What’s Wrong With Amnesty International Report Upon Ukraine’s Military?

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russian army offensive on Lysychansk in June 2022 / Photo credit: Anatolii Stepanov
russian army offensive on Lysychansk in June 2022 / Photo credit: Anatolii Stepanov

On August 4 the human rights organization Amnesty International published a controversial report saying that Ukrainian forces had exposed civilians to russian attacks by basing themselves in populated areas. Radiosvoboda writes an article reflecting the situation with Amnesty International

The international human rights organization Amnesty International said in a new report that the Armed Forces of Ukraine expose civilians to russian attacks by basing themselves in populated areas: "Viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians – such as military bases or densely wooded areas nearby, or other structures further away from residential areas," the report states.

A Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor examines the damage in a destroyed building, following shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on July 31, as Russia's attack continues. (Press service of the Mykolaiv Regional Prosecutor's Office , Defense Express
A Ukrainian war crimes prosecutor examines the damage in a destroyed building, following shelling in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, on July 31, as Russia's attack continues / Photo credit: Press service of the Mykolaiv Regional Prosecutor's Office

What is Amnesty International like

Radiosvoboda starts, that the international human rights organization Amnesty International was founded by lawyer Peter Benenson in London in 1961. The residents of Portugal were the first to be protected by the organization, where at that time the right-wing conservative and anti-communist António de Oliveira Salazar was in power. According to Benenson, Salazar tortured and imprisoned his political opponents. His government's actions violated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Benenson wrote.

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The organization developed gradually, pouring light on human rights violations in democratic and communist countries, as well as in developing countries. In 1977, the organization received the Nobel Peace Prize.

In the 2000s, the organization gradually began to deal with new areas, namely the economy, social policy, and cultural rights. Also, political steps are seen in the activities of the organization: comparing the American Guantanamo base in Cuba with the Soviet Gulag; criticism of the United States government that after Saddam Hussein’s regime change, Iraq's human rights situation remains poor; criticism of the Israeli government for the way it conducted an anti-terrorist operation in the Gaza Strip in 2009; demand to arrest George W. Bush in 2011…

In February 2021, Amnesty International stripped russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny of his "prisoner of conscience" status due to his "anti-immigration" statements in 2007. At that time, he had been sentenced to more than nine years in a colony in russia. Amnesty's decision was withdrawn in May of the same year, but russian propaganda actively used the first decision to discredit the opposition.

Why is Ukraine’s military located close to civilians

"I did not see any evidence in the report that the Ukrainian military is based near civilians," says Mykhailo Samus, deputy director of the Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS) on International Affairs. They write that they saw Ukrainian military personnel in cars with weapons and equipment in Ukrainian cities. It's called streets patrol. I have personally seen armed soldiers patrolling the streets in Paris. According to this logic, if a russian Kalibr cruise missile lands there, than gendarmes will be the culprits. They walk with weapons."

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Photo credit: Nariman El-Mofty

According to the expert, Amnesty International cannot determine how the Armed Forces of Ukraine build up defense. The report doesn’t provide any information regarding the temporarily occupied territories, as well as what happened in Olenivka, Bucha, Severodonetsk or Mariupol:

"They (Amnesty International) tour around peaceful Ukrainian cities and show how to turn them into present Severodonetsk or Mariupol. They say that the Ukrainian army should withdraw from peaceful cities, consequently the russian military will come there and kill and rape Ukrainian citizens," Samus commented on the statement. In the conditions of an urban state, armies cannot leave cities for the field, he says, this is practically unreal. Where were the troops supposed to go leaving Mariupol, he asks?

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Picture credit: @StratcomCentre

"These are the same appeals as those of Putin, who called for Ukrainians to lay down their arms and not resist," Samus believes.

Does it mean that if the army withdraws to a clear field, the civilians will be safe?

The problem of Amnesty International is that commentators from the central office are incompetent in terms of how the war is being waged and what is happening on the front, says a member of the board of the NGO Human Rights Initiative, Mykhailo Lebed.

"They refer to humanitarian norms and human rights, but the latter are very context-dependent. When Agnes Kalamar (the organization director - ed.) says that the Ukrainian army must withdraw from all populated areas, and all people must be evacuated, then such a statement is simply incompetent: it’s impossible to be done in practice. From time to time, the front passes through settlements, and if the Armed Forces of Ukraine defend a large populated area, then how do imagine militarymen standing in a field during a fight," he explains.

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Picture credit: @StratcomCentre

In reality, the evacuation demanded by Amnesty does not go well, as many residents do not want to leave. Then the russian military begins cities blockade, says Lebed.

"That's what happened in Mariupol: the city was surrounded, and the military was already inside. So the message of Amnesty International - surrender and people will not die? No, they will die if they are captured," he reminds.

Lebed says: problems for human rights on the part of russia are of a much bigger size, but in order to talk about it, one must not play equidistant from all sides of the conflict.

"Amnesty does not have experts to make statements in the context of the real situation. They like to look "pretty" so much that they don’t think about the "message" they are delivering. We need criticism provided by Ukrainian human rights defenders and journalists, maybe it will bring them to earth. Russian propagandists are already adopting Amnesty International's report. Any "message" that it is Ukraine that kills civilians, and not russia in Bucha, any lie that it is actually Ukraine who are the scoundrels and beasts in this war, will be used on all platforms, that is in the UN and in the internal propaganda so that people don't complain," says Lebed.

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Photo credit: Gleb Garanich for Reuters

The Armed Forces of Ukraine repeatedly suffered high losses when the russian army launched missile strikes on military facilities, in particular, bases in Mykolaiv or Yavoriv. Killing of dozens of soldiers does not add security to civilians, critics of the statement explain.

The Kyiv office of Amnesty was against the publication

The Ukrainian office of Amnesty International has published "official position" after the latest report of this international human rights organization.

"Amnesty International investigates and documents war crimes during the Russo-Ukrainian war. Since February 24, dozens of war crimes have been documented by researchers of the organization, proving that they were committed by the russian military. Particularly, the attack on the Mariupol Drama Theater, the attack on a residential building and a beach resort in Serhiyivka, war crimes in the Kyiv region, etc. "Amnesty International will send the documented data to the International Criminal Court, which will contribute to international justice and bringing the perpetrators to justice," the statement said.

"Even before the publication of this statement, I spoke with the Kyiv office of Amnesty International, and there they were against the fact that this material was made public in this form. In fact, this is only a statement about violations of the humanitarian law level, but these are not proven facts of violations as such," says the executive director of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union Oleksandr Pavlichenko.

In his opinion, it is impossible to qualify any action as a crime without an assessment of all factors. For example, killing in self-defense would be self-defense.

"The Ukrainian military has a combat mission to hold the settlement. And what right did the criminals have to seize this settlement? In fact, the main responsibility for the fact that this crime was committed lies with the russian federation, which started the war. We need to start from this," Pavlichenko emphasizes.

He reminds that human rights defenders had access only to the Ukrainian side of the war, so the material could not be proportionate. As a result, the statement and the report play into the hands of the Kremlin, Pavlichenko says.

"In the east of Ukraine we receive reports that the russian media say that people should do everything to expel the Armed Forces of Ukraine from all populated areas, saying, let them go to the field," he says.

If the mediator cannot influence the real violator, he will put pressure on the other party - the expert

According to an expert on security issues, Maria Kucherenko, the organization completely nullified the work it was doing with the statement.

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Maria Kucherenko / Photo credit: Daria Kurennaia

"This is a completely incorrect statement by Amnesty International, the organization completely nullified the work it was doing after they have said that. Nullified with their conclusion and the headline they made that the Armed Forces allegedly pose a threat to the civilian population. The press release looks like a one-sided conclusions presentation. At the same time, there are no details about how the researchers came to such conclusions. In particular, the use of civilian infrastructure objects by the military is a violation of international humanitarian law only if no alternative options were tried. But there isn’t any evidence in the text that alternative options were not considered in the given cases. That is, there is no detailed analysis of the situation to make it clear what exactly such conclusions were based on," says Kucherenko.

Russia has already taken advantage of the wording and approaches and is now trying to popularize its view on this material in the world, she believes.

"They need to make statements calling for an end to the escalation. But if you, as a mediator, cannot influence the party that is the real violator and the root cause of the disasters, then there are attempts to put pressure on the party that is going to dialogue with whom it is possible to communicate. The same thing happened during the Minsk process. When the mediators had to show some result, they always talked about some violations on the Ukrainian side. And as soon as it came up about Russia, there was always one answer - they didn't let us in," says Kucherenko.

Blaming both sides is very convenient for russian narratives

This report brings to mind the expression "useful idiots", despite all respect for the international organization, says Oleksiy Melnyk, co-director of foreign policy and international security programs at the Razumkov Center.

"I carefully read their statement, and if you take it out of context, what they are doing is really important. There are international rules for waging war, and they have recorded certain facts. But there is another point, namely how they presented this information. This style is very suitable for russian propaganda. Like, both sides are guilty, both sides are in violation. And it's not just Amnesty. Such mistakes were made by the OSCE when it started its work in the east of Ukraine. You can also see this approach in the statements of the UN, IAEA, etc., they appeal to both sides of the conflict," says Melnyk.

However, in conditions of aggression, calls to both sides to refrain from violence look strange, and this ideal model does not correspond to reality, he states.

"It's a pity that they didn't wait for an answer from our General Staff. If we look at the Donetsk agglomeration, then where should the troops be stationed? Somewhere in a clear field? But these are hundreds of lives of servicemen who are also citizens of Ukraine.

What’s Wrong With Amnesty International Report Upon Ukraine’s Military?, Defense Express, war in Ukraine, Russian-Ukrainian war

So, this is a very important issue that respectable organizations should consider before coming out with such "sensational" materials. I'm afraid that there might be another problem, which is the lack of practical experience among researchers, as well as the ability, and perhaps the desire, to delve into the realities of the conflict," the expert believes.

Adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Mykhailo Podolyak, said that Amnesty International is participating in the russian disinformation and propaganda campaign to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

What’s Wrong With Amnesty International Report Upon Ukraine’s Military?, Defense Express, war in Ukraine, Russian-Ukrainian war

"Our defenders are defending their people and families. People's lives are an absolute priority for Ukraine, which is why we are evacuating residents of frontline cities. Today, russia is making every effort to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the eyes of Western societies and disrupt the supply of weapons, using the entire network of its agents of influence. It's a shame that an organization like Amnesty International is participating in this campaign of disinformation and propaganda," Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

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