Amid backlash, Amnesty International apologised on Sunday for the anger caused by its report accusing the Ukrainian army of endangering civilians, but stands by its findings.
The controversy stirred by the report published Thursday on the war in Ukraine will leave a mark. The government in Kiev has strongly condemned the NGO's document, which stated that the tactics of the Ukrainian army endangered the civilian population.
Most civil society organisations received the report with anger, labelling it “one-sided”. The director of Amnesty International Ukraine, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned on Friday evening, rebuking the conclusions of the organisation, whose Ukrainian office she had headed for seven years.
Amnesty International seemed to finally grasp the severity of the situation and apologised on Sunday for “the distress and anger” the report had caused. Amnesty’s secretary general Agnes Callamard had not held back, calling its critics “Ukrainian and Russian trolls”. “Amnesty International's priority in this conflict, as in any other conflict, is to ensure that civilians are protected,” Sunday's statement read, while refusing to back down on its accusations. “While fully upholding our findings, we regret the pain caused.”
The controversial report concludes that Ukraine’s armed forces endanger the civilian population in at least 19 instances in which the army set up bases and deployed weapons from residential areas. The NGO concludes that civilians may become collateral victims of Russian artillery fire. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the report an “attempt to grant amnesty to the terrorist state and to shift blame from the aggressor to the victim of aggression.”
The wording of the report troubled critics because it emphasised Ukraine’s responsibilities under international humanitarian law rather than Russia’s for the unprecedented attacks on urban centres. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainian army has set up bases in Kiev and other major cities under threat, using school and university buildings that have been closed and deserted since February 24. A faculty housing soldiers was destroyed by an Iskander missile in Kharkiv in early July. But the presence of soldiers in civilian areas has not sparked any major debates in Ukraine.
“The Ukrainian army fortifies and defends cities and villages,” justified Hanna Maliar, deputy minister of defence. “Amnesty would like our soldiers to sleep in tents in the countryside and let the Russians enter our cities quietly?” said a social media user. On Thursday, the chief of Amnesty International Ukraine revealed that the report was conducted by only foreign investigators, and that the Ukrainian team was deliberately kept out. Pokalchuk disavowed the report, denouncing a “lack of understanding of the local context, an inflexible working system and the disregard of the Ukrainian team's opinion”.
“If you don’t live in a country that’s been invaded by occupiers who are tearing it apart, you probably don’t understand what it is like to condemn the defending army,” Oksana Pokalchuk said Friday, resigning from her post. In Kiev, several experts are also questioning the methods. “When I worked at Amnesty, we took time on detailed reports putting events in context, Amnesty's publication does not,” tweeted Max Tucker, a former NGO member. “The result suggests that Ukraine bears more responsibility for those killed by Russian strikes than Russia itself. This is both bizarre and misleading.”
The method was also criticised by Wayne Jordash and Anna Mykytenko of Global Rights Compliance, two of the top experts in Kyiv on international humanitarian law (IHL). “IHL does not absolutely and unconditionally prohibit the location of military targets in urban areas,” the authors explain in an op-ed for Ukrainska Pravda. “On the contrary, IHL obliges parties to the conflict to take precautions to protect the civilian population from the effects of such attacks.” According to the lawyers, Amnesty International's report fails to take into account the fact that the Ukrainian military does not have the freedom to choose where to defend itself.
“We do not question the veracity of the facts, however, for the conclusions and accusations of the statement, it would have been necessary to seek additional information," wrote Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, while also decrying “the pressure exerted on Amnesty International” and the withdrawal of its accreditation by the Ukrainian armed forces.
“Working on human rights abuses will continue to be possible,” said a human rights activist in Kyiv. “Only, international NGOs will have to rethink their standards because Ukrainian society will no longer trust them so easily.”