Ukrainian president and British and US ambassadors criticise report that says soldiers should not be based in empty schools

Isobel Koshiw

August 5, 2022

The Guardian

A report by Amnesty International accusing the Ukrainian army of endangering civilians has drawn criticism from western diplomats, including the British and US ambassadors to Ukraine, as the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, attacked its findings.

The report accused the Ukrainian military of putting civilians at risk by positioning themselves in residential areas, saying that soldiers should not be basing themselves in empty schools or repurposing civilian buildings in urban areas as it meant the Russians would target them and civilians would be caught up in the crossfire.

But critics say the report was poorly researched and put together. They argue that the report ignores Ukraine’s wartime realities and draws moral equivalence between Russia, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the victim.

The report has been quoted extensively by Kremlin-directed Russian media as a way to evidence their false claims that Russian forces are only going after military targets in Ukraine.

Amnesty International stood by its assertion that Ukraine breached international humanitarian law and said its findings were based on evidence gathered during extensive investigations. While stressing that it condemns Russia’s invasion, it said it would report Ukrainian violations when it observed them.

“Our research into Russia’s violations of the laws of war is ongoing. However, we also believe it is crucial to respond impartially,” read a statement. “Ignoring violations committed by either side in any conflict would not be meaningful human rights reporting.”

The head of Amnesty’s Ukraine operations, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned her post on Friday evening, a day after claiming the organisation ignored her concerns about the report.

Criticism of the organisation’s conclusions was voiced almost immediately after publication by Ukraine’s deputy minister of defence, Hanna Maliar, academics and civil society actors. Maliar argued at a press briefing in Kyiv that Ukrainian anti-aircraft systems needed to be based in towns to protect civilian infrastructure and if Ukrainian forces were only based outside urban settlements, “Russian armed forces would simply sweep in unopposed”.

There was also criticism from within Amnesty. Pokalchuk said that the organisation had cut its Ukraine staff out of the publication process when they voiced concerns that the research, by their foreign colleagues, was incomplete and inadmissible.

The criticism grew with responses from Ukraine’s minister of defence, Oleksii Reznikov, who called the report a “perversion”, the foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and Zelenskiy himself.

During his nightly address, Zelenskiy accused Amnesty of “immoral selectivity” that helps a terrorist state by portraying the victim and aggressor as the same and ignoring what the aggressor is doing. Zelenskiy said that there cannot be – even hypothetically – any condition under which any Russian attack on Ukraine becomes justified.

Hundreds of Ukrainians also took to social media to post footage and stories of the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine over the last six months, pointing to the fact that it was Russia, not Ukraine, that was harming civilians in Ukraine.

In response, Amnesty International’s secretary general, Agnès Callamard, hit back, describing the criticism as an attack on Amnesty’s investigation by “social media mobs and trolls”.

“This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation. This won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts,” Callamard wrote on Twitter.

Amnesty International has not made a statement since publishing the report and did not immediately respond to request for further comment.

Kuleba responded by saying that Callamard labelling him a troll would not stop him from saying that “the report distorts reality, draws a false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the victim, and boosts Russia’s disinformation efforts”.

The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova held up the report as proof that Ukraine was using civilians as human shields.

The US and UK ambassadors to Ukraine made statements critical of Amnesty’s conclusions. The UK ambassador to Ukraine, Melinda Simmons, tweeted: “The only things endangering Ukrainian civilians are Russian missiles and guns and marauding Russian troops. Full stop. If Russia stopped invading Ukraine there would be no danger.”

The US ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, tweeted: “After 163 days of an unprovoked war the Kremlin started, it should be absolutely clear that Ukrainians are in danger due to Russia’s aggression, the brutality of its forces, and their relentless barrage on cities across the country.”

Steven Haines, a professor of public international law at London’s University of Greenwich, who drafted guidelines on the military’s use of schools and universities during conflicts – which 100 states, including Ukraine, have endorsed but which are not legally binding – said Ukraine’s actions had not necessarily broken them.

“The use of schools – if they are not also being used for their primary purpose – is not invariably unlawful. Very obviously, the situation in Ukraine counts as exceptional in this respect, so the Ukrainian military is not necessarily breaching the guidelines,” he said.

While Haines agreed that buildings should be chosen that are set as far apart from residential areas as possible, he said the nature of the invasion meant that city warfare was inevitable.

Meanwhile, Jack Watling, an expert from the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, said the Amnesty report had “no understanding” of military operations, and “indulges in insinuations without supplying supporting evidence”. The Amnesty report concluded that the Ukrainian forces had other viable options they could have chosen for bases which were further away from residential areas, but did not include examples.

“It is not a violation of IHL for Ukrainian military personnel to situate themselves in the terrain they are tasked to defend rather than in some random piece of adjacent woodland where they can be bypassed,” Watling wrote on Twitter.

Watling said Ukraine had regularly encouraged civilians to leave conflict zones and that while repurposing civilian buildings was not a crime, forcible displacement was.