Forcibly displaced Ukrainian civil society leader and Chair of the NGO Opora, Olga Aivazovska, speaks at the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.
On the Russian invasion of Ukraine:
“There is nothing special about me, my only superpower is that I’m Ukrainian.”
“My son is the fourth generation in my family living under Russian aggression. My granny was only 17 when she was convicted by the Soviet Union for speaking Ukrainian and studying her nation’s culture and history.”
“5 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russians, every day for over a month now.”
Why the West must act:
“Close your eyes and think of what will happen to your world if the absolute evil does not fail.”
“We must win; otherwise, humankind’s evolution since WW2 will reverse course, humanity will degrade, and we’ll forget about the values of rights and freedoms.”
“If authoritarianism wins, it will continue killing any hope for the future of those who respect the rule of law, human rights, and self-determination of free nations.”
I was asked to share a story about myself and how I became an activist. But there is nothing special about me; my only superpower is that I’m Ukrainian. And my story can’t be detached from the painful history of my homeland today.
My son is the fourth generation in my family living under Russian aggression. My granny was only 17 when the Soviet Union convicted her for speaking Ukrainian and studying her nation’s culture and history. The horrors committed against young girls by Russian soldiers and prison guards are now replicated by their descendants – they are doing the same in Ukraine today.
At 5 am, on February 24, 2022, I woke up to the sounds of explosions around Kyiv. I had 15 minutes to pack my belongings and leave my home. Now, when I fall asleep in other temporary places, I dream of my home, where I learned how to bake bread during lockdown last year. At such moments, I keep asking myself – what did I / what did we do wrong? And then, I remember that my whole life, I’ve been fighting for the rights & freedoms that my beloved husband is defending right now on the frontline. We can’t blame ourselves — we can only blame the aggressor state for this war.
In 2004, I was a student, and I defended the right to fair elections during the Orange revolution. I dedicated my life to protecting the political freedoms of citizens with a team of the Civil Network OPORA. I was proud of my work — we achieved incredible things. In 2014, during the Revolution of Dignity, I participated in the protests and volunteered in a hospital in Kyiv. In those days, Ukrainians defended themselves from the authoritarian President, and we protested in Kyiv’s main square when students were beaten up. At that time, Russia started the war and occupied Crimea. We can defend our rights before the state of Ukraine with joint efforts of civil society. We proved that we were not scared easily.
But today, we face the enemy who wants to destroy Ukraine, the identity of its people, and who wants to challenge its sovereignty. Peace can only be based on international law and the Constitution of Ukraine. Any other terms and conditions for peace imply a cessation of hostilities with the following terrorizing of civilians of the country that lost the battle.
If the evil is left unpunished, it will only keep growing. Today, the absolute evil is the war launched by authoritarian Russia against a democratic Ukraine. The more successful the rule of democracy is, the riskier it is for the security of the authoritarian leader heading the neighboring country. Russia has no respect for international law, human rights, world order, or international organizations. They see no other arguments but the force. We have no other choice. We must win; otherwise, humankind’s evolution since WW2 will reverse course, humanity will degrade, and we’ll forget about the values of rights and freedoms. The process will only multiply the pain and suffering in Europe. Ukraine is not the first country on the road to the degradation of world order, and it will not be the last. 86% of Russians support the idea of a direct attack on the EU member states. When so many Russian soldiers have the blood of so many civilians on their hands, we can no longer believe that they’re just “small people who have been intimidated”.
5 Ukrainian children have been killed by the Russians every day for over a month now. 60% of children in the 40-million Ukraine had to leave their homes after February 24. 10 mln Ukrainians are now internally displaced, and 4 mln Ukrainians are seeking protection from bombing in other countries. This is only the beginning of the horrible chapter of European history. But Ukrainians have already read so many chapters and learned their lessons. Russian soldiers, the political and business elite, the 71% of citizens of the Russian Federation who support the war, and Vladimir Putin himself are responsible. Humanitarian provisions won’t stop these forces. If the evil is left unpunished, it will only keep growing.
After we liberated small towns like Irpin and Bucha, it’s impossible to ignore what’s really going on. Hundreds of people were executed, shot in the back of the head, with their hands tied behind their backs; they were murdered with their children. They have been lying in the streets for weeks. You can easily find the photos in the global media. But, please, be mentally prepared to see them. This is anti-humane behavior. Along the roads and sidewalks lay the naked bodies of women who were raped. In Bucha town, civilians were executed. These were civilians! They did not present any threat to Russian soldiers. They were just citizens of Ukraine in a town that Russians occupied temporarily, just to get access to Kyiv.
Mariupol was a beautiful, modern city on the coast. Roses lined every street. They should be blooming soon, filling the air with a charming fragrance. But the city was wiped off the face of the Earth by Russians. 400,000 civilians used to live there. The town was blocked and violently exterminated for weeks. One of the Russian missiles struck the maternity hospital; another missile hit the Drama Theater. On the ground outside, citizens painted a huge sign that said, “CHILDREN,” to show aviators that it was a civilian place with children hiding in bomb shelters. 1,300 civilians were there, but we only know of 150 Mariupol people who managed to leave the shelter after it was bombed. They found 300 people dead, and the fate of others is still unknown. Their bodies are buried under the rubble of the theater; it is now their mass grave. Because of the ongoing street fights, there is no chance to prepare a proper rescue operation to save the civilians.
So, close your eyes and think of the peaceful night in your home, in your cozy bed. You’re warm and comfortable. My imagination today, though, can only evoke the horrible images of the cities, villages captured by Russians, or liberated, with their civilians executed. We will never be able to sleep again without those memories of the war. People who managed to break free from Mariupol or Chernihiv don’t speak much. Instead, we need to speak for them and share their stories. If the evil is left unpunished, it will only keep growing.
The world must know that the war in Ukraine is revenge for our decision to be a democratic Western state rather than a satellite of a post-Soviet authoritarian Russia. If authoritarianism wins, it will continue killing any hope for the future of those who respect the rule of law, human rights, and self-determination of free nations.
The UN must respond to the recent developments effectively. After all of those murders in the temporarily captured cities, Russia cannot stay in the UN Human Rights Council and cannot vote in UN Security Council. In addition to the humanitarian supplies and the defense equipment, we must launch a new international justice system. Ukrainian society demands punishment for the Russian leaders and executors of the horrible crimes on our territory. We must build up the basis for the international tribunal today. If the evil is left unpunished, it will only keep growing.
I would like you to remember one thing from my story – Ukraine is a peaceful and democratic state. We do not have a crisis inside the country – it is the war that Russia started with no visible cause. We are defending ourselves and each and everyone in the democratic community. Close your eyes and think of what will happen to your world if the absolute evil does not fail.
14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, April 5, 2022