Olena Protsenko remembers precisely in which she was when she listened to that the unthinkable had develop into Ukraine’s reality on Feb. 23 past calendar year. She was placing her 8-thirty day period-aged son to bed in her Charlottesville apartment, even though her husband was viewing the evening news. He arrived into the room and whispered into her ear that Russian President Vladimir Putin had declared a “special armed forces operation” in their homeland.
It was already 5 a.m. on the 24th in Ukraine. “I called my aunt and instructed her that the war experienced started out,” Protsenko explained.
“I can hear it,” her aunt replied, via tears.
A yr afterwards, Protsenko is waging her individual battle, working as a employees lawyer through the Worldwide Human Rights Law Clinic at the College of Virginia College of Law and marshaling the efforts of pupils to keep Russia accountable for probable war crimes.
A Human Rights Attorney Abroad
As electricity and gas supplies were reduce off across the country in the first months of the war, the information and social media became Protsenko’s only relationship to her family members, who expended a stable month huddling in the dim, cold and moist basement of their condominium setting up in the Donbas area near the town of Mariupol, now destroyed by Russia.
“The Russians were attempting to progress from the north, from the south, from the east, so the total territory of Ukraine was randomly bombed,” Protsenko recalled. “You could not definitely comprehend, is your household in risk or should they keep there? Is it safer to try out evacuating under the fire or wait around where by they are? What if they are attacked when striving to evacuate? Really should they consider to go to Europe? What do you do?”
For the very first couple of months of the invasion, Protsenko remained fixated on information out of her homeland. She forgot to consume, and lost bodyweight. Her husband took up smoking cigarettes because of the worry. She gathered tremendous collections of donated merchandise and outfits, not acknowledging that shipping and delivery corporations ended up overloaded with humanitarian help.
Then, two weeks soon after the war started out, she understood she could do some thing — possibly some thing that could have a significant influence.
“I abruptly remembered I’m a human rights attorney,” Protsenko said with a smile.
Protsenko had moved to the United States in 2019 as a Fulbright Scholar finding out worldwide human rights regulation while earning her LL.M. at the University of Indiana McKinney University of Law. Considering that 2020, she experienced been in Charlottesville, archiving oral histories about the Soviet use of punitive psychiatry to suppress dissent, as aspect of a postdoctoral exploration fellowship with UVA Legislation professor Richard Bonnie ’69.
But just before arriving in the United States, she experienced represented Ukrainian victims of gross human legal rights violations fully commited by Russian forces and professional-Russian militants all through the 2014 invasion of the East and the annexation of Crimea.
“One of my first shoppers was the family members of a female I used to participate in with increasing up she lived up coming door to my grandmother,” Protsenko said. The lady, who was 20, perished when the civilian bus she was using on in the Donetsk location was fired on as it passed through the Volnovakha checkpoint.
“Everyone on her side of the bus died,” Protsenko mentioned. “She was the youngest individual on that bus.”
Protsenko submitted the family’s lawsuit versus the Russian governing administration in the European Courtroom of Human Rights, which experienced jurisdiction more than Russia because it joined the Council of Europe and signed the European Conference on Human Rights in 1998.
That circumstance, submitted in 2015, has nevertheless to be communicated to Russia, which was kicked out of the Council of Europe previous March just after invading Ukraine. (The courtroom retains jurisdiction about conditions arising up to 6 months just after Russia remaining the council.)
An Opportunity at UVA
The moment Protsenko pulled herself absent from the invasion news and found her relatives — which took a month — she achieved out to Professor Camilo Sánchez, director of UVA Law’s Intercontinental Human Legal rights Clinic. The university hired her as a employees attorney, enabling her to get the job done on behalf of Ukrainian victims and present pupils a when-in-a-lifetime get the job done knowledge.
Protsenko filed her very first lawsuits associated to the recent war in June 2022, one particular on behalf of the household of “the girl with the crimson manicure,” who was shot while driving a bicycle in Bucha, and another on behalf of a 9-calendar year-aged boy or girl who survived currently being shot in the neck at the Russian checkpoint.
Now, her lawsuits are not section of the Intercontinental Human Rights Clinic’s curriculum, but that has not stopped UVA Regulation learners from flocking to assistance even further the circumstances.
On recognizing the prospective of Lena’s litigation to provide as a worthwhile educating tool for international law, Sánchez place out a call for 8 professional bono volunteers to aid her get the job done out two preliminary problems that could block the victims from getting their day in the European court: exhaustion of domestic therapies in Russia and its jurisdiction around the human legal rights breaches in Ukraine.
“Lena is a skilled and dedicated lawyer who is actively engaged with just one of the most urgent lawful and humanitarian difficulties going through our globe nowadays,” Sánchez said. “The chance for pupils to work together with her and gain insight from the instances is priceless.”
20-five learners responded, which was additional than Protsenko could control at this point in her litigation endeavours. Eight joined her workforce.
As a authorized matter, there are two European courtroom rulings that are living on Protsenko’s desk and in her head.
In the controversial interstate situation of Georgia v. Russia (II), the European Court docket of Human Legal rights held that it experienced no jurisdiction over situations that transpired all through the 5-Working day War that occurred when Russia invaded Ga in August 2008. The court said that the so-called “context of chaos” in the course of energetic hostilities meant that neither condition experienced manage around the influenced space and for that reason neither could be held liable for the civilian killings fully commited in the course of that interval.
“This conclusion can be extremely detrimental to our situation, since if neither celebration has jurisdiction in that context, then who is accountable when a country’s been invaded?” Protsenko explained. “For quite a few persons, the European Court docket is the final treatment they can accessibility mainly because there is no justice they can locate domestically.”
Even so, Protsenko was quick to stage out that the specifics are different in her conditions, which is in which the second doc on her desk comes in. Issued in January this yr, the European Court’s decision in Ukraine and the Netherlands v. Russia problems Russia’s obligation for the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airways Flight 17 over Eastern Ukraine. The court docket concluded that, due to the fact Russia efficiently managed the self-proclaimed separatist “republics” and the Buk surface area-to-air missile was launched outside of the “context of chaos,” the European Courtroom has jurisdiction.
“The courtroom mentioned it can hear the scenario for the reason that the plaintiffs would discover no productive solution in the Russian justice process,” Protsenko stated.
The pupils who volunteered to enable with Protsenko’s cases every single used at minimum 50 several hours undertaking legal and factual analysis to distinguish her clients’ scenarios from Georgia v. Russia and to analogize them to Ukraine and The Netherlands v. Russia. Stewart Lawrence, a 1st-12 months college student, assisted narrow the “context of chaos” argument and Russian-talking 1L Megan Chapelle investigated Russian legislation that shield their war criminals from obligation.
Most of Protsenko’s instances contain Ukrainian civilians shot by Russian soldiers or stored in Russian captivity in inhumane and degrading conditions. Other scenarios deal with extrajudicial executions, which includes the loved ones of a village mayor from the Kyiv location allegedly taken into a nearby forest, tortured and killed.
“There is no circumstance underneath which a single can be tortured or extrajudicially executed,” Protsenko said. “Combatant or not, it is not allowed beneath any instances.”
Another team of purchasers are the survivors of Russian air raids in Mariupol, pressured at gunpoint to depart the metropolis and transported to Russia. (They later on escaped to Europe, she stated.)
The learners reported their findings at a confidential roundtable assembly in late January and talked over how it felt to do the job on human legal rights litigation even as the atrocities are nonetheless unfolding.
“There are people combating in Ukraine ideal now, so I have located it incredibly disheartening to just be likely to classes and sensation like I was not actually carrying out a great deal,” Lawrence said at the roundtable. “I know our operate in this article is a little contribution, but it’s a great emotion to give what we can.”
An LL.M. student, Yali Liang, said Protsenko’s enthusiasm for human rights resonated with her.
“Working on this method suggests a ton for me,” Liang mentioned. “This is not just about a authorized follow, but also about doing a thing significant.”
The pupils also expressed stress at the procedural hurdles and the pace of justice in the European Court docket of Human Legal rights — a courtroom whose decrees the Putin routine is unlikely to acknowledge. Protsenko understands that aggravation and counsels her customers to take the prolonged watch.
“I informed all my purchasers that you can both do very little or you can act and be optimistic that whoever will come immediately after Putin will care about international legislation and will do almost everything they can to be acknowledged again into the democratic world,” Protsenko stated. “But even if the victims do not get the cash from Russia, they continue to get moral satisfaction — an acknowledgement of their pain and Russia’s duty for their suffering.”