Amnesty got it terribly wrong

Uriel Epshtein is executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative. He tweets at @UrielEpshtein

As the war in Ukraine rages on, Russia continues to pound Ukrainian population centers, killing and injuring civilians and destroying infrastructure with near impunity.  

Just in the past few days, the country’s forces launched rocket attacks from the Zaporizhzhia power plant, which Russia occupies, onto buildings in the neighboring town of Nikopol, wounding three people. 

Much of the world has united and nearly unanimously condemned these actions. But in this chorus of condemnation, human rights organization Amnesty International has become one of the most powerful discordant voices.  

In a controversial report released on August 4, the organization claims that the Ukrainian military endangered civilians “by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.” But in hastily publishing its findings, Amnesty has overlooked the severe implications of giving Russia exactly what it’s been looking for — a shift in blame. 

First and foremost, the premise alone of Amnesty’s report is questionable. Many experts have said that the Ukrainian military has acted within the bounds of international humanitarian law by using vacant school buildings, positioning its soldiers in urban areas in order to protect them from being overrun by Russian troops.  

Moreover, Ukraine did all it could to urge civilians to flee the country’s war-affected regions. Even a U.N. war crimes investigator pointed out that Amnesty “got the law wrong,” with Marc Garlasco emphasizing that “there is no requirement to stand shoulder to shoulder in a field,” which would obviously be poor military strategy for Ukraine’s military, especially when faced with a numerically superior force.  

Meanwhile, the report doesn’t even address what the alternative fate of Ukrainian civilians might have been had the Ukrainian military stood aside and avoided operating in urban areas. Perhaps Bucha and Irpin can offer us some idea. 

But the factual problems in Amnesty’s report are only the beginning. Its downstream impacts are arguably far more consequential than any individual factual dispute.  

Coming from one of the most prominent human rights organizations, this report has obvious implications for whether or not the free world should regard Russia as wholly culpable for the countless Ukrainian civilians it has killed, and whether or not democratic governments should continue to support Ukraine.  

One would think that anything as sensitive as this would be subject to the greatest scrutiny, not only to confirm the veracity of any underlying claims but also to ascertain their consequences in the real world. Unfortunately, Amnesty didn’t rise to the occasion. 

According to Ukraine’s Center for Strategic Communications, Amnesty’s report didn’t actually heed its own employees in Ukraine, relying instead on material “collected on the territory of filtration camps and prisons,” where questioning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s narrative could be a life-threatening decision. 

The decision to exclude its own Ukrainian affiliate is particularly troubling. And the head of the organization’s Ukraine office Oksana Pokalchuk immediately resigned in protest, claiming that Amnesty’s document “created material that sounded like support for Russian narratives of the invasion” and that it had “became a tool of Russian propaganda.”  

Unsurprisingly, her prediction proved prophetic. Russian propaganda outlets have pounced on the report’s findings as proof that Ukraine uses civilians as “human shields” and is to blame for any civilian deaths.  

By carelessly claiming that Ukraine was breaking international law by stationing its military in residential areas, Amnesty has essentially offered Russia the justification it wanted — but certainly didn’t need — to indiscriminately strike nonmilitary targets.  

So, when Russian artillery pummels Ukrainian villages, Amnesty would now have us ask, “Is this actually Ukraine’s fault?” If this isn’t victim blaming, I don’t know what is.

Only in the report’s final section does the organization note that “[t]he Ukrainian military’s practice of locating military objectives within populated areas does not in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks.”  

That is certainly true. But adding in a brief line on Russian aggression does not, in any way, justify the organization hastily throwing together a report blaming Ukraine for the murder of its own civilians. 

Unrestrained since its invasion on February 24, Russia can now claim a thin veneer of legitimacy in its bombardment of civilian targets. By muddying the moral waters and giving Russia a PR win, Amnesty International will, ironically, have the blood of even more Ukrainian civilians on its own hands. 

So, how does the organization justify its actions? After a huge outcry from Ukrainians and even people from within its organization — including resignations from the head of its Ukrainian office, and from the co-founder of its Swedish office — has it tried to clarify its report or own up to its mistake?  

Not yet. 

Instead, in a recent tweet, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General Agnes Callamard simply dismissed critics of the report as “trolls.” Protected from the war, Callamard is free to pat herself on the back after offering Russia more justification to level Ukrainian villages. 

Amnesty’s misleading claims also do harm to its own mission and diminish its credibility in responding to countless other humanitarian crises around the world. After over a week of blowback, only now has the organization finally conceded to an external audit of its report. But this is far too little, and far too late. A belated review, the results of which may come weeks or months after the original report would do little to address the damage Amnesty has wrought.

Time is of the essence. And if Amnesty hopes to maintain its credibility and continue to play a critical role in defending human rights, the organization should retract or clarify its report as soon as possible, and Callamard should resign.



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