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Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine: A Series of Stories and Struggles

23 March 2021

2020 was a sobering year for human rights defenders in Ukraine. An anti-corruption activist saw his house burned downs; another anti-corruption activist’s car was burned; 16 human rights defenders were attacked while attending OdesaPride; an activist was stalked and intimidated for revealing plagiarism in scientific papers written by a high-level government official; the family and friends of a murdered activist had to fight for the suspects in the attack to be prosecuted; and a unionist was attacked in the streets.

Events like these against human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists are unfortunately not uncommon in Ukraine. Indeed, NHC partner, ZMINA Human Rights Centre, recorded 101 individual cases of persecution against civil society activists throughout 2020, including intimidation, physical attacks, destruction or damage of property, and defamation. Activists have also faced trial for their legitimate and peaceful human rights work. ZMINA’s analysis of these incidents has revealed that the most dangerous topics for defenders to work on in Ukraine are exposing and opposing corruption, defending LGBTI+ rights, and environmental activism.

Starting from the premise that a climate in which human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists can work safely is one of the pre-conditions for a healthy democracy, the NHC and ZMINA Human Rights Centre are working to support Ukrainian activists through the “Increasing the Role and Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Ukraine” project. Thanks to the financial support of the European Union, the project aims to stimulate public support and demand for the defence of human rights in Ukraine, by, among other activities, providing insight into the daily lives and struggles of these activists who work tirelessly to improve and defend the rights of their fellow citizens in Ukraine.

In a campaign centred around 6 compelling videos, the NHC and ZMINA will highlight the personal stories and experiences of six activists working to defend human rights for all in Ukraine, in spite of the increasingly difficult circumstances.

Watch their stories below, and follow the campaign and other activities of ZMINA here and the NHC in Ukraine here.

1. Natalia Onipko: Natalia advocates for the rights of children in Ukraine. After raising the funds to construct a centre where children with cancer can recover from their intensive treatments free of charge, together with their families, Natalia faced opposition from some within the surrounding community. Despite facing pressure to stop the construction of the centre and even after receiving threats, Natalia continues to work to protect and promote the rights of children, and hopes to open the doors to children and their families soon.

2. Iryna Fedoriv: Iryna works to preserve the natural environment in Ukraine for current and future generations. She has faced intimidation for her work to expose corruption behind a number of projects that overlook environmental considerations. Despite having been defamed and even been accused of real estate fraud, Iryna continues to peaceful oppose illegal construction and to demand environmental protection on behalf of the local communities.

3. Roman Ratushnyy, an environmental activist, faced so many threats for his opposition to the destruction of the natural wildlife due to real estate development projects in the Kyiv region that he had to go into hiding for several months. But he and his fellow activists did not give up and managed to have a specific site included on the list of public green areas in Kyiv, therefore making it impossible for the construction to go forward. Firmly believing that you must raise your voice for positive change, Roman continues to oppose illegal real estate construction in Ukraine despite the challenges his work defending human rights faces.