By Bohdan Nahaylo
Aug. 8, 2022
Madam Secretary General, I am writing an open letter to you calling for your immediate resignation. This serves not only to acknowledge your mishandling of the notorious Amnesty International (AI) “report” concerning Ukraine (published on August 4), but to protect your organization’s reputation which you have seriously undermined.
You committed a gross error of judgment in a very delicate situation, but also publicly disgraced yourself with personal comments unbefitting an official in your position.
Your handling of AI’s accusations against the Ukrainian military has been disgraceful and reprehensible. You have stabbed Ukraine in the back while it is fighting for its very survival against Russian invaders, and at the same time you have shot your own organization in the foot by delivering a serious blow to its reputation.
Madam Secretary General, I have every right to address you personally in such a manner and call on you to do the honorable thing and go.
I am not only the current Chief Editor of the Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s oldest English-language newspaper and its respected global voice. I am also a former activist and official of AI in the years when there was no doubt about what it stood for, how it operated, and the accountability of its Secretariat and leadership to its membership and national sections.
As a student, between 1971 and 1977, I was the co-founder of AI groups at the Universities of Leeds and Manitoba, and later the London School of Economics and Political Science.
From 1978 to 1982, I was AI’s Researcher on the USSR, heading its work within the Secretariat in London in defense of prisoners of conscience and human rights in the repressive Soviet domain.
I had the privilege of serving under AI’s legendary Secretary General Martin Ennals, and later his successor Thomas Hammarberg.
In those memorable days it was crystal clear what AI was about and what it’s three principal goals were: defense of prisoners of conscience worldwide; and opposition to both torture and the death penalty.
Today, I no longer know what AI’s mission is, other than it’s seeking to sustain itself and its well-paid staff among the plethora of human rights organizations that have sprung up in the last decades.
What is AI’s specialization and focus today, its niche and specific expertise that brings added value in comparison to others, apart from its reputation as a pioneer in the field and efficacy as a fundraiser?
I have observed the gradual blurring of AI’s classic focus as it has broadened its purview to encompass areas such as extrajudicial and political killings, forced disappearances, population displacement and refugees, armed conflicts and related atrocities, rights of indigenous populations, economic and social injustices stemming from globalization and domestic violence. In short, all possible areas where human right issues are present.
But excuse me, Madame Secretary General – is this what the founders of AI dreamt of? That their clearly defined and targeted initiative would be transformed by their successors into such ambitious pretensions to claiming a universal human rights protection role of the sort mandated to the United Nations (particularly the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), or on a regional level to the Council of Europe or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe? That AI would implicitly challenge the International Committee of the Red Cross or the International Criminal Court in assessing human rights abuses in war zones?
That “Amnesty International” would gradually reconstitute itself as the “Be all, and end all” in the human rights domain, and let’s face it, increasingly, become the lucrative “business” it is now?
Or is fundraising the priority now and therefore the importance of being seen to be active on the broadest possible front regardless of AI’s genuine competencies and history?
I don’t know how much you earn Madame Secretary General, but from the last up-to-date figures provided by AI, your predecessor’s salary in 2018 was £145,000 GBP, which was just short of what the UK Prime Minister was earning.
Not bad for an international NGO traditionally funded by private individuals contributing through the collection tins, which also makes it quite understandable why sensationalism is so important to sustain attention and keep the revenues flowing in.
Which brings me to AI’s headline-seeking “report” glibly titled “Ukraine: Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians” on its site. It raises many questions that need answering. Here are some of the most obvious ones.
Does AI have any specific competence in this sphere related to the situation in the war-affected areas in Ukraine? Who were the researchers sent to investigate the situation? Can they vouch for the reliability of the witnesses they spoke to?
Why was the Ukrainian national section of AI ignored in such a delicate operation? Did AI’s investigators cooperate with the UN mission on the ground, the OSCE’s and ICRC’s representatives. And what was the level of their interaction with the Ukrainian authorities who permitted them to undertake such an investigation – did they in fact inform them up front on what the terms of their mission actually was, and what they intended to do with the findings?
Indeed, what was the purpose behind the investigation which produced the report. Why the sensational loud launch it was given which essentially throws a juicy bone to the Russian aggressors? Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine had recently already alluded to the issue in question but far more tactfully and without aggravating their hosts – the Ukrainian authorities, the national AI section and Ukrainian society generally.
Madam Secretary General, I don’t question AI’s right to conduct its own investigations in spheres falling within its recognized competency. I do however challenge how you went about this particular mission, the way your findings were presented, and your contemptuous and dismissive response to critics ranging from your own Ukrainian national section to the top leadership of Ukraine.
In glibly accusing the Ukrainian army of “endangering civilians” because it allegedly “establishes bases and operates weapons systems in populated residential areas,” AI fails to emphasize the following: that the shifting front line in the war zone very often runs through cities, towns and villages, with the Russian invaders employing scorched earth tactics through indiscriminate shelling and missile attacks; and that the Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly urged the local population to evacuate the targeted and exposed areas.
Forcing civilians to leave their homes would no doubt be construed by AI to be a violation of their basic rights.
Regrettably, because of the grave war crimes being committed by Russian aggressors on Ukrainian territory, there is no quick fix solution as implied by AI to reduce the suffering of the civilian population other than to force Russia to stop its invasion, occupation, and destruction of Ukraine and its people.
Yet by issuing your report in the form you chose, AI effectively suggested a moral equivalence between the behavior of the Russian invaders and Ukraine’s defenders, in turn amplifying the very anti-Ukrainian narrative that Russia has been promoting since 2014 when it invaded eastern Ukraine.
No wonder that in Russia where AI has long been regarded as a hostile intruder, the report has received widespread coverage in the officially controlled media and depicted as a vindication of Russia’s fake news accusations against Ukraine.
Madam Secretary General – all this is very serious. You have bungled your mission to Ukraine and its report, alienating both your own exemplary national section of AI as well as the Ukrainian authorities. You also arrogantly dismissed criticism of your actions in an insensitive and offensive manner on your personal Twitter account.
Therefore, in order to protect the reputation of AI, the only honorable thing to do is to resign and allow a suitable successor to step in and restore the good name and sense of direction of a human rights organization that deserves better.
If you are not persuaded that this is what is needed, then let me also appeal to the International Board and national sections of AI to do the right thing and dismiss you.