Human Rights Defender: Christine Just

Image: Christine Just
Ukraine has been in the eye of a storm for a large part of this year. Christine Just has a story to share about her journey as a Human Rights Defender in Ukraine in times of conflict and turmoil in the country.

What's happening in Ukraine right now?
In Ukraine right now there are several changes. To but it shortly the situation is to be called unstable, especially in Eastern Ukraine. On September 17, the association agreement was approved by Ukraine’s parliament, which is to pave the way for the European Union membership, and to distance the country from Russia. At the same time a “special” status was granted to the occupied Donbass region that provides limited self rule to the region (for example the use of the language). Another problem is that the separatists are still in eastern Ukraine. The secession of Crimea remains an issue. In addition, the fights in Eastern Ukraine are going on, the fights are still ongoing. The fights are one side on the other side the events are also connected to a strong information campaign, like in many wars, which included true and false information in the official and nonofficial/ alternative media. Russian information justifies the activities as “self-defense” of the Russian territory, seeing Russia being under pressure. These information spread in many directions, and are strengthened in other countries as well. Therefore there are changes to be seen in whole Europe, its politics towards the East and towards Russia. At the same time there is also support for the Ukrainian society, with real actions, like consultants, humanitarian aid and similar activities. Due to the ongoing changes the political landscape is still unstable, civil society actors, and politicians are developing new structures, Especially important topics include political transparency, participation and stability.

The Euromaidan movement was successful with the ouster of President Yanukovych - what went wrong after?
The Euromaidan movement was successful and the protests lead to an overthrow of the government. Yet at the same time, already during the protests the perception of the events in other parts of Europe was underestimated, and the support came only very late. There was a lot of information for example about the “right wingers” in Ukraine in the western media, what lead to a false perception / false information and therefore to a delay in the reaction and support for the movement from other countries. Europe reacted to slow, and as a reaction to the movement for independence from Ukraine an occupation from Russia was started- this is especially the annexion of Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. Many people have been captured, women abducted, journalists threatened by so called separatists, which lead to fear and a refugee movement in the region. Many people had to leave their homes, and to escape to safer regions. The conflict, which started as a peaceful protest got a very violent note and the development lead to increasing tensions between Russia and Europe, but also to America. There was a peace plan announced (by Mr. Poroshenko) yet especially the status of the regions where the fights are ongoing is still unstable. With consideration for the developments of other countries of the Eastern European Partnership the demonstration of Russia and its forces and methods did signal that movements for democracy are on the one side supported, yet corruption and especially for example trade deals about energy and oil are still having a strong influence on the decision makers.

Military intervention in Ukraine by Russia has been a huge issue in the region - what with Crimea's secession and all of that happening. What's the status right now? What's allowing an international power to go above the law?
The Military intervention by Russia brought severe tensions/ difficulties into the movement. The secession of Crimea is especially difficult because of the minority of the Crimea Tartars. The leader, Dzemielev for example lately was not allowed to enter that region to take part in commemorations. Just today an assembly of the tartars was cracked down by Russian security forces. The Rights of minorities are not guaranteed. Crimea is an annexed region under now Russian control, whereby the international community did see the annexation as a clear violation of international law. Concerning the question as to what is allowing an international power to go above the law, the answer for this question depends on the side which it refers to. In General International law esp. International Treaties about Integrity and Human Rights are not to be violated. Therefore the international community has to see how international security can be reestablished with consideration to Human Rights as Core Values.

Can you tell us your story as a Human Rights Defender on field?
My Story started already in 2011, which was the time after the elections in Belarus. The bloody crackdown and the persecutions took place especially between 2010 and 2011. I traveled to Poland in 2011, and there was involved in the movement. I went there originally as a trainer for International Youth exchange, but I was placed in a house where refugees- Human Rights Defenders from Belarus arrived. The house yet was not a safe place, and therefore the persecutions did take place there as well, and I was involved in the events. I speak polish as a second language, which was our language for communication. I there came into the role of a German -polish mediator for the Human Rights defenders for Belarus. We were seeking help during the persecutions yet hardly anyone answered or helped us. A friend of mine died later on, two others were tortured, I myself was infected by a disease and another one is still hiding. Since that time I am holding the contact especially to the Human Rights Defenders in Belarus, later on the events in Ukraine, which is the neighbor country, started. As the events for independence in Ukraine are very important for the Civil Society in Belarus we are closely following the events in Ukraine. I am thus connected especially to Poland/ Belarus/ Ukraine, but to Russian activists/ artists as well. I now live in Germany, but concerning my own experience I have to say, that there is very little support from Germany, for the Civil Society in Belarus. I am now mainly working online, yet hope that I can return to at least Poland.

What have your major challenges been?
I would like to describe my work as rather difficult. At the beginning- means in 2011 I was involved- yet not prepared for the situation or the problems at all. Therefore I lacked contacts and background knowledge concerning possibilities for help. Therefore the situation became very dangerous, and especially Women human Rights Defenders are very often not taken serious/ simply ignored/ under special threats, which until today is a big challenge. The work is not acknowledged and people have to work in life-threatening circumstances without help or solidarity. Also in Germany I did not get any concrete help so far- apart from statements and wishes for solidarity. These are nice to receive, yet the work is rather difficult if the necessity for support is not seen. My work continues, but the lack of support, advocacy or stability leads to very challenging working conditions. The attention of the official media is also mainly on the war issues, and not on structures of Civil-Society, what makes it difficult to be acknowledged. Peace-building activities are not acknowledged or not mentioned. My work is now seen by international actors, for example, from Human Rights activists, EU specialists or Experts from UN Women, but to get stability, ensured, stable support for Women Human Rights Defenders seems a very complicated issue. Apart from that I am dealing with 3-4 different languages on a daily basis what often requires a lot of concentration. A good amount of background knowledge of the political landscape is very important and therefore a lot of reading and communication is required.

What do you see as a solution to the issue, and how do you see peace unfolding in the region?
In general I would like to name several points. First of all structures of civilsociety should be in the focus of attention. Very often the attention is mostly on military affairs and not on the peacebuilding activities. This is furthermore connected to problems of authoritarianism, corruption, (neo-) capitalist structures, which are spread and lead to exploitation and a lack of participation of especially young people or women. Development is necessarily connected to participation and civil society actors. Key topics for development must be the strengthening of peacebuilding activities, transparency and participation. Apart from that especially education and the empowerment of women and young people have to be important topics on the agenda.
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