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Amnesty Report Endangers Ukrainian Civilians

Russian anti-tank weapon. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Russian anti-tank weapon. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia may have banned Amnesty International in April for reporting on Russian atrocities, but the human rights group’s August 4 report, titled “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians,” has received a hero’s welcome in the Kremlin. While Kyiv certainly should not be immune to criticism, Amnesty’s study omits key facts, contains serious methodological flaws, and was poorly presented to the public. As a result, Amnesty has handed Moscow a potent propaganda weapon with which to justify its military’s ongoing bombardment of Ukrainian civilians.

The report found that in 19 towns and villages, Ukrainian forces had “launch[ed] strikes from within populated residential areas as well as bas[ed] themselves in civilian buildings,” including schools and hospitals. “Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets,” Amnesty noted.

While this may indeed be true, the study fails to acknowledge that in many cases, Russia’s decision to attack urban areas has forced the Ukrainian military to operate in and around residential and other civilian structures. A journalist who accompanied Amnesty officials while they compiled evidence in Ukraine noted that despite his attempts to get Amnesty to “differentiate between defensive and offensive operations in urban areas,” the organization had already made up its mind that “Ukraine was endangering its own civilians by the mere act of attempting to defend its cities.”

Likewise, Amnesty omits Ukrainian efforts to evacuate civilians prior to operations. For example, the report accuses Ukrainian forces of operating in residential areas in Lysychansk, a city in eastern Ukraine recently taken by Russia, but ignores the continual efforts by local authorities to relocate civilians.

While none of this exempts Ukrainian forces from their obligation to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians, omitting this key context creates the false impression that Ukraine willingly endangers civilians. It takes the onus off Russia for its wanton disregard for civilian casualties, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy noted.

Furthermore, the manner in which Amnesty collected its data may have biased its findings. According to the Ukrainian government’s Center for Strategic Communications, some of the data in Amnesty’s report came from interviews conducted by local volunteers and independent journalists in Russian-occupied territory as well as so-called “filtration camps” under the surveillance of Russia’s FSB secret police.

As a result, the Center says, the Ukrainian interviewees “may have been … under significant pressure” to give answers that would please their Russian persecutors. Amnesty has since denied these allegations.

Finally, as Zelenskyy indicated, Amnesty shifted responsibility for civilian deaths onto Ukraine. When allegations of Palestinians operating near civilian infrastructure surfaced in 2009, a senior Amnesty researcher clarified that that did not turn those buildings into “legitimate military targets.” And when it released a report on this topic in 2015, to preempt Israeli claims of Palestinians using human shields, Amnesty justified Hamas’ urging of civilians not to evacuate buildings facing impending attack. Such deliberate messaging vis-à-vis Ukraine could have avoided this controversy.

Unsurprisingly, Moscow’s propaganda machine pounced. Pro-Russia Telegram and Twitter accounts went into a frenzy, gloating that the report had vindicated the Russian military against accusations of war crimes. The Russian Mission in Geneva tweeted that Amnesty confirmed Ukraine was turning civilian structures into “legitimate target[s].” Russia’s Embassy in the United Kingdom wrote that Amnesty confirmed what Russia “has been saying all along.”

On August 9, state-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti published pro-Russia child writer and activist Faina Savenkova’s appeal to Amnesty to speak out against the Ukrainian army’s “killing of children” in Donbass. This was not Savenkova’s first tour in Russia’s propaganda army. In 2021, she addressed the United Nations on Children’s Day to decry what she framed as Ukraine’s violent campaign against Russian-led separatist forces in occupied Luhansk.

As the Kremlin exploits Amnesty’s findings, Ukrainian officials have called out the report’s misleading conclusions. Cofounder of Amnesty’s Swedish branch, Per Wastberg, as well as the head of Amnesty International Ukraine, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned, citing the Amnesty report’s hypocrisy. Pokalchuk noted that Amnesty did not give Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense adequate time to respond and did not sufficiently cover Russian troops’ aggressions. As a result, Pokalchuk lamented, the report resembles “a tool of Russian propaganda.”

Responding to widespread criticism of the recent report, Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnes Callamard doubled down, calling on “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls” to stop their “disinformation” and “misinformation.” Never mind that Russians were praising Amnesty’s findings. Amnesty later said it “regrets the distress and anger” caused by the report but still “fully stand[s] by [its] findings.”

Amnesty says its “purpose is to protect individuals wherever justice, fairness, freedom and truth are denied.” Its report, however, does the opposite. One hopes Amnesty will reflect on its shortcomings and do better next time. So far, it looks like we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Expert Biographies: David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ivana Stradner is an advisor. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidSamuelMay and @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy. The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and not a reflection of the views of 19ForyFive. 

David May is a senior research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Ivana Stradner is an advisor. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidSamuelMay and @ivanastradner. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.