SDG16+ Champions of Change
The Ukrainians that provide people-centered justice services in the middle of a war
Before 24 February 2022, the 21 member organizations of Ukraine’s Legal Development Network (LDN) engaged in traditional legal empowerment work — providing Ukrainians with basic legal information, helping them resolve disputes, developing local leadership, and cooperating with local governments to tackle justice problems.
Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Institutions, including justice institutions, struggled to absorb the shock and continue their operations. LDN’s members found themselves under bombardment at the same time as the number of justice problems experienced by their clients mushroomed. Although Ukraine had effectively been at war with Russia since the latter’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, a full-scale invasion of the country brought with it multiple new justice problems, forcing groups like LDN to adapt and expand their services quickly even while under great stress and while their staff were facing physical danger. Many of them displaced themselves, LDN members are providing a range of humanitarian support, including essential legal services. Ukrainians come to LDN with urgent justice problems and questions, such as: “Can I leave the country if I’ve lost my passport?”; “How can I receive my pension if I’m internally displaced?”; “Can I be fired from my job under martial law?”; “How can I pay back my loans as a small-business owner from abroad?”; “Where can I get help to rebuild my damaged house?”; etc.
In the latest of our Justice Champions of Change series, Maaike de Langen and Themba Mahleka of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies spoke with LDN members Andriy Korbetskyi, Halyna Kolesnyk, Iryna Chaika, Nataliia Yesina, Taras Shcherbatiuk, Vitaliy Okhrimenko, and Yevgen Poltenko to find out how they are coping, what innovations they have made, and what gives them hope in such a difficult situation.
Maaike: How have you managed to keep operating since the invasion?
Vitaliy Okhrimenko (Program Director, LDN): It’s been non-stop work. I tried to enlist to fight but I wasn’t accepted, so now I’m trying to help defend Ukraine in a different way, by resolving justice problems in our society. Personally, I’ve worked now for 55 days non-stop, without any weekends. But now continuing our work is a way for us to keep going.
Yevgen Poltenko (Executive Director, LDN): We are not working in normal circumstances. More than 11 million Ukrainians have become internally displaced and more than four million have left the country. We’ve been waiting for something to happen for a year, but we were still shocked when the invasion began. We overcame the shock due to the fact that our organization, like our state, has a decentralized approach, so even if you destroy one center, you can’t destroy the whole network.
Our first priority was to ensure the safety of our staff, so we have helped those who were living near the front lines of the invasion to move with their families to relatively safe areas of central and western Ukraine. By the end of March, 21 families had been moved in this way.
Maaike: Given everything that has changed, what are the most common justice problems people are turning to you with?
Yevgen: So many people having to leave the country or to move elsewhere within the country has given rise to a lot of new justice problems. For example, what are the procedures for crossing a border, what are the rights of the men who have to stay behind, what are the labor rights of displaced people and conscripts, what support such as benefits and help with utility bills is available for internally displaced persons (IDPs)?
We also have many requests related to moving businesses to safer areas, taxation of businesses, and how businesses can access government financial aid. Because it’s important that our economy continues to work, and we need to supply and support the army.
Vitality: We now serve three groups of people. The first is more than four million Ukrainians who have gone abroad. These people still have justice problems in Ukraine — they have left work, they have loans that are yet to be repaid, they have lost or left behind documents that they need abroad. The legal system is not designed for these problems, but people need solutions.
The second group is Internally Displaced People (IDPs). There are issues of registering as an IDP, securing accommodation, access to jobs and services, and accessing humanitarian aid such as food and medicine.
The third group is the people that stayed in the regions under attack and occupation. There the focus is on humanitarian aid and helping to rebuild and organize utilities.
Themba: How do you help to resolve these problems?
Andriy Korbetskyi (member of LDN and human rights defender): We have a lot of work to do. We are still acting as human rights defenders and continuing the work we were doing before the invasion on 24 February, but now we have additional things to do. We still use the same approach of trying to really get to the root of the problem that people are facing and solve it. But now we combine legal advice with psychological support and social programs.
In the regions under attack and occupation, we will also document the harm that Russia has caused by its attacks and its bombs falling on our houses. We need to document these cases, because the number of crimes and the scale of harm are so huge that it would be impossible for the state to document them all.
Vitaliy: One major innovation is the legal aid we provide to people who have left the country. We are creating structures and platforms for this in European countries, involving volunteer lawyers and providing translators.
For internally displaced persons, we created a hub where people offer accommodation and those who need it can find it. We have produced simple documents that can help manage these relationships so that both sides understand what’s being offered and for how long, etc.
And in the regions under attack, as well as helping to document criminal acts, we monitor the distribution of humanitarian aid by local authorities to make sure it’s done fairly. We solve practical problems such as redistributing supplies of food that were lying unused in schools to people in need.
Yevgen: We have been involved in many initiatives as part of the #StandWithUkraine campaign. On a humanitarian level, we helped to evacuate 800 people from Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, and we have collected and distributed more than 160 tons of humanitarian aid in the areas hardest hit by the invasion. We have helped hundreds of IDPs to secure housing and employment.
When it comes to justice problems, our Solidarity & Justice Coalition has brought together 19 organizations, including 15 LDN member organizations, to provide legal and in-kind humanitarian aid for Ukrainians in Ukraine and abroad. We have provided free legal aid support to more than 4,000 people since the war started, and we’ve produced more than 100 publications that promote legal awareness and education.
We are also working to strengthen the capacity of civil society organizations (CSOs) and local governments. We are running a series of webinars to expand the operational capabilities of CSOs so that they can adapt their work to wartime conditions, and we conducted a comprehensive analysis of the work of local governments and used this to make recommendations for how they can organize activities during wartime.
Maaike: Can you tell us about some of the difficulties you have faced in continuing to provide services since the invasion?
Taras Shcherbatiuk (Cherkasy Human Rights Center, member of LDN): The whole justice system basically collapsed when the invasion happened, and although it’s working better now, there are still a lot of gaps which mean people can’t solve even the most basic legal issues. Legal entity registers are still closed, for example, which makes it impossible to enter into deals to buy property or register a legal entity or get a passport. And local governments were not providing legal aid to IDPs and refugees. On the territories where there are no battles happening, services are coming back, but they’re still not 100 percent operational.
Vitaliy: Part of the problem is that the data collected by local governments isn’t useful. I am in a city in the west of Ukraine and before starting all the initiatives I wanted to start, I went to the local government and asked how many internally displaced persons had come to the region and how it helps them. I received the answer that there were about 10,000 people, but they couldn’t give me detailed data. I asked why they had collected the data and they said they didn’t know, and they didn’t have any information on what the plans were for using it. They didn’t know how many of these 10,000 people found accommodation or whether the accommodation was good, and they said that only 80 of them were using the job search center that had been created for them.
Themba: Why is this data important, and what have you done to help improve data collection?
Vitaliy: We want to understand who these 10,000 IDPs are, what they are looking for, and what their living conditions are like. We’ve been collecting this kind of data around the country for a couple of years and using it as a basis to create local legal aid programs in collaboration with local governments. We try to find out if people in Ukraine have been having legal problems, how many problems they have, and how problems differ according to the region they live in.
So, in March, we signed a memorandum with the local government that allows us to collect and analyze data in order to help people find accommodation and jobs. Now we understand how many IDPs came to this region, how many want to find jobs, what skills they have, and how many would be able to contribute to the growth of the community. This knowledge is based on quantitative and qualitative data. We also asked people what they think is needed to tackle their justice problems, and we are talking to local governments and discussing how to solve them.
Themba: Does the war affect your data collection efforts?
Yevgen: We have taken steps to minimize the effects. Since the very beginning of our work, after the war in Ukraine started back in 2014, we understood that working with paper documents and paper logs was not reliable. So we launched a data management system and all our member organizations have access to it and can use it as a basis for programs and for advocacy. We designed the architecture of the system in such a way that we can protect personal data as best we can, and we rented servers in European countries outside Ukraine. Now, even in the territories occupied by Russia, our colleagues can still access the system. For example, one of our colleagues works in the occupied south of Ukraine and there have been no data leaks from there.
Themba: Can you tell us more about your communications efforts?
Halyna Kolesnyk (Communications Manager, LDN): Our information messages reach more than 500,000 people every month directly, and many more through our partner organizations. We have a frequently asked questions list, and when we and our colleagues look at the data and see key questions from our clients, we add them to the list. We are working on algorithms, on step-by-step solutions.
This was important even before 24 February, but now the information flow is so large, and rules are changing all the time. For example, there was a rule that fathers with three or more young children would be allowed to leave the country. It seemed that this would include fathers of two young children whose wife was pregnant, so that is what we had put on our website. And a young family had relied on this information and travelled to the border, but it turned out to be incorrect and they were turned away. Of course, we corrected this on our website immediately and apologized to the family for this mistake. As a result, we have strengthened our procedures for checking the information we receive to make sure it’s not fake.
Maaike: What other innovations have you made in your work?
Iryna Chaika (Organisational Development Director, LDN): We started a joint initiative with the NGOs Lingo and Paladin whereby we provide free legal assistance to Ukrainians at home and abroad. It’s a platform based on the data we have collected where people can post their questions and problems and receive assistance. People don’t have to wait for a particular lawyer to reply because it works through live chat consultations available on the LDN website, managed by a pool of LDN lawyers. It’s a very practical free legal assistance service, provided remotely, powered by technology to connect people’s justice needs with the resources and capacities of the lawyers.
Maaike: You mentioned how hard it is for all of you to keep going and to work all these hours under such pressure. What is it that gives you hope in a situation like this?
Iryna: Well, all wars have their beginnings and all wars have their ends, and there will be a time when Ukraine will prevail. And thinking about the work we do, our data collection and the readiness of the authorities to use this data creates this big window of opportunity to have more accessible legislation in the future for every citizen of Ukraine. We have the opportunity to build the ecosystem we have been dreaming of and making it a reality.
Vitaliy: I have three things that give me hope. First is the conviction that the civilized world will prevail, and Ukraine will win. Secondly, our society has made a huge leap forward in terms of social cohesion within one month of war breaking out. We have grown up and developed a more realistic worldview. We have become more pragmatic, but most importantly, we haven’t lost our humanity. So our people give me hope and strength.
And thirdly, the war has destroyed everything that was ineffective — all the bureaucracy and ineffective mechanisms and institutions that we had been trying to overcome through advocacy have been destroyed. So we no longer have to waste time persuading people that some institutions are not working and that we need to build something new. We know what we need to build and we are already doing it. We are trying to come up with concepts for the future Ukraine.
The war gave us this great push. Ukraine has become an opinion leader and a role model for the whole world. By showing that the rule of law, democracy, and freedom of speech can help us to fight and overcome an enemy of democracy, we will rewrite the history of mankind.
Taras: We can see that the people around us are really motivated and involved, they’re working as a united front and they are fighting so that Ukrainians and people from all over the world can live a happier and more secure life.
Andriy: Well, everything is now divided into before 24 February and after. Everything that happened before doesn’t play a great role for us anymore. We have to start from scratch and this really inspires me because we can start anew and build something better. We have given up all the quarrels and everything that has separated us for our joint victory. This will be crucial in the future when we will build up our civil society and our state, and the support that we are getting from all over the world has let us know that we are not alone in our struggle.
Nataliia: For me, this is a very difficult question. My region is the only region in Ukraine that has been surrounded by Russia on three sides. It’s been surrounded for a long time, but I have hope because the situation can change anytime, and tomorrow is going to be completely different. That’s what gives me hope.
Halyna: Ukraine was and still is a democratic country, and I understand that the political, economic, and legal values that Ukraine embodies and those the aggressor country embodies are completely different. This difference gives me hope and gives me motivation to work.
Yevgen: I’m very much inspired by the Ukrainian people’s fight against aggression, and the reason we will prevail in this war is because we have a strong civil society. And we are taking responsibility to fight for freedom and democracy. Ukrainian civil society is taking action, and in the case of LDN and its partners, collaborating to resolve both old and new justice problems. The networks we are cementing are resilient against attacks, and they are a foundation for the huge amount of work that we need to do to build the new Ukraine.
My colleagues and the rest of the LDN members are living and working in constant peril. The toil has been immense, and we know that at any moment a Russian missile can upend our efforts to ensure everyone has access to justice. But when we feel the support of allies around the world, we find the strength to carry on. Our struggle is not only for the future of Ukraine but for all who are defending justice at the frontiers of democracy. We are asking you to stand with us. Please support our communities and our work by your donation. Because even in times of war, legal empowerment and justice are essential.