How do you hold a government accountable during wartime?

The panel on International engagement in the recovery process and accountability at the civil society side event of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano, 4-5 July. (Credit: A.Elci)

With an increase in foreign aid to the government, Ukrainian civil society has to ensure the money is spent wisely. But how do you hold your country’s government to account when you need a united front against a common enemy? Geneva Solutions met civil society leaders and politicians in Lugano to get a better idea.

On 30 May, the Ukrainian Parliament fired Lyudmyla Denisova, the independent Ombudsman for Human Rights in Ukraine. She was accused of sharing information that wasn't verified. This action attracted the ire of civil society.

“Yes, she made a mistake, but in the legislation you have the exact procedure as to how you need to fire her. You need to create a commission, need to investigate her, and after this you take a decision,” says Oleksandra Romantsova, executive director of Center for Civil Liberties, which focuses on human rights, democracy, and solidarity in Ukraine.

“I understand they acted the way they did because there were a lot of problems with her, but it doesn’t mean you can break the rules.

Romantsova was speaking at the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano (4-5 July), civil society members joined politicians and other delegates  to talk about inclusive recovery for their country. Their event, “paying the way to a successful and inclusive recovery process of Ukraine” was the first discussios in the Swiss Italian city, but was kept as a side event of the official URC – which some civil society members said they found “strange”.

Most are allowed inside the congress centre – unlike journalists – but only one representative, Olena Pavlenko, the head of the EU-Ukraine civil society platform, will present her views on the official programme.

Still, this doesn’t deter civil society from holding their government accountable. During his address at the first panel, after some time, Oleksiy Chernychov, Ukraine’s minister for communities and territories development, was cut off by the moderator who wanted to make sure the event wasn’t a one-way street and that others, such as Hanna Hopko, the chair of the board, national interests advocacy network, would also have time to speak. The minister concluded by expressing his gratitude towards civil society for tackling and pushing the government.

“The vertical power destroyed at Euromaidan shouldn’t be back!”, Hopko exclaimed when given the opportunity to speak. Her comment was met with applause.

The civil society leader said she regretted the absence of mayors from Chernihiv and Mikolaïv, who know what is happening at the local level and will need to navigate the reconstruction of the country. “I wish they were invited”, she added.

Later, when asked if one can criticise a government in wartime, she told Geneva Solutions: “we are constructively mentioning the risks we could face if we do not adapt legislation. Part of our work is to monitor and implement commitments. So it’s not about criticising, it’s about contributing to a general cause. Because the stronger and the more resilient Ukraine is, the more trust we have among ourselves”, she says.

At the event, leaders released the Civil Society Manifesto 2022 or Lugano Declaration, in which they propose some common principles. Among the criteria which “any decision on the future system and rebuilding of Ukraine must meet”, the right for Ukrainians to be involved in decision-making at all levels of the process. Red lines include enhanced government intervention and reduced transparency in public administration.

The perfect war-time president

Keeping the government on track is at the top of the agenda of civil society actors. “Sometimes, I think that our civil society is more grown up than politicians”, says Romantsova. She focuses on the reform of courts in Ukraine so everyone can get justice – something which can’t currently be guaranteed as oligarchs still can pay their way out of condemnation.

The activist laughs at the changes in the country, such as the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, which was ratified by Ukraine in June, more than a decade since it was first adopted.  “At last!”, she says.

Similarly, Ukraine’s reforms for its adhesion to the European Union seem comical to her as they represent what the country needs, and not what it needs to do to become part of the group.

“The decision of the parliament is only the first step because in Ukraine, you have to do everything yourself, she explains. You need to push the government to accept something, after that, you push them to implement it, and then you need to check if it’s done properly.

Similarly, the appointment of Dmytro Lubinets, an ex-politician, to the role from which Denisova was fired angers her. “We try to explain to the government that they need to have an independent procedure and an instruction that is independent of them”, she says.

Can you really be critical of your government in wartime? “Yes, she says sheepishly, but usually we do that not in public. Rather in private conversations”. Zelensky had some shortcomings before the war and he might be too tired for a second mandate in peacetime, according to the activist but for now, she says, he is the “perfect war president.”