Amnesty International had asked the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense for a rebuttal, spokesman Ruud Bosgraaf said: “Unfortunately, there has been no response.”
Once Amnesty Thursday a press release the world, a storm of protest broke out after all. According to Amnesty, Ukrainian armed forces have endangered civilians by establishing bases in hospitals and schools and firing artillery from populated areas. This turned civilian objects into a potential military target, according to the human rights organization. According to Amnesty, it has been shown that these targets were subsequently attacked by the Russians, killing civilians.
Amnesty claims that there 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 absolve the Ukrainian army from its obligation to respect international humanitarian law.”
‘Not in proportion’
The reactions to the Amnesty investigation were not kind. Hundreds of civilians have been killed in Russian bombings in recent months – was Amnesty now wanting to claim that Kiev was to blame? Ukrainian President Zelensky reacted furiously: “The Amnesty report seeks to launder a terrorist state and shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
Zelensky was certainly not the only one to think 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 evening, she announced her departure on Facebook. “If you don’t 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.
Russian state media – by no means friends of human rights organizations – meanwhile crowed victory. When civilians are killed in a Russian attack, Moscow often defends itself by saying that it was actually a military target. According to Russia, Kiev is using schools and hospitals as ‘human shields’. “Even the international crooks 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 TV.
Spokesperson Ruud Bosgraaf emphasizes that Amnesty’s accusations against Kiev are disproportionate to the massive war crimes committed by the Russian armed forces, including rape, torture, executions and the systematic shooting of civilian targets. “We paid a lot of attention to this in previous research,” says Bosgraaf, “but international humanitarian law also applies to Ukraine. If that is violated, we must also mention it, even if it does not make you popular.”
However, the issue that Amnesty is exposing 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 school as a base is prohibited, unless it is 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 goals yourself. But if you’re defending a city, you may not be able to avoid using civilian objects.”
You hope there is talk but there is now very emotional response
Ruud Bosgraaf Spokesperson Amnesty International
Not very specific
De Hoon finds it difficult to assess the concrete case – Amnesty is deliberately rather vague about concrete cases, in order to prevent strategic information from being released to the Russians. That does not alter the fact that it is important that human rights organizations remain critical and call on parties to prevent violations, says De Hoon.
The lawyer refers to an incident in late March, when videos appeared of Ukrainian soldiers shooting Russian prisoners of war in the legs. “Ukraine immediately announced that an investigation would be launched. That 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 that there is business to talk about. There is now a very emotional response.”
Last Thursday, Amnesty boss Callamard also reacted emotionally on Twitter. “Ukrainian and Russian media gangs and trolls: they are all attacking Amnesty investigations today,” the secretary-general wrote. “This will not damage our impartiality and will not detract from the facts.”
“Apparently the SG of Amnesty calls me a ‘gang’ and a ‘troll’,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dymtro Koeleba parried the next day. “That does not prevent me from saying that this report distorts the facts.”
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of August 6, 2022