One year into Russia’s war on Ukraine: civil society in the crossfire
On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s time to acknowledge the tremendous response of Ukraine’s civil society, which is working to protect lives, provide humanitarian aid and defend human rights. In contrast, Russian civil society activists and organisations and independent media are being increasingly repressed and protesters detained to curtail the spread of dissent. The conflict underlines the need to support and enable civil society on both sides of the border. By making the weaknesses of global governance readily apparent, since Russia has used its veto power to limit international action, the war also further makes the case to listen to civil society’s ideas on UN reform.
When he launched his invasion of Ukraine a year ago, Vladimir Putin surely expected to emerge the victor following a swift and decisive campaign. What he got instead is ferocious resistance and an entrenched conflict with no end in sight. The resulting loss of life has been devastating, with tens of thousands of civilians killed.
There’s overwhelming evidence of large-scale human rights crimes committed by Russian forces. Russia’s withdrawal from Bucha last March brought sickening proof of atrocities including summary executions, rape and torture.
The war has caused Europe’s biggest displacement since the Second World War: by the end of 2022, around eight million Ukrainians – 20 per cent of the country’s pre-war population – had become refugees. Even if the war were to end today, its impacts would last for generations.
Civil society steps up in Ukraine
Against this grim backdrop, Ukraine’s civil society is doing things it never imagined it would. An immense voluntary effort has seen people step forward to provide help on all fronts.
Overnight, relief programmes and online platforms to raise funds and coordinate aid sprang up. Numerous initiatives are evacuating people from occupied areas, rehabilitating wounded civilians and soldiers and repairing and restoring damaged buildings. Support Ukraine Now is coordinating support, mobilising a community of activists in Ukraine and abroad and providing information on how to donate, volunteer, join in advocacy and help Ukrainian refugees in host countries.
Ukraine is showing that an investment in civil society, as part of the essential social fabric, is an investment in resilience.
International campaigning is working to mobilise solidarity and urge states and international institutions to take a strong line on Russia, including sanctions that target its financial interests and economic elite.
In a war in which truth is a casualty, many responses are trying to offer an accurate picture of the situation. Among these are the 2402 Fund, which is providing safety equipment and training to journalists so they can report on the war, and the Freefilmers initiative, which has built a solidarity network of independent filmmakers to tell independent stories of the struggle in Ukraine.
Alongside these have come efforts to gather evidence of human rights violations, such as the Ukraine 5am Coalition, bringing together human rights networks to document war crimes and crimes against humanity, and OSINT for Ukraine, where students and other young people collect evidence of atrocities.
The hope is to one day hold Putin and his circle to account for their crimes. The evidence collected by civil society could be vital for the work of United Nations (UN) monitoring mechanisms and the International Criminal Court investigation launched last March.
As is so often the case in times of crisis, women are playing a huge role: while some women are serving in the military, overwhelmingly it’s men who’ve taken up arms, leaving women taking responsibility for pretty much everything else. Existing civil society organisations (CSOs) have been vital too, quickly repurposing their resources towards the humanitarian and human rights response.
Ukraine is showing that an investment in civil society, as part of the essential social fabric, is an investment in resilience. It can quite literally mean the difference between life and death. Continued support is needed so civil society can maintain its energy and be ready to play its full part in rebuilding the country and democracy once the war is over.
Putin also knows what a difference an enabled and active civil society can make, which is why he’s moved to further shut down Russia’s already severely restricted civic space.
One of the latest victims is Meduza, one of the best-known and few remaining independent media outlets. In January it was declared an ‘undesirable organisation’. This in effect bans the company from operating in Russia and criminalises anyone who even shares a link to its content.
Independent broadcaster TV Rain and radio station Echo of Moscow were among those targeted earlier, both blocked in March 2022. They continue broadcasting online, as Meduza will keep working from its base in Latvia, but their reach across Russia and ability to provide independent news to a public otherwise fed a diet of Kremlin disinformation and propaganda is sharply diminished. Access to foreign news sites is also severely restricted. Many Russian journalists have been forced to take the path of exile.
It’s all part of Putin’s attempt to control the narrative and minimise dissent. Last March a law was passed imposing long jail sentences for spreading what the state calls ‘false information’ about the war. Even calling it a war is a criminal act.
The dangers were made clear when earlier this month journalist Maria Ponomarenko was sentenced to six years in jail over a Telegram post criticising the Russian army’s bombing of a theatre where people were sheltering in Mariupol last March, which is estimated to have killed around 600 people. She’s one of a reported 141 people so far prosecuted for spreading supposedly ‘fake’ information about the Russian army.
CSOs are in the firing line too. The vital role of civil society was recognised with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in October to activists and organisations working to uphold human rights in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian CSO recognised, the Center for Civil Liberties, is working to document and report on war crimes. But the Russian winner, human rights organisation Memorial, has long been banned from doing its job: it was ordered to close in the run-up to the war. And in Russia’s satellite state Belarus, Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski currently faces a 12-year jail sentence.
The latest targeted is the Moscow Helsinki Group, Russia’s oldest human rights organisation, founded in 1976. In January, a court ordered its shutdown on a registration technicality. Several other CSOs have been forced out of existence.
In December an enhanced law on ‘foreign agents’ came into force, giving the state virtually unlimited power to brand any person or organisation who expresses dissent as a ‘foreign agent’, a label that stigmatises them and harms their credibility, subjects them to harassment, enables the imposition of invasive controls on organisations and deprives them of access to government officials and public institutions – basically preventing them doing their work.
Russia’s LGBTQI+ people are also being further attacked. The state outrageously mischaracterises its imperial war as a fight against the imposition of ‘western values’, making LGBTQI+ people a convenient target. In November a law was passed widening the state’s restriction of what it calls ‘LGBT propaganda’, outlawing positive public representation of LGBTQI+ identities. Already the impacts are being felt with heavy censorship and the disappearance of LGBTQI+ people from public life.
The chilling effect of all these repressive measures, and the systematic disinformation that points a false picture of Ukraine, the west, Russia’s motivations and the conduct and progress of the war, have helped damp down protest pressure.
But still, despite the expectation of detention and violence, people have protested. Thousands took to the streets in multiple cities across Russia to call for peace as the war began. Further protests came on Russia’s Independence Day in June and then in September, following the introduction of a partial mobilisation of military reservists.
Criminalisation has been the predictable response, with the authorities using facial recognition technology to identify protesters. Over 19,500 people have so far been detained at anti-war protests. People have been arrested even for holding up blank signs in solo protests.
It’s clear there are many Russians Putin doesn’t speak for and who reject the war. One day Putin’s time will end and there’ll be a need to rebuild Russia’s democracy. The reconstruction will need to come from the ground up, with investment in an independent civil society. Those speaking out, whether in Russia or in exile, need to be supported as the future builders of Russian democracy.
The UN in the spotlight
As Russia ripped up the international rulebook, global governance institutions came under strain. Putin’s latest move has been to invoke the spectre of nuclear war: just ahead of the war’s anniversary, Putin announced the suspension of Russia’s participation in its nuclear weapons treaty with the USA.
Russia’s war is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which prohibits the use of force against the ‘territorial integrity or political independence’ of another state. In March, the International Court of Justice – the UN’s court that settles inter-state disputes and issues opinions on international law – made a provisional order that Russia must halt its invasion. The ruling is binding but Russia ignored it.
Russia’s disregard for the international rules is enabled by its status as one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC), the global body charged with upholding peace. Enduring divisions between the permanent five mean the UNSC often fails to act on conflicts when one of the permanent five has an interest, as repeatedly seen in relation to Syria’s civil war.
Russia has made crystal clear how ineffective this body is. Despite its obvious conflict of interest, Russia simply applied its UNSC veto power across the board. It even used Council sessions to spread disinformation about its invasion.
In the absence of UNSC action, it’s fallen to the UN General Assembly (UNGA), bringing together all UN member states, to condemn Russia’s invasion. In a rare special session last March, it passed two resolutions calling for an end to the fighting, humanitarian access and immediate withdrawal. Another resolution has just been passed demanding Russia’s withdrawal.
But patchy patterns of support are a cause for concern. Several authoritarian states have sided with Russia. This isn’t surprising: states with poor human rights records often join with fellow violators to oppose international scrutiny. But for each resolution many more states, particularly in Africa, abstained rather than vote against Russia.
This partly reflects Cold War habits of solidarity and a current of public opinion that sees Russia as standing up to the west. But it’s also a measure of Russia’s increased diplomatic and economic engagement in African countries, backed by growing deployment of its mercenary forces.
A similar scenario has played out at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). In March it voted to set up a commission to investigate war crimes and other human rights violations committed by Russia, but 13 states abstained. It begged the question of why states serve on the UN’s peak human rights body if they’re so unprepared to examine abuses.
Russia was a UNHRC member, an absurdity finally dealt with in August, when the UNGA took the rare step of voting to suspend Russia from the Council. But again many states abstained or voted against, enabling Putin to downplay criticism of his sustained assault on universal human rights as patchy and biased.
In October, the Council voted to establish a special rapporteur on human rights in Russia. The officeholder is to report back in a year’s time, offering an opportunity for civil society to share evidence of violations. It marks the first time a permanent UNSC member has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny, offering hope that impunity can be challenged, however powerful the offender. But yet again it was a far from unanimous vote.
The need for reform
It’s obvious that the UN’s foundational charter has been breached and human rights are being violated on an epic scale, with abundant evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Russia in Ukraine. And yet many states are choosing to sit on the fence at this key moment, putting presidential calculations of self-interest ahead of universal human rights.
At least, and at long last, a conversation has opened up about the need for UNSC reform, something even US President Joe Biden now appears to support.
The experience should provoke renewed reflection about how the international system works and who it serves. Civil society’s critiques of global governance and calls for reform have never been more relevant. It’s time to listen to civil society ideas on UNSC reform, and democratise the UN so it stands for the principles in its charter. It’s time to hope for a future when powerful states like Russia can no longer expect to get away with murder.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community must provide humanitarian aid, defend rights and support Ukrainian civil society’s work, including by helping activists and staff avoid burnout.
Donors should support independent Russian media and civil society in exile so they can continue to play their part now and in the eventual rebuilding of Russia’s democracy.
States should work with civil society to develop a broad consensus plan for UN Security Council Reform.
Cover photo by Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images