‘In tumultuous times … international law and human rights are indispensable’ — An Interview With Former ECHR Judge Ganna Yudkivska Features
‘In tumultuous times … international law and human rights are indispensable’ — An Interview With Former ECHR Judge Ganna Yudkivska

Dr. Ganna Yudkivska is a force to be reckoned with in the world of international law and human rights. Her impressive career trajectory originated in a newly independent Ukraine and has since spanned continents and venerable institutions. She is a partner at Equity Law Firm, Vice-Chair of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and a Vice President of the European Society of International Law. She served as a judge with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) from 2010 to 2022, after having worked as a lawyer at the ECHR Registry, and advisor to the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe. Dr. Yudkivska led the legacy genocide project (later the USC Shoah Foundation) in Moldova and Ukraine. She earned her masters degrees from the law faculties of Kyiv National Taras Shevchenko University and Robert Schuman University in France and her doctorate from the Academy of Advocacy of Ukraine.

In this interview, JURIST explores her remarkable journey, her motivations, the challenges she has faced, and the invaluable insights she has gained throughout her career. 

JURIST: Dr. Yudkivska, you began your career in national law. What motivated you to transition to international law and human rights advocacy? Were there specific cases or experiences that ignited this passion?

Dr. Ganna Yudkivska: As a member of the first generation of Ukrainian lawyers educated in an independent Ukraine, away from the shadows of the Soviet regime, I found myself at a transformative crossroads, both personally and professionally. Unlike my predecessors, my legal education was framed by the burgeoning ideals of democracy and human rights. It was a momentum to align our nation with broader, more progressive legal standards.

The turning point in my career came as I began to delve deeper into the European Convention on Human Rights – together with other pioneers, as Ukraine ratified the European Convention in 1996. This was not merely academic interest; it was a quest for justice, an inspiration guiding our nation toward the European family of nations we aimed to join. The Convention’s principles echoed the very questions we, as reform-minded lawyers, were grappling with. It was clear that for Ukraine to truly integrate and flourish within Europe, our legal regime needed not only to formally adopt but also to deeply embody the standards set forth by the Convention.

My practice as a criminal lawyer provided a pragmatic grounding for these ideals. I witnessed first-hand the grim realities of torture and procedural abuses within our justice system. Each case was a stark reminder of the urgent need for reform and the profound impact such changes could have on individual lives. These experiences fueled my resolve to advocate for a robust framework of human rights in Ukraine. They solidified a commitment to ensuring that the principles of fairness, dignity, and justice were not mere aspirations but tangible realities.

This journey from national law to international law was ultimately driven by a conviction that through persistent effort and unwavering dedication, we could indeed effectuate change and uplift the standard of justice and human rights in Ukraine, aligning it with the esteemed standards of the European community.

JURIST: Serving as a Judge at the ECHR for over a decade is a remarkable achievement. Can you share a specific case or judgment from your time there that had a lasting impact on you and the development of human rights law in Europe?

Yudkivska: The breadth and depth of cases that came before me during my 12-year mandate were really diverse and profound. It is truly challenging to isolate a single case or judgment that stands out, given the multitude of impactful decisions we delivered. Let me just briefly touch upon a few. One such pivotal case was Oleksandr Volkov v. Ukraine, a cornerstone in the jurisprudence on judicial independence. This crucial judgment reshaped disciplinary proceedings against judges throughout Europe and, as an additional bonus, enhanced the transparency of parliamentary proceedings in Ukraine. Another case that remains particularly meaningful to me is Morice v. France. Initially, I found myself as the sole dissenter at the Chamber level, advocating staunchly for the lawyers’ freedom of speech. The subsequent review by the Grand Chamber, which unanimously aligned with my position, was an affirmation of the essential principles I stood for. This case underscored the importance of dissenting opinions in evolving legal interpretations and ultimately strengthening human rights protections.

My tenure included significant contributions to a number of crucial inter-state and quasi-interstate cases (Ukraine v. Russia (re Crimea), Ukraine and the Netherlands v. Russia, Georgia v. Russia (II), Chiragov v. Armenia and Sargsyan v. Azerbaijan, etc). These cases expanded our understanding of state obligations when acting extraterritorially, further refining the legal frameworks that govern international relations and the protection of human rights beyond borders.

Carvalho Pinto de Sousa Morais v. Portugal also comes to my mind – another landmark judgment, focusing on gender stereotyping. In this case, we established the presence of discrimination against women using a novel approach that did not rely on a comparator. This judgment highlighted the subtleties of gender bias and opened new avenues for addressing such ingrained issues.

Throughout these years, I was also involved in developing jurisprudence regarding the so-called “hidden agendas” of state authorities, interpreted under Article 18 of the Convention. Each of these cases contributed to a nuanced understanding of how states might leverage power in ways that undermine democratic values and human rights.

I of course can refer to much more. It is important that each judgment contributed to a richer, more robust tapestry of human rights law in Europe, shaping not just legal outcomes but also the very societies we sought to protect.

JURIST: The shift from adjudicating cases to leading the WGAD’s follow-up process is unique. What drew you to this role, and how does your experience at the ECHR translate to this new challenge?

Yudkivska: Transitioning from adjudicating cases at the ECHR to working at the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention presented a unique yet familiar opportunity to deepen a commitment to human rights on a global scale. The WGAD, distinct as the only United Nations non-treaty based body entitled to deal with individual applications, aligns closely with my previous judicial work, yet broadens the scope significantly from Europe to encompass the entire world.

In my new role, the core issues remain intimately familiar—detention, fair trial rights, freedom of speech and assembly, and discrimination—themes that were central to my work at the ECHR. However, the global framework of the WGAD allows me to apply the insights and expertise I gained at the ECHR across a vastly more diverse array of legal systems and cultural contexts. This broader scope brings with it new challenges and complexities, as well as the new fascinating knowledge about different corners of our planet, and profound responsibility of addressing human rights concerns in varied jurisdictions around the world.

My experience at the ECHR has been instrumental in this transition. The analysis, judgment, and interpretation skills honed over years of adjudicating complex human rights cases provide a robust foundation for assessing and addressing the issues of arbitrary detention globally. Although the European Convention on Human Rights is a regional instrument, the principles of fairness, justice, and the protection of human rights enshrined in many international treaties transcend regional boundaries and are as applicable to the global stage as they were within Europe.

Thus, while the geographical scope of my work has expanded significantly, the fundamental objectives and challenges of my role remain rooted in the same principles of human rights advocacy. This continuity of purpose, paired with the opportunity to impact a wider spectrum of humanity, profoundly motivates my efforts in the WGAD to contribute to the universal fight against injustice.

JURIST: As a leading figure in international law, what are your thoughts on the future of human rights law in light of current global trends and challenges, especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Israel–Gaza war?

Yudkivska: That’s a difficult question. The enduring wisdom from the Bible, “And the work of justice shall be peace,” resonates profoundly in light of the ongoing conflicts. Despite the presence of international courts, the grim reality of wars persists, underscoring the complexities and challenges facing the enforcement and evolution of international law.

When mass atrocities occur, public expectations surge towards international institutions, especially courts, for swift and effective responses. Yet, as we have seen, the pace of legal processes and the scope of international law can sometimes lag behind the urgent needs of those affected by such crises. As Sir Christopher Greenwood, a former judge at the International Court of Justice, aptly noted, “no legal system can be better than the society it serves.” This is a crucial reminder that law is a living organism, evolving with society, and its effectiveness hinges on relevance to its beneficiaries.

Considering modern conflicts, particularly the ones you have mentioned, we must acknowledge that they are significantly shaped by propaganda and misinformation for which human rights instruments are not developed enough. These elements, dangerous and pervasive, play on people’s emotions and can escalate conflicts, as observed in both the situations in Ukraine and Gaza. For instance, the European Parliament just a couple of days ago passed a resolution acknowledging a terrible role the UNRWA for decades played in raising kids in Gaza in hatred and intolerance that materialized in the horrible 7 October massacre. This highlights the critical role of education – including human rights education – in either perpetuating conflict or fostering peace. Russian long-lasted information war with all its trolls’ factories was instrumental for Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. So, both Russian and Iran-Hamas barbarian regimes are based on violence and propaganda, and the civilized and democratic world must stand united against terrorism they export all over the world. 

Rene Cassin, one of the architects of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cassin, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient, argued during World War II that securing future peace would require robust international commitments to human rights. He contended that the domestic behavior of regimes, much like Nazi Germany at the time, posed a clear threat to world peace. His vision led to the principle that national sovereignty should be limited where domestic injustices threaten international order, a belief enshrined in the international human rights treaties. Today, this principle remains vitally relevant as we face governments like those in Russia and Iran, which are still to a large extent tolerated by the world community (for example, at the moment Iran attacking Israel with over 300 ballistic missiles and suicide drones it presided over the UN Conference on Disarmament), although they seek to undermine the authority of international organizations and erode global human rights standards. The role of international law and human rights becomes even more crucial in countering these threats and promoting a just world order.

As we navigate these tumultuous times, the enduring message is clear: international law and human rights are indispensable not only when they are complied with but when they are most desperately needed and applied equally without double standards. 

JURIST: Dr. Yudkivska, your journey is an inspiration for many, especially for women. What advice would you give to young lawyers among our readers who are interested in pursuing a career in international law and justice systems, and human rights?

Yudkivska: Thank you for your kind words. Just recently I was privileged to judge the Championship round of the 2024 White & Case Jessup International Rounds and was amazed by the brilliant finalists – so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about international law! It gives a strong hope that the future of international law is in good hands. I am always happy to encourage the next generation of lawyers, particularly those who aspire to careers in international law and human rights. My modest few pieces of advice would be – have a passion that would further inspire your knowledge, initiative, and commitment. 

International law is the most dynamic and constantly evolving area of law – stay informed about global events and developments, engage with a wide range of sources, attend conferences, participate in workshops, take internships at international organisations and NGOs, and never stop learning. This will enhance your expertise and keep you adaptable and relevant in the field.

Building relationships with other professionals in the field can provide invaluable opportunities for collaboration and growth. Networking can also open doors to job opportunities and partnerships – bring your unique perspective and voice to your work. In a field as broad and impactful as international law, the individuality of your approach can make a significant difference. Try to strive for practical solutions that bring about real change, balancing idealism with the realities of the legal and political landscapes.

And you will get rewarded – whilst pursuing a career in international law and human rights is not just about a professional choice but to a large extent about commitment to promoting justice, equality, and dignity worldwide, it’s the most impactful way to make a difference in the world.