Ukrainian Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk speaks at Cambridge Union
Thunderous applause and two standing ovations greeted Nobel Peace Prize winner Oleksandra Matviichuk’s talk on the future of democracy at the Cambridge Union on Friday (February 2).
The Ukrainian human rights lawyer has been a formidable campaigner at the Center for Civil Liberties Centre in Kyiv since 2007, an organisation she founded and which has chronicled the abuses and war crimes perpetrated in her homeland - most notably since the 2014 Russian invasion of the Crimea and following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022.
Warning that “if Russia succeeds we will find ourselves in a totally different world,” Ms Matviichuk characterised the Russian-Ukraine war as a part of a lurch towards authoritarianism in her lecture, titled 'Normalisation of evil: how to defend humanity and human rights in 21st century?’.
“This is a conflict between different anthropologies,” she said to a capacity audience at Cambridge Union. “There is no way to negotiate this. The existence of dictatorships results in a loss of power for human beings - and with it their right to freedom. In authoritarian countries, the space for freedom is shrinking to the size of a prison cell.
“This is a war between two systems - authoritarianism and democracy. If Russia succeeds it will encourage others to do the same. Democratic societies will not invest in society, or climate change [solutions], or business development, but in weapons, including new weapons of mass destruction.”
The fight for justice has gone global, said Ukraine’s first Nobel Prize winner. The catalogue of crimes committed in Ukraine by the Russian military since 2014 now includes not just beatings, rapes, and torture taking place inside Ukraine: it also involves the forcible removal of prisoners to Russian camps and the ‘re-education’ they are subjected to, which includes being forced to use a new name. The US Department of State estimates that at least 900,000 Ukrainian citizens – of whom 700,000 are children – have been forcibly relocated to Russia which means, said Ms Matviichuk in the historic chamber, that “Putin is the biggest child kidnapper in the world”.
“Putin is not afraid of NATO,” she added. “Putin is afraid of the notion of freedom. We must return people their names. We must restore people their rights whatever their position.”
Speaking to the Cambridge Independent ahead of the talk, Ms Matviichuk said it was her first visit to Cambridge.
“I’ve been to London a few times but it’s my first time in Cambridge and I’m very excited to be here,” she said of her two-day journey from Kyiv to the UK, of which she said: “The journey is very long because we have no functioning airports since the full-scale invasion started.”
After the invasion, she says, “we faced an unprecedented amount of war crimes and we united our efforts with dozens of regional organisations and built a national network of documentators throughout the country”.
She added: “Working together we jointly documented and submitted to our database more than 62 thousand episodes of war crimes. Thousands of ordinary people joined to help us do our work.”
Is she relieved that the $50bn funding for Ukraine was finally passed this week, after months of delaying tactics by Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán?
“I understand that it’s not just a Ukrainian problem,” she says of the EU wrangle. “It’s a problem for the whole of the European Union. Hungary has had a lot of trouble with democracy for a few years now. The problem is much bigger than just Orbán blocking assistance to the Ukraine.”
Are you optimistic that that episode is now over?
“I am optimistic by nature. I’ve spent 20 years in the fight for human rights in Ukraine.” She allows herself a brief smile and adds: “It’s not Switzerland, so it’s obvious I am an optimist.”
There have been difficulties in terms of what has been happening in Gaza and the initial response from [Ukrainian president] Zelenskyy seemed to be supporting Israel. Is that support ongoing?
“The problem is that when people speak about this horrible war in the Middle East they just think ‘what side do you support?’ but we need their support for humanity, to support international law, and the problem is we now have no international system of peace and security which can help people in Gaza, which can help people in Ukraine, which can help people in Syria, in Myanmar, in Nicaragua, in the Sudan.
“The UN architecture was created after the second world war and supports some countries’ irrational indulgences and now the whole system is paralysed. The world order established after the second world war is corrupting before our eyes. If we are not able to reform the UN system, such fires will take place more often in different parts of the globe. So it’s our problem as humanity, not just a problem for some countries.”
As soon as she walked into the Cambridge Union chamber the audience rose to its feet and applauded: at the end of the session the standing ovation and applause were repeated as Ms Matviichuk left the chamber.
Andrii Smytsniuk from Cambridge Ukrainian Studies Centre at the University of Cambridge said: “It was a great privilege to host Ms Oleksandra Matviichuk here at Cambridge.
“February this year marks two years since the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine and 2024 marks ten years since the annexation of Crimea. These ten years make the question of how justice can be served more dire than ever. As indeed dire as these times are, this war can be won with the support of our allies and the people of Ukraine remain devoted to this cause.
“Ms Matviichuk’s is a message of hope. I want to thank all co-organisers of this event: Centre for Geopolitics, Cambridge Union and Cambridge University Ukrainian Society.”
A spokesperson for the Centre for Geopolitics added: “It was an honour to co-organise Oleksandra Matviichuk’s lecture in Cambridge. Her eloquent talk, and engagement with the audience, was a sombre reminder of the ongoing threat to democracy and democratic values by authoritarian regimes. At a time when Ukraine requires our unwavering support, Ms Matviichuk spoke powerfully to the human dimensions of war and the crucial need for justice for victims and survivors of atrocities.”