Future peace in Ukraine depends on civil society

IssueApril - May 2024
Feature by Yurii Sheliazhenko

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s peace formula declares a commitment to democracy. And real democracy, as dialogue-driven nonviolent governance, could indeed put an end to all wars in the world, if pursued seriously. But Ukrainian people in many ways, formally and informally, are left with no choice other than subordination to military command, despite public opinion polls that reveal disgust with military dictatorship.

Ukraine could not defeat Russian aggression by suffocating civil society at home instead of its mobilisation for nonviolent resistance to invaders. 

Persecution of conscientious objectors and peace activists, public shaming and harassment of millions of civilian males as ‘draft evaders’ with a travel ban, punishments and threats in a new oppressive mobilisation bill, abduction of people in the street and forced transportation to military units where some of them die, or commit suicide, or fall into a coma under suspicious circumstances – all of these are obviously not democratic practices.

Replacement of kidnapping, bribe-extorting commanders of military recruitment centres, and general Valerii Zaluzhnyi who covered them, was a move in the right direction, but Zelenskyy must do more and create safeguards in legislation to protect civilians from militarist cruelty. 

Instead of legislating civil rights, unfortunately, we continue to legalise privileges and arbitrary powers for the armed men in uniforms.

The mobilisation law

The draft mobilisation law published at the end of last year, proposing ‘civil death’ for ‘draft dodgers’, was so scandalously oppressive that the cabinet decided to withdraw it. 

A softer version published in February includes restriction of bank accounts, driving licenses and freedom of movement (already limited) for men who ‘evade’ compulsory military registration, without any exemptions for conscientious objectors. 

The parliamentary commissioner for human rights criticised the bill for not being constitutional, but changed his mind after a meeting with the new minister of defence. I wonder, was he threatened to be conscripted unless... ?

There are soothing signals, but no certainty, that some of these harsh measures could be removed from the final version of the law. But the army still actively lobbies for the gradual imposition of unbearable disadvantages for these stubborn civilians who fail to enlist. 

A law was passed to give military recruiters all personal information on citizens from governmental registers, helping them to bully people into conscription. 

A government bill on draconian fines and wider imprisonment for draft evasion was not withdrawn. The number of people imprisoned for that has already multiplied, some are clearly prisoners of conscience.

The armed forces of Ukraine, a successor to the Soviet army, throughout all the years of Ukrainian independence, fiercely blocked any efforts to implement fully the human right of conscientious objection to military service into Ukrainian legislation. 

A discriminatory and punitive alternative service did exist, but it was suspended under martial law. [Ukraine has been under martial law since 24 February 2022, renewed by parliament every 90 days – ed] 

There is enormous pressure on courts preventing them from acquitting conscientious objectors in ‘draft evasion’ cases. 

Vitaliy Alexeienko spent three months in prison because he refused to serve in the army, on the basis of his Christian faith. The supreme court released him after an international scandal, but he was sentenced again for his conscientious objection to three years in prison – but a suspended sentence. 

“I refuse to be threatened, and I will continue my peace work with all possible means – even behind the bars”

The prosecutor asked for a real prison term but the Ivano-Frankivsk court of appeal didn’t grant it – but also refused to acquit Vitaliy (see PN 2664).

If even in such high-profile case human rights are denied, imagine what happens in less well-known cases. 

For example, the appeal court quashed the acquittal of an Adventist objector, Dmytro Zelinsky, and threw him in jail for three years. His chances in the supreme court are doubtful, because, when deciding in the case of Andrii Vyshnevetsky, about dismissal from military service on the grounds of conscience and thus denying justice to him, the grand chamber of the supreme court found that there is a gap in Ukrainian law regarding the right to conscientious objection and that the judiciary have no powers to remedy this. 

The last hope is international human rights bodies but proceedings could take years and there is no certainty that the Ukrainian government will comply with their judgments and recommendations.

The dangerous militarist utopia, turned into a propaganda slogan ‘everyone will fight the war’, has a long history which could be traced to the imposition of conscription on Ukrainian peasant serfs by the Russian empire, centuries ago.

Recently, marking the birthday of the great Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko [1814 – 1861], conscripted for 10 years as punishment for his criticism of the Czar, I had the opportunity to quote his sad stanza: ‘Go to the barracks! Go to serfdom!’ This perfectly reflects feelings of many people today.

But people have no knowledge or skills to turn these feelings into impactful pacifist action, which is needed to implement values declared in Zelensky’s peace formula, as the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement emphasised in our recent statement

When I wrote letters to MPs suggesting they create an Unarmed Forces of Ukraine for the protection of civilians and for nonviolent resistance to Russian aggression, while also insisting that conscientious objection is an absolute right and must be guaranteed by proper legislation and procedures according to ICCPR [the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] and other international treaties signed by Ukraine, some responses were reassuring but one MP wrote that I must change my citizenship if I refuse to kill the enemies of Ukraine. 

Later, all my proposals were forwarded to the ministry of defence and rejected on the basis of militarist ideology.

Charges against Yurii

My letters to president Zelenskyy and to the parliamentary human rights commissioner, Dmytro Lubinets, about the ‘Peace Agenda for Ukraine and the World’ adopted by pacifists, were forwarded to the security service of Ukraine, which searched my home, seized my computer and smartphone, and placed me under house arrest. 

The Peace Agenda condemns Russian aggression and calls to end it by peaceful means, according to the UN Charter. 

However, an expert employed by the security service presented ideological criticism as forensic linguistics, claiming that the anti-war statement ‘justifies’ war. There is a ‘reasoning’. If you are critical of the demonisation of an enemy, you are justifying aggression. 

This nonsense is nothing else than a pretext to repress me for advocacy of peace and legal aid to conscientious objectors. 

Two independent experts already wrote forensic conclusions proving there is no ‘justification of Russian aggression’ in the Peace Agenda, but the judges ignored these conclusions when I asked for the return of my devices and for the lifting of formal suspicion and my house arrest. 

The judges even allowed the security service to obtain a list of my phone calls, and there is no legal remedy to challenge this, or to prevent further covert operations against the peace movement. 

I explained this Kafkaesque situation in an article ‘Dissenting to war in Ukraine’, published in Germany in Krieg und Frieden (War and Peace). 

Soon, after the current stage of disclosure, the prosecutor will decide whether to proceed. This could end for me with up to five years of prison, with confiscation of my property. 

I am determined to use all legal remedies remaining to prevent this, despite it being hard even to find a lawyer. I am lucky that I am a lawyer myself, it helps to mitigate the usual human rights violations in political cases where licenced lawyers are reluctant to resist prosecution – and push people to plead guilty. 

I refuse to be threatened, and I will continue my peace work with all possible means – even behind bars, if it come to that.

Wars and militarism are longstanding worldwide structural problems. In every corner of our common planet we need to deal with it seriously, without delusions of turning whole peoples into soldiers and erasing the enemy countries from the map. 

Profound social transformations towards a nonviolent way of life and governance are needed to stop and prevent wars. 

These transformations must be driven by civil societies, especially peace movements. 

It would be a challenge to teach and learn ways of nonviolent resistance to aggressions and tyrannies. But with growing number of skilled war resisters the hope will grow that in a world where everybody refuses to kill, there will be no wars. 

And sooner or later, after the tireless efforts of global civil society, the hope will became a reality. 

No repression could stop people from dreaming and working for peace, following the inner voice of conscience in human nature.