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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.

4. Volodymyr Savchenko, an activist that has been fighting against illegal construction of the Odessa coast of the Black Sea for 7 years. Because of this, he was threatened and attacked near his office, but thanks to protests and lawsuits, he managed to stop the illegal construction.

5. Valery Kharchuk

Because of his fight against government corruption in Rubezhnoye, Kharchuk has experienced constant harassment. His car have been set on fire five times this year as well as being covered in acid. His office windows have been smashed and the doors of his apartment have been defaced with paint. This is the price Kharchuk is paying for the active civil position he has taken in the city of Rubizhne. But despite these set backs he will not be deterred in his fight against fraud, he is not going to give up.

6. Svitlana Vovk

After exposing plagiarism in the scientific work of the Minister of Education, Mr. Shkarleta, Svitlana Vovk was harassed, monitored and threatened with rape. A stalker even came to the her apartment and left pornographic notes on the door. Svetlana turned to the police, however, she did not receive any help. It was then that ZMINA Human Rights centre stepped in to protect her.

7. Natalia Shybayeva

Shybayeva lives in Kharkiv region, and is a residents of the town of Sorokovka which is currently under attack. When a sand pit started operating near the village of Sorokovka in the Kharkiv region, life turned to hell for the locals. Every day 50-ton trucks loaded with sand drove past their homes, destroying roads and polluting the air. The residents of Sorokovka would not put up with it and protested. In response, the residents were intimidated, attacked with knives, grenades were planted in the yards of their houses, and their cars were burned – but they did not give up, and their struggle continues.

8. Sergey Fysun

Fysun fights against illegal construction by speaking out against the installation of kiosks and other hardscape elements on historic monuments and the illegal sale of state property.
For his work, he is systematically threatened and targeted by vandals, and once unknown people burned his car in broad daylight in the center of the city. Nevertheless, despite the risks and the danger to his life, the activist continues his fight.