chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.


Public Service

How Ukrainian Human Rights Defenders Respond to the Challenges of Full-Scale War

Olha Nastina

How Ukrainian Human Rights Defenders Respond to the Challenges of Full-Scale War
Joel Carillet via iStock

Jump to:

A new countdown began on February 24, 2022, for all Ukrainians. Russia’s attack on Ukraine changed all spheres of life and, particularly, the professional activities of lawyers and advocates of our human rights community. New perceptions of human rights violations during the war, damage to their health and property, and deprivation of life, liberty, and captivity have become challenges that they must overcome daily.

“How can a woman with a child go abroad if the child’s father cannot give official permission to leave because he is in a hospital in another city?” This was the first legal question that the community service organization Pravova Yednist (meaning Legal Unity) received on the first day of the war. And there were many similar questions.

In the first days of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the vital issues were the organization of housing for internally displaced persons (IDPs), the delivery of humanitarian aid, and financial assistance, while legal advice receded into the background.

A New Office

Human rights activists providing legal services had to change inpatient legal counseling to remote: phone, Skype, Zoom, and Viber. I had to replace my spacious favorite office with a chair in the kitchen of a small apartment, where, in addition to my own family, I sheltered five other relatives from the “hot spots” of hostilities. There were many cases when our colleagues, who went to defend the country, consulted while on duty and from basements and bomb shelters during air attacks.

Human Rights Practice While under Martial Law

Ukraine is rapidly adopting laws and amendments that regulate key areas of life, such as border crossings, conditions for delivering humanitarian aid, protection of internally displaced persons, and so on. Our human rights activists help orient these changes, constantly studying legislation to provide accurate legal information.

Despite the high demand for humanitarian and social assistance, all state efforts are now focused on strengthening defense capabilities. The state institutions that provided free legal aid before the war are not as active and efficient today, but timely and complete legal advice is still needed.

As a result, the role of lawyers in human rights organizations that provide free assistance is growing. Lawyers with experience assisting refugees and displaced persons, advising on the laws of war, working in martial law, prosecuting war crimes, combating human trafficking, and ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law are more important now than ever.

Human rights lawyers and activists also help create clear and transparent policies on the ground to regulate the activities of Ukraine’s territorial defense and volunteer formations in the regions of hostilities. We provide expert legal support to social services at city and village councils and coordinate the delivery and distribution of humanitarian aid and volunteer centers. As one of the challenges today is to tackle the food and humanitarian crisis and provide legal assistance, we are helping to collect and distribute humanitarian aid and deliver food kits and personal protective equipment to remote parts of the communities.

Despite Evacuation, More Legal Needs

According to official data, at the time of writing this article, more than 5,707,967 Ukrainian citizens went abroad. However, this did not reduce the number of appeals for legal help. On the contrary, the Legal Development Network (LDN) organizations—a union of community-based NGOs representing all of Ukraine’s regions that promotes people-centered justice through legal aid, legal education, strategic advocacy, and other legal empowerment tools—have seen an increase in need. LDN organizations are constantly approached not only by Ukrainians who remained in Ukraine but also by those who left for Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Baltic States. There are also foreign nationals who have stayed in Ukraine and, for various reasons, do not want to or cannot go home (like a Russian woman who does not plan to return to Pskov with her family for fear of persecution).

Those of our lawyers who have temporarily gone abroad to save their children from the war are constantly advising Ukrainians abroad. Registration in social services, temporary shelter, granting refugee status, and receiving humanitarian aid are the issues that concern our compatriots in host countries. There is and will be a need to protect the labor rights of Ukrainians abroad and returning to Ukraine.

Practical Advice

Without exaggeration, most of the legal assistance currently provided by our organizations is a crisis response to meet the security needs of Ukrainians. For example, we have received the following questions:

  • “At which border crossing is car traffic the lowest?” asked a mother with two babies.
  • “Is it possible to leave if you have a certificate of release from prison but no passport?”
  • “Will a country accept a whole family when one member is a drug addict?”
  • “Will it be possible for a person with HIV to receive substitution therapy abroad?”

Unfortunately, many Ukrainians have been left homeless—Russian military airstrikes have destroyed their homes and apartments. Finding temporary housing for such citizens is one of the important areas of our work today. Our lawyers, who also live in these conditions, are creating a “housing bank” for IDPs. However, helping and serving people is the main credo of our colleagues.

The war will sooner or later end in victory for Ukraine. Russian terrorists will soon have to answer for crimes against humanity. That is why it is important to teach Ukrainians how to properly document war crimes to compensate for future losses and know where and how to address these issues.

Human rights activists continue to provide high-quality access to justice for Ukrainians. Legal aid applications are growing daily. Since the beginning of the war, more than 3,000 appeals have been registered to lawyers of Legal Development Network organizations! We do not have enough workforce, so we need volunteers—lawyers, attorneys, and senior students. We are looking for volunteer doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists to support the physical and mental health of children and adults. And we are constantly studying the needs of the most vulnerable groups of the population so that everyone can receive help.

Worldwide Support

How can you help us today? First of all, support the work of the Solidarity&Justice Coalition, created in early March by the LDN. The coalition aims to solve a wide range of problems arising from Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine. Most of the key areas of the coalition’s work identified by partners are already being implemented. All this is thanks to the joint efforts of the LDN with civil society organizations “Ukraine Alive 2022,” “LinGo,” “Triangle” (Kolomyia), the Ukrainian Paralegal Association, and the Ukrainian educational platform.

You can support further efforts financially through the LDN website. However, human resources are indispensable. That is why we appreciate everyone who agrees to join a number of our colleagues, helping Ukrainians abroad. You can find opportunities through Paladin or the ABA