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Ukrainian human rights lawyer urges Congress to approve military aid for her country


If your country's existence was on the line, what would you say to convince the world's most powerful nation to help you out? Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk has been turning that question over and over in her head for weeks now. She's been on a speaking tour across the U.S., talking about her group, the Center for Civil Liberties, and the work they've done documenting human rights abuses amid Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, all while Congress fiercely debates additional funding for Kyiv.

Matviichuk's trip now has brought her to Washington, D.C., where a vote on more aid is expected to take place this weekend, aid Ukraine says it simply cannot win without. I asked Matviichuk, after more than two years of war, how will she keep her message fresh when meeting with leaders on Capitol Hill?

OLEKSANDRA MATVIICHUK: Look, I'm not politician. I'm not diplomat. I'm human rights lawyer. I work with the human pain, with the people affected by this war. So I will tell stories of these people. And I do believe that there are a lot of things which have no limitation national borders. Freedom is one of them, as well as solidarity.

MARTÍNEZ: Say you do come up against or with someone who doesn't feel that it's a priority to send aid to Ukraine. What would you tell them?

MATVIICHUK: I will tell them that this is priority for United States because if they do not be able to stop Putin in Ukraine, he will go further. He will attack NATO countries. And this means that United States will have to send their people to our part of the world.

MARTÍNEZ: And that he you're talking about is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

MATVIICHUK: We will stop Putin only with force because he want to restore Russian empire. That's why he will not stop in Ukraine. Empire has a center but has no borders.

MARTÍNEZ: What's the one thing you would want people to know? What would you want them to understand about what you do and why it's important?

MATVIICHUK: I want people to know that this is a genocidical (ph) war and Putin openly said to his recent interview to Tucker Carlson that Ukraine is not exist. There is no Ukrainian nation. There is no Ukrainian language. There is no Ukrainian culture. And for 10 years, we have been documenting how these horrible words transferred in the horrible practice. They put in this principle that Ukrainians have to be either reeducated as Russians or killed. So we have no other choice. If stop fighting, there will be no more us.

MARTÍNEZ: Aid to Ukraine has become a political issue in the United States. How do you feel knowing that that is what's happening in Congress right now, that aid to Ukraine that desperately needs it is something that has become political between the two parties that are going to have to decide this?

MATVIICHUK: I think that we need bravery and dedication to principle of freedom and human dignity because, look, human lives can't be a tool in political battles. We have a huge respect to internal electoral struggle in the United States. But there are things which has to unite all politicians, regardless of their political views. And human life matters.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this war has become one of attrition. Analysts say that 2024, this year, is going to be a very important deciding year for Ukraine. Are you preparing for a reality where Ukraine might have to negotiate to end the fighting?

MATVIICHUK: But Putin don't want negotiation. Putin want to occupy Ukraine and go further. When we speak with people who were released from hostage, they told that Russian told them, first we will occupy you, and then you with us will go to next country. So this is a plan. We have to accept this reality. We can't afford ourselves to live in wishful thinking because we will be die.

MARTÍNEZ: How will your work press on if indeed that happens? I know you mentioned that there is no negotiation with Vladimir Putin, but I mean, if that is eventually what happens, how will your work press on if that does happen?

MATVIICHUK: I don't know how my personal story will end because this is a war, and war is a lottery. We can die any moment. When we go to bed in my house, I have no idea whether or not I will get up next morning because you have no idea which next residential building will be hit by Russian rocket. But I know for sure that freedom will prevail regardless of my personal story.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Oleksandra Matviichuk. She's a 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner and the head of Ukraine's Center for Civil Liberties. Oleksandra, thank you very much.

MATVIICHUK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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