Oleksandra Matviichuk Dan Bayer/Aspen Security Forum

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Oleksandra Matviichuk: “You Have to Defend the Law With Weapons”

Oleksandra Matviichuk is a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and co-recipient of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. She is a human rights lawyer by training who leads the Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian human rights organization.

I caught up with Oleksandra Matviichuk at the Aspen Security Forum, a major international security conference. She spoke on a panel about Ukraine, and at one point challenged National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on the (in her view, painfully slow) provision of F16 fighter jets and advanced weaponry to Ukraine. In our conversation she defended the decision to provide cluster munitions to the Ukrainian military, and again stressed the need for more modern weaponry to defend and liberate Ukraine.

It is somewhat peculiar to see a Nobel Peace Laureate argue so forcefully in favor of providing an army with the weapons it needs to win a war, so I asked her directly how she reconciles her faith in human rights law with the desperate need for weapons to defend her country from Russian occupation?

Her response was both instructive and challenging.  Here’s the clip. Transcript below



On The American Decision to Send Cluster Bombs to Ukraine

Mark Leon Goldberg You are a human rights lawyer. Your weapon is the law. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine itself is an illegal act of aggression. The conduct of the war is through mass atrocities and the deliberate targeting of civilians. As a human rights lawyer, has this revealed to you the limits of the law? And how do you reconcile what I presume to be a faith in international law with the reality of what’s happening right now? 

Oleksandra Matviichuk As a human rights lawyer, I have an obligation to document each human rights violation, regardless of the site. And we do it. And that is why I can clearly assume that the vast majority of war crimes in our database were committed by Russian forces. And when the large-scale invasion started, I found myself in a very weird position. People would ask me: “How we can help?”  And if these people represented some political forces in other countries, members of parliaments or members of governments or other officials, I had to answer: “If you want to help us, please provide Ukraine with weapons.”  And this is something which I couldn’t even imagine! I understood that when the law doesn’t work (and I still do believe that it’s temporary, that we will manage to fix it) you have to defend the law with weapons also. 

Mark Leon Goldberg Well, on that point, there is this debate about the use of cluster bombs and the provision of cluster bombs by the United States to the Ukrainian forces to defend their territory. Cluster bombs are not illegal. There’s no international ban on cluster bombs, but they are highly stigmatized for the fact that a certain percentage of them necessarily will not blow up and they remain unexploded ordinance and are inherently therefore indiscriminate, and can kill long after the war is over. How do you approach that kind of  tricky moral question of the provision of cluster munitions? 

Oleksandra Matviichuk We are in a counter-offensive and we need weapons to release people who live in occupied territories.  Occupation is not just changing one state flag for another. Occupation is mass graves, torture chambers, filtration camps, massive deportation, denial of identity and other horrible things. But we all know that cluster munitions are a huge harm to civilians. And Ukraine is already one of the most mined countries in the world. So for sure, I’m a little bit worried. Ukrainian authorities said that they will use these cluster munitions only far from densely populated areas, but it will be a problem. What I want from our partners is to provide us weapons which we ask them to provide, like [the long range ballistic missile system] ATACMS like fighter jets, F-16s, like weapons which are very modernized, which can reach their long distance target and without harm to civilians — because it’s a modern weapon. So for a year we asked for it…and we received it only in February this year. Now we are in this conversation about F16s, and still it’s not understandable! The process of teaching our pilots will start this year? Next year? The year after next year? We are very grateful for all support which we received. But the truth is when you receive modern weaponry, you will provide less harm to civilians. 

You can listen to our entire conversation on your preferred podcast listening app. We discuss in detail her background as a human rights lawyer and her work documenting Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

The full transcript of my interview with Oleksandra Matviichuk will be freely available to email newsletter subscribers. Sign up below.