Volodymyr Yavorskyy: People are ready to defend their rights when they believe they can and when they know how

Since 2004, people have become much more active in defending their own rights. Has the situation changed, however, and is Ukraine in danger of xenophobia and intolerance?  We spoke on these subjects, and about today’s human rights movement with the Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, Volodymyr Yavorskyy.

Which rights are most often infringed in Ukraine?

I would highlight the right to a fair trial, to liberty and personal security and freedom from torture and ill-treatment.

How popular or unpopular are human rights organizations in Ukraine?

Hard to say, and we haven’t carried out such surveys. I’d mention only that tens of thousands of people receive help from human rights organizations every year.  In fact though, we are more concerned with having influence than on making ourselves popular.  There can be a problem with greater popularity: because the number of appeals from people increases and our resources are obviously limited.

It’s worth mentioning also that some human rights measures are not so popular. Who is going to defend a rapist or murder from being tortured?  Members of the public don’t necessarily understand such defence. We also often defend those who are in a minority (language, national, sexual, for example) which is not a popularity winner.

In your view which are the three most successful human rights organizations in Ukraine?

That’s always subjective. The ones that for me are the most interesting are the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group, Freedom House – Ukraine and the International Women’s Human Rights Centre “Ukraine – La Strada”.

A lot has been said recently about racism, xenophobia, intolerance. How serious are the problems for Ukraine?

On the one hand, the level in Ukraine is actually much lower than in all neighbouring countries, and also Central and Western Europe. The exception here would perhaps be religious intolerance which is particularly strong in post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine.

On the other hand, over the last few years we have seen a significant increase in rights violations on such grounds, and this must be a source of concern.  It is not so much the number of such cases as the fact that the numbers are rising. It’s important here to mention that we lack mechanisms for stemming this rise since those who commit such offences or incite enmity remain unpunished.  If we don’t do something now, and discuss the situation publicly, it could become really serious in a couple of years.

Are people prepared these days to defend their own rights?

People are ready to defend their rights when they believe they can and when they know how. Since 2004, civic activity has increased markedly. This can be seen for example in the greater number of civil suits against the authorities.  This activity fell however in 2006.

The problem is that people are now aware how to effectively defend their rights, and when their attempts don’t work, they give up. For example, they send complaints to the prosecutor’s office, the President, the Human Rights Ombudsperson, or other bodies, yet don’t approach the courts. In fact, the courts are the single effective mechanism able to defend individuals’ rights. We should mention here that most members of the public cant’ afford lawyers fees which diminishes their chance of defending their rights.

What prompted you to work in human rights defence?

I found people who have the same views as me about various social issues and react like me to injustice.

Are there people who you look up to and what like to be like?

I prefer to live without such authoritative examples on principle. Each person has their own weaknesses and strengths. There are people who by their actions give a lot to others. For me that would be first of all the ten people who founded the Ukrainian Helsinki Group back in 1975. Their action, aimed at opposing the totalitarian machine must inspire. There are a lot of such acts in our history and that of the world and they’ve made a huge contribution.

Do friends or relatives often ask you for help in defending their rights?

Fortunately no, since their rights aren’t particularly violated, however they often ask for advice on legal matters.

Do you have to apply your knowledge on the street, in shops and other everyday situations?

Extremely rarely. Our rights are infringed by the State, and fortunately we don’t see the State involved on the street, in shops and in everyday situations. Most often we have contact with police patrol officers.

Is there a country which you think is worth emulating as far as human rights are concerned?

Each country has its own cultural milieu and it changes all the time. You can look at the USA as a bastion of freedom, yet over the last decades the country’s actions have destroyed this authority. From the point of view of human rights I’m very impressed by Scandinavian countries however that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any human rights problems there. There is no such thing as an ideal country.

What are your wishes for civic activists?

I would wish them support in their efforts, since it’s hard to break down obstacles without support. This is particularly true for civic activists who are largely impelled by their own idealism.

The Interviewer was Lyubov Yremicheva

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