In Solidarity with the Universites of Ukraine: Engaging in Human Rights Education

Text: Tiina MeriBy: Tiina Meri, Communications Officer at Lund University 
Photo above: Zoi Savvidou 

SEMINAR. How can universities in Sweden and elsewhere contribute to training a larger number of skilled human rights defenders in a country where so many students and researchers have been forced to flee, are fighting on the front lines, and live with grief? Both authorities and academics in Ukraine hope that Lund will show how human rights expertise and education can be strengthened – while war rages.

First a glimpse of everyday life, Ukraine post-corona:

  • Students are often taught remotely and online – because university shelters are inadequate.
  • Teachers and researchers in Ukraine are also struggling to stay mentally fit. The air raid shelter means little sleep, sometimes in unpredictable locations. For example: Is it worth sending the children to kindergarten today, should I pack their sleepwear?

Vice-Chancellor: ”Words are not enough”

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) and Lund University recently hosted a roundtable discussion where researchers from Lund and representatives from the foreign affairs administrations of both Sweden and Ukraine discussed the contribution of academia to upholding human rights in Ukraine.

Erik Renström, Vice-Chancellor of Lund University, welcomed and recalled the shock and horror when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.

“But the most important thing going forward is not that we at Lund University manifest our solidarity with words, but that we help with long-term conditions for education and research to flourish in Ukraine.”

In this light, he also wished to give special thanks to Mrs Wendi Resnick and Mr Robert D Resnick for a generous donation that has funded the first mapping exercise on how to support human rights education and research in Ukrainian universities, and which will enable continued support for human rights education in Ukraine.

bombed school in ukraine
Chernihiv in March 2022: Rescuers check the remains of a school. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine

Education and research in all spheres

Andrii Plakhotniuk, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine, delivered a pre-recorded greeting in which he emphasised that the people of Ukraine are being severely tested by massive human rights abuses committed by the Russian Federation’s forces in the country.

In fundamental rights, but also in economics, civil engineering, administration – indeed, in all fields and in both research and education of new generations – Ukraine and its universities are dependent on cooperation with the outside world, the ambassador argued.

“It’s all about our future, about knowledge, our post-war recovery.”

Cities and universities together

Anders Almgren, Mayor of the City of Lund, launched an idea that he hopes will have a national impact: that Swedish cities and universities should join forces to see how they can effectively support education and reconstruction in Ukraine.

He also explained that Lund is now profiling itself as a “human rights city”, with support from RWI and the Institute for Human Rights, also based in Lund.

“What it means to be the first human rights city is something we need to develop together. It’s not something we can do just by reading about it.”

Great support from Sweden – and help for as long as it is needed

Henrik Norberg, head of the secretariat for Ukraine’s reconstruction and development at the Swedish MFA, reported on rapidly increasing aid to Ukraine, noting that a forthcoming five-year strategy makes the country the largest recipient of Swedish aid. He emphasised that Sweden will support Ukraine as long as it is needed, and that the Foreign Service can often contribute with contacts and coordination.

“Support for education is needed, just as support is needed in every sector in Ukraine. On the one hand, humanitarian aid is necessary to run schools and universities, and on the other hand, many of them need to be physically rebuilt. And it is clear that the reconstruction cannot wait, it has to start now.”

Advice on laws, documenting human rights violations

Kseniia Smyrnova, vice-rector for education (international affairs) at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, said that Ukrainian authorities and government representatives are very receptive to the advice of academics on the process of drafting laws and on how to promote human rights.

Her university, she said, can play an important role in supporting the investigation of acts of aggression. Strong cooperation already exists with state institutions, including the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office.

”Every international legal dispute comes with specific difficulties. For example, academics can ensure translations and comments requested from state institutions. Universities are crucial in supporting documentation in upcoming international humanitarian law disputes.”

The need for dedicated researchers and new expertise does not seem to be diminishing:

“Due to an abnormal situation, Ukraine can now play a key global role in international law research. “After more than a year of bombing, Ukraine is now contributing both theory and empirical evidence”, said Kseniia Smyrnova.

Universities became safe places

One observation on the role of universities was made by Arsen Markiv, author of the report ‘How to support human rights education and research in Ukrainian law schools’:

“Already with the annexation of Crimea in 2014, it became clear that universities served as safe spaces for people from different backgrounds, and for those who fled. For example, universities in Western Ukraine have opened their doors to students from occupied and bombed-out parts of the East.”

After the large-scale invasion in 2022, universities have continued to provide accommodation, shelters, food and other humanitarian support. Of course, a more indirect survival issue is that the education of future generations is maintained and strengthened in Ukraine – including in international law.

”Inclusiveness and sustainability are at the heart of academic education on human rights. But in light of the invasion, there is a shift in interest from general sustainability to environmental law issues related to Russia’s wartime actions,” said Mr Markiv.

Like Mr Markiv, RWI Director Morten Kjærum said that increased support for anti-corruption – which is part of the curriculum and already being researched in Ukraine – plays a key role:

“If there is one thing we know, it is that corruption is one of the biggest obstacles to the realisation of human rights and a vibrant democracy. Similarly, environmental and social sustainability is crucial to securing human rights in Ukraine.”

Students can provide legal support to refugees

The panel also agreed that expertise needs to be built to provide legal aid to millions of displaced people – and around so-called frozen assets.

Zuzana Zalanova, the symposium’s moderator and Europe Office director at RWI, explained that the Nordic Council of Ministers and RWI are launching a project with “legal clinics” in Ukraine, Poland and Sweden to support both internally displaced persons in Ukraine and those who have fled to other countries, including Sweden. This will involve, among others, law students in the three countries.

“Universities and civil society are joining forces to provide Ukrainian citizens with legal assistance and raise awareness of their rights.”

Increased engagement: more open programmes and exchanges

More ways forward were described by Jessica Almqvist, Professor of International Law and Human Rights. Lund University is in a good place to help, and many can do more, she argued:

“We need to think about whether we can hold more open programmes, lectures, debates and roundtables to broaden students’ knowledge. I also think we can increase the number of visiting researchers. In addition to supporting researchers from Ukraine, we can cooperate more on open access publications and other projects where we see a win-win situation.”

Feelings of isolation are a risk

According to Jessica Almqvist, the commitment of both individuals and institutions will make a big difference:

“One risk in wartime is that researchers and teachers in affected countries feel isolated and do not get the peace and input needed for the work they have to do. So, we need platforms and partnerships. We can work bilaterally and multilaterally, in small groups, spontaneously and organised, and as institutions, faculties and universities.“

Researchers can also use their knowledge to push issues onto the political agenda, for example through opinion pieces.

“One example is academic Philippe Sands, professor at University College London and honorary doctor at Lund University. He made it clear early on that it is not enough for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to investigate crimes against humanity and war crimes in Ukraine. He also called for and received support for the establishment of a special tribunal to investigate a third crime, the so-called crime of aggression.”

‘It’s a slam dunk’: Philippe Sands on the case against Putin for the crime of aggression | War crimes | The Guardian

“Both the EU and the UN must invest in reconstruction”

Jessica Almqvist’s trendspotting on the role of international law – that is, rules between states and also between states and international organisations – is that regional partnerships are playing an increasingly important role, but that the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’, which emerged after the genocides in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, among others, is playing an increasingly obscure role.

“In international law, we unfortunately do not have institutions strong enough to make states that commit human rights violations stop their heinous acts. Today we see that the UN Security Council is paralysed when it comes to sanctioning such crimes, even though almost all states in the General Assembly are united in condemning Russia’s invasion. In this situation, like-minded countries involved in regional cooperation, such as the EU, see that they have a moral obligation to do what they can, including through economic sanctions, to try to end the war.”

Reconstruction of Ukraine is another issue that the EU, but also the UN, must continue to work on even if the war continues, said Jessica Almqvist.

Fulfilling people’s dreams – and rights

In addition to providing the funding through Lund University Foundation to launch RWI’s initial study and being a major supporter of human rights in Ukraine, Mr Robert D Resnick is an honorary doctor at Lund University and former chairman of the Ravensbrück Archive Fundraising Committee.

In his speech, he recognised that the civilized world can never accept these crimes against humanity now being committed by Russia in Ukraine, and that all universities need to defend their commonly held values:

“My wife Wendi Resnick and I wanted to take action at a time when human rights are so brutally under attack in Ukraine. So, I reached out to my friends at Lund University and Raoul Wallenberg Institute, and we discussed how to preserve viable human rights education at a time when so many of Ukraine’s scholars, researchers, and teachers are in exile, filtration camps, fighting in the front, or have lost their lives.”

The reconstruction of Ukraine must be supported, emphasised Robert D Resnick – so people can enjoy those basic human rights which are their birthright.

“We must support Ukraine’s hopes and aspirations for equal justice, the rule of law, and basic human rights for all.”


‘Best practices and key partnerships’

Support for Ukrainian academia is needed in both research and development – not only because the war continues to destroy buildings, infrastructure and people’s lives, but also because lack of funding and financial resources is a problem for both students and researchers.

In the field of human rights – but also in general – universities in other countries can help Ukrainian partner universities through, for example:

  • Expanded exchange programmes (mobilities)
  • New double-degree courses taught in both countries
  • Creation of joint research projects

How to support human rights education and research in Ukrainian law schools

International law

International law consists of rules and principles that govern how states and certain other international actors should cooperate and act towards each other. It includes rules on accountability for international crimes such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. International law includes human rights, international humanitarian law, international criminal law and treaty law.


Ukraine mappenHow to support human rights education and research in Ukrainian law schools by Arsen Markiv (Raoul Wallenberg Institute, 2023)

Do you want to learn more about what RWI is doing to support universities in Ukraine? Get in touch with Zuzana Zalanova, Director of the Europe Office.

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