Ukrainian human rights lawyer investigating ‘terror’ of sexual violence amid war

Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Kyiv-based human rights lawyer and head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, joins Yahoo News National Reporter Garin Flowers to discuss the allegations of rampant sexual violence, including rape, inflicted upon Ukrainian civilians by Russian forces. Matviichuk describes the difficulty of investigating this “very specific crime” due to the ongoing conflict, lack of training for first responders and a reluctance on the part of victims to share their stories.

Video Transcript

GARIN FLOWERS: Let's talk about the latest news that just came out this week. The UN and Kyiv officials are saying that now, men and boys are also reporting stories of rape and sexual assault by the hands of Russian soldiers, on top of women and girls. Can you talk to me about that?

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: Yes. You know, we had an official publication from Ukrainian ombudsman office and general prosecutor's office, but also from our own sources who gathered testimonies of victims of war crimes. And three days ago, one of our lawyers contacted me and told me whether we have some special instructions for how to take testimonies from a man who were raped, because he faced with this in his practice and he want to be prepared how to speak with people who suffered from sexual violence.

GARIN FLOWERS: Well, some people are saying that these accusations of rape and sexual assault are seen as a strategy to scare society. What do you think about that?

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: We have to understand the nature of sexual violence. It's a very specific crime, which through concrete victims directly targeted to the whole Ukrainian society. Because this crime provokes the feeling of shame from people who suffered from sexual violence, feeling of guilty from people who couldn't be able to protect them, and in others, feeling of fear to be treated like this way.

And as a result, it's all weakened the social connection between communities and through them, the local resistance. So for my point and my estimation as a human rights lawyer, sexual violence is used by Russian soldiers as a part of terror in order to quickly obtain and save the control over their occupied area.

GARIN FLOWERS: How are these cases going to be investigated? Obviously, it's hard to know, you know, what really happened and what's going on. There's so much mayhem. People are being killed. How are these cases going to be investigated once the war slows down?

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: Unfortunately, we are in a hot stage of the war. And these crimes can be committed even in this moment, because Russian troops now are in a huge area of Ukraine. That's why we have no idea even about how much people have suffered from such kind of crimes.

The first problem with the investigation is that survivors of sexual violence are not willing to speak about it, even in a confidential way, even with human rights defenders, or with official police departments. And second problem, as I mentioned, that when we speak about evidence, it's very difficult to gather and to save it when you are in occupied territories.

And you don't know what will be with you within several hours. So it's no possibility to remain close or to provide some test for police, even if you are willing to do it. So it's a second huge problem. And third problem that Ukrainian state authorities, well, wasn't prepared for such a huge number of crimes-- not only sexual violence, but a lot of other-- like enforced disappearances, tortures, illegal detention of civilians, killing civilians.

Even well-functioning state bodies will be in the challenge in such situation. We are a nation in transit. And before this large-scale invasion, we have a lot of problems with our law enforcement bodies, judicial system. So there is not, like, a proper functioning infrastructure from the state which can help survivors of sexual violence to provide testimonies and to make smoothly this further investigation.

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