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What’s Behind Amnesty International’s Victim-Blaming in Ukraine?

A light-on-facts exercise in bothsidesism.
August 11, 2022
What’s Behind Amnesty International’s Victim-Blaming in Ukraine?
Oksana Pokalchuk was the director of Amnesty International Ukraine until August 5, 2022, when she resigned one day after Amnesty International published a statement that, she said, “became a tool of Russian propaganda.” Here she is pictured in June 2022 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

Last week, a venerable human rights watchdog group’s apparent attempt to both-sides Russia’s war in Ukraine caused an immediate and near-unanimous outcry. An August 4 Amnesty International statement titled “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians” was widely denounced as a gift to Vladimir Putin and his propaganda machine; the fallout included not only intense criticism in the media but the resignation of the director of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, Oksana Pokalchuk. On August 7, Amnesty put out a follow-up that defended the earlier statement while expressing regret for “the distress and anger” it had caused.

Is the backlash justified—a reasonable response to a “morally myopic” stance taken by Amnesty? Or is it a striking example of what Ukraine skeptics such as Glenn Greenwald have claimed is an pro-Ukraine consensus that effectively censors critical views?

It is true that, as Greenwald’s fellow skeptic Aaron Maté has pointed out on Twitter, the gist of Amnesty’s claim—that Ukrainian armed forces have sometimes established bases and installed military equipment close to civilian-populated residential areas—is a well-known fact Western media have reported virtually since the start of the war. (How this jibes with the notion of a rampant pro-Ukraine bias in the media is a question Maté does not address.) Thus, a March 28 Washington Post article noted, “Increasingly, Ukrainians are confronting an uncomfortable truth: The military’s understandable impulse to defend against Russian attacks could be putting civilians in the crosshairs.” But the devil is in the details and the context—and, aside from the fact that the Amnesty statement is shockingly fuzzy on both, it was released in a way that practically guaranteed it would become a propaganda weapon for the Kremlin.

(The press center at Amnesty International’s main office, which I emailed twice for comment for this article, did not reply by Wednesday night.)

To start with: While the Amnesty document released on August 4 has been widely described as a “report,” it really isn’t one; rather, it’s an “extended press release.” It contains vaguely worded, specifics-free assertions such as:

Most residential areas where soldiers located themselves were kilometres away from front lines. 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.

Amnesty’s follow-up statement stressed that no specific details about those locations were released because such information could have endangered Ukrainian defenses (and claimed that the details were provided to the Ukrainian government). But no one is asking for actual locations. It would have been enough to include at least one example—even with some of the details obscured to minimize risks—of an instance in which Amnesty researchers concluded that the Ukrainian military failed to use “viable alternatives.”

Where details are given, it turns out that some of the statement’s especially inflammatory claims—and ones especially usable by the Russian propaganda mill—are apparently based on considerably less inflammatory facts. For instance, the statement repeatedly mentions military bases being set up in “schools and hospitals.” Given that it also talks about Ukrainian soldiers “operating weapons systems” and firing at Russian troops in areas where civilians are present, this evokes shocking images of Ukrainians shooting or launching rockets from hospital rooftops or windows, inviting enemy fire in response. But the actual allegations, insofar as any specific allegations appear the statement, are far less dramatic. First, the hospitals:

Amnesty International researchers witnessed Ukrainian forces using hospitals as de facto military bases in five locations. In two towns, dozens of soldiers were resting, milling about, and eating meals in hospitals. In another town, soldiers were firing from near the hospital.

So the firing was actually from near (how near?) the hospital, not from the hospital itself. As for “bases,” the meaning of the word may be in dispute. Does a hospital become a “de facto military base” if soldiers sometimes eat, rest, or “mill about” on hospital grounds? What if they are on hospital grounds to bring in wounded comrades, or to guard the hospital during urban warfare? Did the “Amnesty International researchers [who] witnessed” these scenes observe them long enough to get sufficient context?

The saga of the Mariupol maternity hospital bombing on March 9 illustrates these complexities. In that case, Kremlin propagandists (official and unofficial) started claiming from the outset that (1) the bombing was a false-flag operation or a fake and (2) the hospital had been taken over by “Azov Battalion” soldiers who were using it as a base. When former hospital patient and Instagram beauty blogger Marianna Vyshemirskaya gave a video interview to a “Donetsk People’s Republic” blogger, tidbits from it were quickly spun by the Kremlin-controlled media and pro-Kremlin Twitter accounts to claim that the hospital had been occupied by Ukrainian soldiers. But in fact, Vyshemirskaya said that a different maternity hospital in the city had been taken over by Ukrainian defense forces because it was the only building with solar panels and thus a reliable power supply, forcing her and many other women to go to Hospital No. 3 (the one that was struck). She also said that on one occasion, soldiers did come to Hospital No. 3 to ask for food because they hadn’t eaten in several days.

Would Vyshemirskaya’s account be treated by the Amnesty researchers as grounds for a claim that Ukrainian armed forces were illegitimately using hospitals as military bases, since a hospital cleared of patients and staff is still a hospital and soldiers coming to a hospital for food turn it into a de facto “base”? Since Amnesty did not provide details about its observations and methodology, that’s anybody’s guess.

In the case of schools, the Amnesty statement clarifies the accusation by noting that “schools have been temporarily closed to students since the conflict began, but in most cases the buildings were located close to populated civilian neighbourhoods.” It also notes:

International humanitarian law does not specifically ban parties to a conflict from basing themselves in schools that are not in session. However, militaries have an obligation to avoid using schools that are near houses or apartment buildings full of civilians, putting these lives at risk, unless there is a compelling military need.

Even aside from the question of what constitutes “compelling military need” in a country fighting back against an invasion, it seems clear that in this case, the issue is not the use of schools per se—a particularly troubling charge which implies that children are being used as human shields—but the presence of civilian residential areas nearby. I’m not sure this qualifies as sleight of hand, but at the very least there are goalposts being moved.

This section also includes some frustratingly vague language:

At 22 out of 29 schools visited, Amnesty International researchers either found soldiers using the premises or found evidence of current or prior military activity—including the presence of military fatigues, discarded munitions, army ration packets and military vehicles.

Note the different things being lumped together. How many school buildings had evidence of current military activity? How many may have been used as a pit stop at some point by soldiers who later moved on? Italian journalist Cristiano Tinazzi mentioned exactly such an incident in a Twitter thread in response to the Amnesty statement:

A similar vagueness pervades the statement’s treatment of the all-important issue of evacuating civilians:

In the cases it documented, Amnesty International is not aware that the Ukrainian military who located themselves in civilian structures in residential areas asked or assisted civilians to evacuate nearby buildings—a failure to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians.

In another section, we are told that soldiers “should warn civilians and, if necessary, help them evacuate” if they absolutely must operate in residential areas or near residential buildings, and that “this did not appear to have happened in the cases examined by Amnesty International.” But did Amnesty’s researchers actually establish, at the very least, a high probability that the Ukrainian military did not try to evacuate civilians? (That task, of course, is often complicated by people’s refusal to leave their homes in war zones.) Again, there is no discussion of any relevant evidence, or of how the researchers came to their conclusions. These conclusions, for what it’s worth, are strongly disputed not only by the Ukrainian government but by reporters on the ground, such as Tom Mutch, a New Zealand-born freelance journalist and contributor to major media outlets. According to Mutch:

In fact, Ukrainian authorities and the military frequently insisted that civilians leave the active fighting zones and offered evacuation assistance to those who wished to do so.

I was in one of the locations mentioned in the Amnesty report, a school block in the under-fire city of Lysychansk, with Ukrainian soldiers as they offered an evacuation ride to any civilian residents who wished to leave. Three did, and we travelled with them as we returned to safer locations. I had reported this all at the time.

It should be noted that, in response to the Amnesty statement, Ukrainian official sources have made some vague claims of their own. Thus, on August 8, the Center for Strategic Communications and Information Security (StratCom) at the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture and Information Policy tweeted a thread asserting that some of the Ukrainian civilians whose testimony was used by Amnesty researcher may have been speaking under duress on occupied territories or even in Russian jails and “filtration camps.”

(The thread also notes that the Amnesty researchers “were not present on the occupied territories in person, but rather obtained information from there using a network of volunteers and journalists.”)

If true, this would be an absolutely shocking lapse on the part of Amnesty: It would have been relying on “witnesses” who had every incentive to accuse the Ukrainian military of wrongdoing. But, like the Amnesty statement, the StratCom thread relies on undocumented assertions and innuendo. (The word “may” is doing a lot of work in the tweet above.) Yet many pro-Ukraine accounts have repeated these assertions as facts, or at least as definitive claims by a government agency rather than outright speculation.

But speculation by StratCom hardly excuses speculation by Amnesty, a highly reputable organization with global reach—and with a moral authority readily exploited by Russian officials in their slanders against “Nazi Ukraine.”

At least for now, we literally know nothing about the process by which Amnesty gathered the research and compiled the evidence, nor have we seen the presumably existing full report on which the “extended press release” is based. It is possible that all the allegations and characterizations in the report are sound and balanced, and perhaps even supplemented by images, recordings, and other evidence that backs them up—although if Amnesty had such evidence, one wonders why none was produced Amnesty’s August 7 follow-up statement.

Moreover, the activities leading up to the release of Amnesty International’s August 4 statement raise further questions about its impartiality. We know from Oksana Pokalchuk that the Ukrainian Amnesty office which she led was not involved in the preparation of the report. Pokalchuk also writes that the objections of the Ukrainian office were repeatedly ignored and that its staffers were not even allowed to preview the materials as they requested. The Amnesty follow-up statement makes no reference to these charges, and a self-exculpatory Twitter thread by Donatella Rovera, an Amnesty senior crisis adviser and one of the main authors of the August 4 press release, specifies that she was “not part of the team who liaised with Amnesty Ukraine” and can say nothing on the subject.

We also know, from Amnesty International itself, that the statement was sent to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense on July 29—less than a week before the press release was posted—giving it three working days to respond. (According to Pokalchuk, even this step required “convinc[ing]” by the Ukrainian office.) We know that the Amnesty International Twitter account publicized the press release with a tweet that bluntly accused the Ukrainian armed forces of “put[ting] civilians in harm’s way” without mentioning that the “harm” originated with the unprovoked Russian invasion. The wording could even be read as suggesting that Ukrainian troops are using civilians as human shields—a charge that the press release itself doesn’t make:

And we know that Amnesty officials’ responses to criticism have been, to put it mildly, unhelpful—most notably, a now-infamous tweet from Amnesty Secretary General Agnes Callamard dismissing critics as “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls” engaged in “war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation.” (It’s hard to say what’s more obnoxious: the cavalier tone or the moral equivalency.)

On substance, the most devastating rebuttal to the Amnesty statement is the point raised by a number of critics, such as Jack Watling, a British military specialist of the Royal United Services Institute, and Maxim Tucker, a former Amnesty staffer who is now a British journalist:

(The “IHL” that Watling mentions is international humanitarian law.)

The reality is that Russian troops are attacking and trying to take over Ukrainian cities. Ukrainian troops are defending them. To argue that Ukrainian soldiers should be doing more to defend those cities while staying at a respectful distance from them so as to avoid endangering civilians may be fine in theory, but in practice it smacks of the worst kind of armchair quarterbacking. Caleb Larson, a freelance journalist who has written for a wide range of major media outlets, has said on Twitter that this was precisely the attitude he encountered from Rovera and one of her colleagues when he met them: “They insisted that Ukrainians fighting in urban terrain must relocate to a forested area. Not too sure how you do that in a city.”

What’s more, a number of critics, such as former United Nations and Human Rights Watch war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco, have pointed out that the result is not just morally offensive but actually dangerous. In essence, Amnesty’s ill-advised press release gives Russia an excuse to engage in more indiscriminate attacks on civilians: See, even Amnesty says it’s the Ukrainian army’s own fault!

It all brings to mind a famous French rhyme from a nineteenth-century burlesque song: “Cet animal est très méchant;/Quand on l’attaque, il se défend,” which Vladimir Nabokov once translated as:

This beast is very mean: in fact,
It will fight back, when it’s attacked.

What is Amnesty’s motive for what seems like a pretty clear case of victim-blaming? An editorial on the independent Russian-language website argues that Amnesty is among a number of Western human rights organizations compromised and infiltrated by Russia. But that claim seems substantially overstated, considering that the overwhelming bulk of Amnesty’s coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine concerns Russian war crimes, the devastating impact of Russia’s military aggression, and the Putin regime’s ruthless suppression of anti-war dissent at home. Indeed, even the August 4 statement is hedged with reminders that the allegations of Ukraine’s endangerment of civilians do not “in any way justify indiscriminate Russian attacks.” It also notes that there were areas where Amnesty “did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces located in the civilian areas unlawfully targeted by the Russian military” and that Russian tactics included the use of “widely banned and inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions” in civilian-populated areas. (Needless to say, that didn’t stop Russian propagandists from citing the Amnesty statement as vindication; a number of Russian media outlets even quoted directly from it while excising the inconvenient bits.)

More likely, the real culprit is evenhandedness gone astray. “We stand by all victims. Impartially,” tweeted Callamard in response to the backlash. Mutch, who writes that he met Amnesty’s Rovera in the Donetsk region and tried to warn her about the pitfalls of her approach when he realized that the presence of a Ukrainian army unit in the basement of an abandoned college building in Kramatorsk seemed to bother her more than Russia’s relentless bombardment of the town, describes her response as follows:

“The most important thing I’ve learned about covering conflicts in over twenty years doing this job. Never take a side. . . . All governments lie to you. Your job as a reporter or researcher is to be strictly impartial and report only the facts.”

Impartiality and commitment to facts are vital, of course. But impartiality should not translate into moral equivalency between victim and aggressor, and “just the facts” is not a license to leave out crucial context—such as the fact that Ukraine is repelling Russian attacks on its cities, or that Russia already has a horrific record of war crimes in occupied areas where there’s no question of Ukrainian military presence.

Obviously, being in the righteous position of fighting back against an invasion cannot justify everything—whether cruelty toward enemy prisoners or failure to protect civilian lives. The Ukrainian army is not and should not be beyond criticism. A report released a month ago by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded, for instance, that an assault on a nursing home in Luhansk in March (which resulted in a devastating fire that killed dozens of elderly and disabled patients) was the responsibility of both Russian and Ukrainian forces which turned the building into a battlefield. In that instance, too, one may debate whether this assignment of blame took insufficient note of the fact that Russia was solely responsible for the war that created this situation in the first place. But, interestingly, the report caused little controversy—perhaps because it confined itself to a specific situation and was fact-based and well-documented. Indeed, while Ukrainian authorities did not officially comment on the report, the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office told the Associated Press that it was looking into whether Ukrainian soldiers had been in the nursing home.

By contrast, Amnesty International’s vague and innuendo-laden charges have not only aided Russian propaganda but dealt a blow to Amnesty’s own reputation. The rebellion at Amnesty’s Ukrainian office may be just the beginning. Earlier this week, Swedish writer, journalist and veteran human rights activist Per Wästberg, the co-founder of Amnesty’s Swedish chapter, wrote to the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet:

I have now been a member for almost sixty years. It is with a heavy heart that I end this long and fruitful relationship because of Amnesty’s statements regarding the war in Ukraine.

Last year, Amnesty International corrected another Russia-related unforced error when it reversed a decision to strip Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” designation on the grounds that his anti-migrant statements in 2007-08 could be classified as “hate speech.” Perhaps it will follow its own example in this case, retract the August 4 “extended press release,” and issue a full report on how it came about.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.