depends on the topic. But in Ukraine, mostly in the last 18 months, now almost two years, It’s been mostly kind of this fast response work. And this I think is one of a few very in-depth sort of reports that we’ve taken a long time to write. But as an example of our work on Crimea that’s something we’ve been following very closely since 2014 and that included analyzing legal practices legislation, you know speaking to lawyers about cases of persecution of Crimean Tatars, what Russians already have been doing since the occupation. So it really depends on the issue.

Russian troops made the schools targets

Andriy Kulikov: Rachel, what are the bullet points of the report? 

Rachel Denber: The report is called Tanks on the Playground. It’s a report about the military use of schools and the tax on schools and their impact on access to education for Ukrainian children. The main points are: in the regions where we conducted the research, that’s Kharkivska, Mykolaivska, Chernigivska, and Kyivka regions, mainly Russian forces used schools to encamp their troop, launch attacks, store ammunition, park their military vehicles, detain civilians and torture them in some cases. And also they used the schools to do medical treatment for their troops. And when they used schools in this manner, it obviously made the schools targets. It increased their risk of being attacked, because, obviously, you want to dislodge Russian military forces. You need to get them out of these schools. So, one bullet point is that Russian forces used schools in this manner. 

  • They also looted these schools, taking away computers, equipment, furniture, and desks. They left a big mess behind and really offensive profane graffiti on the walls. Not only that, but they left swastikas and other things that I just won’t even repeat. 

The second bullet point is that they also attacked schools. We documented numerous instances when Russian forces attacked schools when they were retreating, including some of the schools that they had occupied. They left these schools in a complete state of disaster. As you know, almost 3,800 schools have been damaged and endured. 365 schools have been totally destroyed. It’s also important to highlight the efforts that the Ukrainian government has made to keep children in school in education programs. At least, much of the education process is taking place now either by hybrid or online education or by moving children to other schools. So they have these results and overcrowding of these schools, but education has been impacted. I think those are the main points.

The school was destroyed during shelling by the Russian army/TSN

Andriy Kulikov: When you first mentioned the use of schools by the Armed Forces, you said «mainly» Russian forces which gives me grounds to believe that you have documented or at least found and know the human rights, which I think that you have verified those facts, that’s the Ukrainian forces did this too?

Rachel Denber: Let me just start by saying that to use a school in an armed conflict is not a violation of the Geneva Conventions. I think it’s important to mention that I think that there’s a misperception about that. We can talk more about that later in the interview. So there were instances when we found that, but not very many facts when Ukrainian forces used schools. They use them in a very different manner. I’d have to say we didn’t come across cases where they used them as barracks. They certainly didn’t come across cases where they outright encountered them in schools or where they were, you know, clearly using them as barracks. They certainly didn’t find a single case when Ukrainian forces looted the schools or anything like that. So there were very few cases and they were of a different nature.

«We saw everywhere: teachers and parents clean schools and start the renovation process on their own»

Andriy Kulikov: But you say that there were such cases, and I personally am grateful to Human Rights Watch for paying attention to both sides in this terrible situation. Whatever the numerical dimension is, we should be as exacting towards ourselves as we are to the entire situation. Thank you very much also for taking the risk to talk about this, because some people in this country do not want to hear that, and sometimes they accuse International organizations of taking the wrong side in the war or thinking like that. Julia, please, tell us more about the bullet points and probably about the education process and their impact on this process of what’s happening in Ukraine now.

Yulia Gorbunova: Sure, I think that I’ll just take a step back quickly to say that this work on the protection of education from attack. It’s something that Human Rights Watch has been doing in many countries and the document called The Safe Schools Declaration, which Ukraine endorsed in 2019. It has been the result of the work of many organizations, including ours. There is a coalition to protect education from attacks, and Human Rights Watch is a founding member of this topic again. It’s something that we looked at in many places in many countries, and my colleagues have worked all over the world on this.

And the point is really to show in case the Russian forces, as Rachel mentioned, the scale of unnecessary destruction, that was caused and really striking, because when I with my colleagues, walked into some of the schools after Russian forces left and the areas where the occupied, we walked in and what we witnessed was completely horrific. 

  • It just seemed like such a senseless, you know, massive amount of unnecessary destruction that was caused. However, in cases where Ukrainian forces use schools, which we documented, there were, you know, there’s an example for instance of a school in the Kyivskiy region, which was used by Ukrainian forces at one point, but the way it was used was, that there were civilians sheltering in the basement of the school and Territorial Defense Forces were protecting civilians. In another case, those checkpoints were set up not far from the school.

All these actions increase the risk for civilians, but at the same time, you can’t like we have to be objective and say that you can’t compare these two for this particular report. And that’s what we try to make very clear.

And I mean in terms of the education process again Rachel, so I think covering some of the efforts that Ukrainian authorities have undertaken to ensure that kids remain in schools has been great. And, for example, school №3 in Bucha, was destroyed by a return fire of Ukrainian forces, because it was turned into a target by Russian forces, who were deployed inside that school. It took over a year to restore that school. During that time, kids started studying in shifts. They started in the annex, which was effectively adjusted to be used as a school building. And that’s sort of the type of example. We saw everywhere, that teachers and parents came together to clean the schools first and to pay, sometimes their own money together to start their renovation process, where they could. And of course, there’s been enormous support from International organizations. 

People are renovating school №3 in Bucha after deoccupation by Ukrainian Armed Forces /buchanews.com.ua

There were quite a few interesting studies also done which we looked at when we researched. One of them was a report by the Ukrainian organization Сedos, where they looked at psychological impact in particular among other things, and that’s something we didn’t look too much into for our report. But it’s something that I think we should keep flagging, just how much of a significant psychological impact it has. This has had and will continue to have on children, and we also kept hearing from teachers and parents things like kids have been so brave. They really adjusted to doing their homework. So well, they’re doing what they can to study they want to go back to school, and hearing that on one hand is just as incredible as seeing, you know, parents putting up the roof over the destroyed School using their own money, but on the other hand, it’s just so sad, that it should not be happening. The kids should not have to adjust things like that. 

And going back to the Safe Schools Declaration and the work of many organizations, including Human Rights Watch, this is the point is not to say well, you know, this forces use schools and then wave your finger and say: «Оh this is a violation, this is a crime or whatever». But it’s just to show that even though it’s not banned. It’s a unique report in that sense. So it’s not a violation of international humanitarian law, but it’s just to show what actually happens when the military uses schools. And we see the progress that Ukraine has made because we did similar research in 2019 in Donbas and Ukraine has made many steps in understanding and approaching this issue by training their military not to use schools and doing it strictly as necessary. 

Andriy Kulikov: Well, listen to my interlocutors, I noticed that while Rachel used the word survivors, Yulia really used the word victims, which makes me think that Yulia is from a legal background, yes?

Yulia Gorbunova: Yes. 

Rachel Denber: Well, I did. I also used the word victim. Sometimes I use the word survivor. That is not illegal. Julia is a lawyer, and I’m not, but victims can also be. We have victims, who did not survive, and we want to give voice to their families. 

Childhood memories: Gothic building and forbidden books

Andriy Kulikov: Yeah, I understand. I just wanted to draw our listener’s attention to these peculiarities and the use of different words in different situations. Survivors and victims are united with one word: a person or a human. And to finish this conversation, which, although it was filled with horrible things, I want to put a human touch to it and ask Rachel and Julia to share their memories of the schools that they used to go to. Who wants to start?

Rachel Denber: Gosh. I definitely did not expect this. Well, it was called Culbertson School in Southern New Jersey in the suburb of Camp of Philadelphia. It seemed big when I went there because I was a little girl, but it was a building that probably went up like 1910 or 1920. It was a lovely kind of Gothic building. Many American schools look like three-story buildings.

What do I remember about it? I remember getting kicked out of the kindergarten class for giving back talk to the teacher. I had very happy memories from there as well. But I remember the teacher is just giving extraordinary attention to their students. And sadly that lovely little school was torn down, and it’s now some anonymous box store, you know, Walgreens or who knows. 

Andriy Kulikov: All right, Julia.

Julia Gorbunova: I went to a Russian school. I remember that. I don’t have very fond memories of it. Likewise, I mean I have fun memories of my friends. My favorite subjects were Geography and English. I hated history. I still have massive gaps, because I hated the history lesson so much. 

Andriy Kulikov: Well, sometimes it’s better not to learn what you’re being taught in school and have gaps and fill them on your own…

Julia Gorbunova: Yeah, but I think the warmest memory from my childhood was when my friends and I were into Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books, and at the time it was before it was trendy. And we used to organize different kinds of roll games and reenact different parts of the book…

Andriy Kulikov: Where do you always win or who? 

Julia Gorbunova: I was an elf. 

Rachel Denber: But, what about your school, Andriy? Where did you go to school? What’s your memory?

Andriy Kulykov: I was able to switch schools because for eight years I went to the Russian language school, and then I finished my education in Ukrainian. And my biggest memory is that my parents were not against this. I’m from a Russian-speaking family, I don’t know all the generations, but my parents were always if not supportive of my gravitation towards Ukrainian. Then at least they were not putting any obstacles and the last two years in my school actually came very handy later when there was a need for people who spoke and rolled good Ukrainian and all stuff, you know. So this is one of my fondest memories. But on the other hand, I have something not good come or something awful.

My school was and still is one of the oldest Ukrainian schools in Kyiv. Actually, it was founded back in 1871 as the first Ukrainian language secondary education establishment on the territory of the Russian Empire. In Khalichina they used to have Ukrainian schools at that time, but this was here. And of course there was a lot of undesired literature in the library of our school. And I lived in the courtyard of this school and when the party was extracting this literature and confiscating it the teachers and librarians would sometimes give them some scrap paper just for the wait, and they took part of the valuable books to their homes, but they could not take them all.

So they would bring the books out to our courtyard and put them in stock next to the garbage bin, and I would watch this from my fourth floor. As soon as I saw that they were put in those stocks I would make it and I grab some of the books. And because of my unnoticeable protest, I was able to read at the age of 14 or 15 some things that became available for general consumption much later. So, you never know how this will result.

College of Pavlo Galagan/galinfo.com.ua

 And I’m sure that the Human Rights Watch does not plan to stop this, and after education what do you plan to pay your primary attention to? 

Rachel Denber: The topic that we want to look into next is the imposition of the Russian curriculum in occupied areas. We feel that it’s a very serious issue that others are also looking into.


You may also read or listen on Hromadske Radio: Indictment Against Putin Will Be Amended, Top International Lawyer Says


«Human Rights issues lost International attention even before the full-scale invasion»

Andriy Kulykov: But you don’t have access to most of the occupied territories?

Rachel Denber: We do not have access. It will be very difficult to do that research, but it’s not the first time we don’t have access to a place, so we’ll figure it out. 

Yulia Gorbunova: Yeah, and we’ve already done some research in occupied areas. But yeah, It is as you said not easy to do research in whatever essentially closed regimes. But there are a lot of countries that Human Rights Watch covers where we don’t have access. We always find a way.

Andriy Kulykov: By the way, another interesting or maybe significant moment in the terminology is deoccupied areas, even in Ukrainian. We say mostly deoccupied areas, not liberated. Is this because deoccupation does not necessarily mean liberation? What’s your take on this?

Rachel Denber: I used deoccupation because that’s the most fact-based way of describing what happens. You know, it was occupied by one military. And then it was deoccupied by another military. So it just seems very straightforward. Some people say liberated. That’s fine. Probably, de-occupied is maybe a more legal frame. We keep our eye on the other issues, including Crimea. A set of Human Rights issues lost International attention even before the full-scale invasion. And since the full-scale invasion, we really want to boost attention to it.

We will also continue to pay attention to indiscriminate attacks when they happen. There are a lot of wonderful other human rights investigators that are looking into indiscriminate attacks, for example, they just put out an amazing report on the attack on the RIA Lounge Bar in Kramatorsk. We went to a presentation of that, and we were just blown away by it. 

So there are other organizations that are doing that work, but we also want to keep our eye on that to see when our expertise would bring some value added both our expertise in as you least said in arms and our conflict experts and also our colleagues who work on digital investigations, so using satellite technology and other aspects of open source information technology. So, you know, we’ll have our eye on a lot of things in Ukraine going forward.

Destroyed RIA Lounge Bar in Kramatorsk

Andriy Kulikov: To round out this conversation, let’s take a quick look into the future. After deoccupation comes, there is a need for transitional justice. How closely will Human Rights Watch watch? How transition Justice is meted out to Ukraine?

Rachel Denber: I think when the time comes, that will be a top concern of ours, right? 

Andriy Kulikov: What are the major traps that we may fall into? What is that? 

Rachel Denber: I don’t want to look at it as a trap. Maybe it will look like an opportunity. 

Andriy Kulikov: All right. 

Rachel Denber: So one track will obviously be to ensure Justice for war crimes, and crimes against humanity that took place during the conflict. And I mean that that work is already being done. Now, you know, by all the structures that you’re listeners. I’m sure they are already aware of the International Criminal Court’s Universal jurisdiction cases by the work of the prosecutor General and the prosecutor General’s office. And then there are other tribunals that are being created or thought or conceptualized now. So, there’s going to be that work.

But I think that there will be a lot of work that will need to be done to ensure that when deoccupation happens people who are suspected of having collaborated and worked under the occupation ensure that any kind of processes that take place against them are not excessive or not arbitrary. 

  • That takes full account of the pressure, coercion, and circumstances that people were in fact under. And that those processes and that any effort to prosecute people who provided services to the opposing military power, that they’re focusing on the big damage that was done and not just focusing on people who were and continue to be in vulnerable positions and so just make easy cases.

You know, that’s what I think will almost certainly be an issue. I think many Ukrainian civil human rights organizations and other civil society organizations, are rightly already focused on because they make sure that there is real justice and that’s just venting, vengeance, or easy. So, I think that’ll be important.

There are probably all kinds of examples beyond justice, transitional Justice, which is just a process of reconciliation that takes place after the war, intensely polarizing situations. In South Africa, there were, of course, these very different situations, but they were still. There was quite an extensive reconciliation process, probably in the Balkans. So we will be more focused on issues of justice, but I’m sure that there will be reconciliation processes. 

Andriy Kulikov: And the last question goes to Yulia as Rachel mentioned you have done a lot of research on Crimea and bringing in the topic of collaboration and retribution whether there’s a special scale to determine the level of collaboration offered by one of the public or non-governmental organizations called the Crimean Tatar Resource Center. It is measured on a scale of 1 to 10 as far as I remember. I don’t know whether you are familiar with it. But in principle, can you measure the level of collaboration, the level of cooperation with the occupying power, and all this kind of stuff?

Yulia Gorbunova: Do you mean in Crimea specifically? 

Andriy Kulikov: Well, I just mentioned this because you were a researcher on Crimea, but in general, of course in general. It’s just an example.

Yulia Gorbunova: I think it’s a difficult question to answer. I think that I also agree that it’s concerning on the one hand. I’m sure they’re genuine cases of collaboration when people or groups, organizations are officials, especially, you know, work to accommodate the occupying power. They provide sensitive information or do other kinds of acts that qualify as collaboration, but then, on the other hand, they’re people who even in international law have again something Rachel alluded to no choice. It’s a place where they live, and they continue doing what they’ve been doing. You know, a good example is teachers. So I think they’re 30,000 teachers in Crimea and when we get to the conversation about transitional justice and reconciliation and reintegration, it’s very important to keep in mind what will happen to all these people who just continue doing their work.

I don’t know if I answered your question. I don’t know if I can rate a collaboration scale of 1 to 10, but I think that keeping that large number of people who remain in occupied areas, whether they occupied in 2014 or occupied more recently. It’s important to distinguish between those people and real collaborators who should be prosecuted and also going after small cases like that really overwhelms the system and creates a backlog of cases and then the cases, that need to be dealt with are kind of on the, you know, don’t get to be prosecuted quickly.


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