Like many people, I have spent the last many days obsessively watching reports and reading about what is going on in Ukraine. As many readers know, I spent years living in Eastern Europe, including two years living in Belarus, just north of Ukraine. I have taken many trips there over the years. I did a wonderful 27-hour train ride from Moscow to Lviv (in the west of Ukraine), another from Minsk to Odessa in the south (also more than a day on the train), and many rides from Minsk to Kyiv. Ukraine was known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. It has beautiful countryside. It is green and lush, and when I was there, peaceful. Kyiv is a vibrant city full of cafes and restaurants and well cared for dogs. Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its architecture reflects that as does its café culture.
Many Ukrainians that I know have family origins in Russia or Belarus. Many Belarusians that I know have family origins in Ukraine. One dear Belarusian friend’s mother is from Ukraine. Her brothers still live in Ukraine. They are all in their 60s now. In recent times one of her brothers told her that they have been instructed not to talk to Belarusians or Russian, so he is fine, but he won’t stay on the phone. The distrust is understandable, especially considering what has happened in the last few days. But, unlike other areas in conflict, this area is one with lots of intermingling and mixing over their collective histories.
Like many of us, I am struck by how the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, has risen to this occasion and the courage he is showing. I am also impressed by the courage of Ukrainians who are resisting the Russians. I am also impressed by the Russians and Belarusians who are standing up to their authoritarian regimes to protest this invasion.
I wish I had some words of wisdom about how what we know about dispute resolution could help to stop the bloodshed. I wish I knew what we could do, as individuals devoted to peace and peaceful resolution of conflicts, to help in the midst of a conflict that has the frightening potential to grow to be much more than it is today and to involve many more nations. I wish I didn’t feel like I was looking at our generation’s Sarajevo—the spark point to World War I.
For now, what I know, is that it is important that we do not look away. It is important to see what is going on and, for those of us who teach, to make sure we raise what is happening in Ukraine, in some way, in our classes. I am teaching Criminal Law this semester. I started my class on Thursday by saying that we often talk about larger criminal law issues in this class, at least in passing. I do this because I want to be sure to flag the larger issues in our criminal legal system, even if an introductory class can’t be a deep dive into these problems. In that light, I want to be sure everyone is aware of what is happening in Ukraine. Criminal law includes international criminal law, the law of war, and human rights law. Russia is a full party to the main international human rights treaties. As such, it can be held legally responsible for any violation of human rights, any crime against humanity, any war crime, committed by them in this conflict.
On Tuesday I will tell my students about a lawyer I worked with for two years in Belarus, Irina Kuchvlskaya, a lawyer, law professor, and former police investigator. On Sunday, Irina made a sign of protest and held it up at a polling station on Sunday (Belarus has been voting on constitutional amendments). The sign, pictured below, reads: “Providing territory for engaging in an aggressive war is a crime. I demand compliance with Article 18.2 of the Constitution.” Irina was immediately arrested. Irina is a smart women and no doubt knew exactly what would happen if she did this. She is no doubt fully aware that people are arrested for exercising their right to free speech in Belarus. Following the protests in 2020, she no doubt knows that Belarusian authorities have routinely beaten, tortured, and mistreated those arrested for political protest. When I worked with Irina she organized innovative programs to help women in prison in Belarus and was an active member of the Belarusian Women’s Lawyers Association. Irina impressed me then. Now I am awed by her courage and personal sacrifice in acting against the war in Ukraine.
At the very least, I can tell her story and send the hope that she is ok, and that this war somehow ends soon.