Since the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Amnesty International (AI) has published a number of reports documenting the war crimes conducted by the Russian army against the Ukrainian civilian population as well as Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the occupied Donbas region.
On 4 August 2022, AI took a different approach by publishing a report titled “Ukraine: Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians.“ One could say that by scrutinising not only Russian misconduct but the Ukrainian Army’s as well, Amnesty International only tried to do its job: show the facts, and be vocal about human rights violations while staying politically neutral in any kind of war or even armed conflict. However, a close look at the report creates doubts regarding the unbiased nature and methodology used for making allegations. Moreover, the report is completely one-sided and investigates the victim instead of the aggressor. It does not condemn Russian aggression on Ukraine, and it does not address Russian fighting tactics.
For this report, villages and towns in the Donbas region were investigated. Amnesty found five locations where hospitals and 22 out of 29 schools visited were “de facto” used as bases. “Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets” – reads the conclusion stated on the Amnesty International website1.
In the meantime, it is mentioned that international law (Geneva convention) does not forbid the usage of civilian objects such as (not actively working) schools during military operations. This, of course, shall be avoided unless there is a compelling military need, as is further explained. Russian unprovoked aggression against civilians and wiping out entire cities have indeed caused the compelling military need to deploy soldiers in those very cities and populated areas to defend the local population. Accusing the Ukrainian Army of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) violation is, in the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, an attempt to shift the blame from the aggressor to the victim of aggression. A need to turn civilian infrastructure objects into bases would never have arisen had there not been an attack on densely populated areas on the territory of sovereign Ukraine in the first place.
Furthermore, Amnesty International claims that the civilians living close to those premises were neither warned nor were offered an evacuation. The report fails to mention, though, that people interviewed for this report were those captured in filtration camps2. Their statements, therefore, were made under threats and pressure. On top, summarising precautionary and evacuation measures, the report concludes: “This did not appear to have happened in the cases examined by Amnesty International.” Diluted language makes the claims inconclusive and untrustworthy.
It is logical to suppose that it might have been known to AI that the Ukrainian government started the evacuation of the Donbas region in April 2022, warning its population about probable fierce battles to come. The report not mentioning or documenting these evacuation efforts gives an impression that there were none. In fact, in the Ukrainian army, units called “Special Evacuation Forces” have been trained since the beginning of March. This points to the anticipation of evacuation programmes that would have and had been enrolled. The decision of elderly and relatives looking after disabled, handicapped, and sick people not to take an offer from the Ukrainian authorities to leave was a matter of personal choice and should not be sold out as non-existent. Information on the lack of warnings or evacuation efforts is therefore deceptive.
In another sentence, the report claims that the Ukrainian army used villages and civilian objects where “an alternative” was available. However, the criteria for those alternatives were not mentioned in the report. Neither were there interviews with Ukrainian military officers to comment on those alternatives. Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar argued that basing Ukrainian military objects such as anti-aircraft systems in towns was a necessity. This necessity was aimed at protecting civilian infrastructure. If Ukrainian forces were only based outside urban settlements, “Russian armed forces would simply sweep in unopposed,” she added. No consequences are even briefly mentioned in the report, let alone analysed. Even if one agrees that AI representatives are human rights and not military experts, it gives no right or justification for an organisation with the scope of AI to publish unsubstantiated allegations based on selective facts or, better say, distorted evidence.
Disclaimer: Promote Ukraine holds an opinion that there can be no “justified” crimes against the civilian population, even for self-defence. We support human rights as a core European value. Having said that, the Amnesty International report provides a biased picture of what is happening in the Donbas. That’s why it was widely criticised by Amnesty Sweden’s co-founder Per Waestberg, who even resigned over disagreeing with the conclusions of this report. Furthermore, according to human rights lawyers Wayne Jordash and Anna Mykytenko, “The reader is left to guess at the number of witnesses interviewed or strike sites inspected, which selection criteria were examined, and the expertise purportedly deployed to carry out remote-sensing and weapons analysis…In sum, AI’s conclusions are short on facts and analysis and long on intemperate accusation”.
Moreover, it remains unclear why the local office of Amnesty International Ukraine was not involved or consulted for this report. This approach, combined with several other episodes of appraisal of Russian positions, raise several questions about the existence of a form of pro-Russian bias or Russian lobby within the organisation and AI’s capacity to recognise, address and neutralise Russian influence over its work.
First, some members of AI senior staff share or amplify Russian propaganda. Syksy Räsänen, Board Member of AI Finland, has repeatedly spread Russian propaganda since 2014. He is well-known for spreading pro-Russia manipulative positions (through the pro-Kremlin media outlet The Grey Zone), and his opinions on Ukraine generate a lot of criticism vis-a-vis Amnesty International.
Second, Russian propagandists successfully influenced AI positions in the past. A worrying episode of this tendency was in 2021 when Amnesty announced it would no longer consider the jailed Russian politician Alexey Navalny a prisoner of conscience on account of a few comments he had made about migrants in 2007 and 2008. This decision was taken unilaterally by the London HQ, and it was welcomed by Russia Today’s propagandist Margarita Simonyan as a success of “our columnist” Katya Kazbek, at that time a freelance journalist of Russia Today and the Grey Zone. Kazbek orchestrated a successful Twitter and PR campaign to influence Amnesty’s position on Navalny’s status. A few weeks later, Julie Vahaar, Amnesty’s secretary-general, announced that Amnesty had been targeted by a “Russian government smear campaign” and launched an internal inquiry to investigate the effects of the campaign.
We believe it is in the interest of Amnesty International to put in place stronger mechanisms to investigate, recognise and neutralise the pro-Kremlin influence within the organisation, including in the National offices. As Amnesty International is devoted to drawing attention to human rights abuses and respect of international law, it is crucial that its employees cannot sabotage the work of the organisation from inside by spreading Russian propaganda and severely undermining the credibility of an organisation with more than 10 million members. It is indeed extremely important that AI does not minimise the threat of autocratic Russian influence within a respected organisation such as AI, as this vulnerability not only puts Ukrainian civilians in greater danger, but it poses a threat to the global understanding of human rights.
Therefore, PU calls on AI to work on internal mechanisms such as organising trainings on disinformation, producing internal guidelines on Russian propaganda,, and updating national and international codes of conduct in order to become more resilient to the influence of Russia, especially in the context of the Russian aggression to Ukraine. Russian influence over Amnesty must not be amnestied!
Promote Ukraine welcomes Amnesty International’s apology where it regretted the “distress” caused by the report. But as usually happens with such overlooks, the damage was already done. Russian propaganda newspapers happily picked this information and widely used it to justify the war crimes against Ukrainian civilian population. So (un)intentionally Amnesty International helped the Russian government to increase the acceptance of this war among the Russian population. And to quote the German Tageszeitung from 4 August 2022 “A seasoned human rights organisation like AI should know this. It should be able to anticipate how its reports will be received by the public. And it should be able to publish its findings in such a way that they do not enable a perpetrator-victim reversal in Moscow and provoke outrage in Kyiv”3.
In conclusion, Promote Ukraine calls on the international community not to tolerate the way some reputable human rights and humanitarian organisations are shifting the emphasis in their activities, reversing a perpetrator and a victim. PU also calls on donors to revise their funding strategies and to favour local organisations wherever possible over bulky international structures with, at times, non-transparent reporting, heavy bureaucratic practices, and a lack of understanding of the local context.