Amnesty International had asked the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for a rebuttal, spokesman Ruud Bosgraaf said: “Unfortunately, there has been no response.”
When Amnesty sent out a press release to the world on Thursday, a storm of protests erupted. According to Amnesty, Ukrainian armed forces have threatened civilians by setting up bases in hospitals and schools and firing artillery from populated areas. This made civilian objects a potential military target, according to the human rights organization. According to Amnesty, it has emerged that these targets were subsequently attacked by the Russians, killing civilians.
Amnesty claims that this is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. “We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian armed forces endangering civilians and violating the laws of war when operating in populated areas,” Secretary General Agnès Callamard said. “The fact that the country had to defend itself does not exempt the Ukrainian army from its obligation to respect international humanitarian law.”
‘Not in relationship’
Reactions to the Amnesty investigation were not kind. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Russian bombings in recent months – would Amnesty now claim that Kiev was to blame? Ukrainian President Zelensky reacted furiously: “The Amnesty report seeks to whitewash a terrorist state and shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
Zelensky was certainly not the only one who thought so. Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty’s Ukrainian branch, distanced herself from her own organization’s conclusions. According to Pokalchuk, the investigation was carried out by foreign employees, and criticism from the Ukrainian branch has been ignored. On Friday night, she announced her departure on Facebook. “Unless you live in a country that is being invaded and torn apart, you probably don’t understand what it feels like to condemn the defending army,” Pokalchuk wrote.
Meanwhile, Russian state media – by no means friends of human rights organizations – crowed the victory. When civilians are killed in a Russian attack, Moscow often defends itself by saying it was actually a military target. According to Russia, Kiev is using schools and hospitals as ‘human shields’. “Even the international scoundrels and thugs of the so-called human rights organization Amnesty International accuse Ukraine of violating the law of war,” host Yevgeny Popov said on Russian television.
Spokesman Ruud Bosgraaf emphasizes that Amnesty’s accusations against Kiev are not proportionate to the massive war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces, including rape, torture, executions and systematic shooting of civilian targets. “We’ve been very aware of this in previous research,” says Bosgraaf, “but international humanitarian law also applies to Ukraine. If it’s violated, we have to mention it too, even if it doesn’t make you popular.”
However, the problem that Amnesty reveals is not black and white, says Marieke de Hoon, assistant professor of international criminal law at the University of Amsterdam. “The law of war is complicated. For example, the use of a hospital or a school as a base is prohibited unless absolutely necessary for military purposes.” That nuance creates a complex field of tension, according to De Hoon: “If you are the attacking party, you can choose your targets yourself. But if you’re defending a city, you might not be able to avoid using civilian objects.”
You hope there is talk, but there is now a very emotional response
Ruud Bosgraaf Spokesperson for Amnesty International
Not very specific
De Hoon finds it difficult to assess the specific case – Amnesty is deliberately quite vague about specific cases, in order to prevent strategic information from being released to the Russians. This does not change the fact that it is important that human rights organizations remain critical and call on the parties to prevent violations, says De Hoon.
The lawyer refers to an incident at the end of March, where videos emerged of Ukrainian soldiers shooting Russian prisoners of war in the legs. “Ukraine immediately announced that an investigation would be launched. It was an exemplary response.”
Amnesty had hoped for such a response this time as well, said spokesman Ruud Bosgraaf. “Ukraine has a democratically elected government, so you hope there is business to talk about. There is now a very emotional response.”
Last Thursday, Amnesty chief Callamard also reacted emotionally on Twitter. “Ukrainian and Russian media gangs and trolls: they are attacking all Amnesty investigations today,” the secretary-general wrote. “This will not damage our impartiality and will not distort the facts.”
“Apparently the Secretary General of Amnesty is calling me a ‘gangster’ and a ‘troll,'” countered Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Koeleba the next day. “That doesn’t stop me from saying that this report distorts the facts.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 6 August 2022