Claims Ukraine violated international law were always phony and Amnesty International tried to suppress criticism of its research
By Adam Zivo
May 07, 2023
When Amnesty International published a report last August accusing Ukraine of violating international law and endangering Ukrainian civilians, many condemned the document for being misleading and inaccurate. A new independent review, which was commissioned by Amnesty International and leaked to the New York Times after being hidden for months, shows that these critics were absolutely right.
The original August report argued that the Ukrainian military had broken international humanitarian law by sometimes basing itself in civilian buildings and populated neighbourhoods. The report specifically referenced Ukrainian forces stationing themselves in hospitals and disused schools, which it argued was a serious issue.
The language used in the report, particularly in its opening paragraphs, implied that Ukrainian forces were primarily or equally to blame for civilian deaths caused by Russian attacks. Unsurprisingly, Russia’s propaganda outlets seized upon the report and accused Ukraine of using “human shields.”
International humanitarian law experts were perplexed by Amnesty International’s legal analysis.
While stationing troops among civilians often violates the law, context matters. For example, it is permissible for a military to operate in civilian areas if those areas are under attack by an opposing army, as was the norm in Ukraine’s case. Sarah Teich, a Canadian international human rights lawyer, wrote in a National Post opinion article that these factors “would render Ukrainian actions as valid under any fair interpretation of IHL.”
All of this is common sense — you cannot defend a city from besiegement without stationing troops there. Even so, Amnesty International recommended that Ukraine abandon its cities and relocate to alternative locations, such as “densely wooded areas,” and pray that Russia inexplicably refrain from invading undefended urban areas.
The backlash against Amnesty International was severe. The organization’s Canadian office, for example, distanced itself from the August report and criticized it for having “insufficient context and legal analysis.”
In response, Amnesty International apologized and committed to an independent review of the matter. The review was conducted by a panel of five legal experts, which submitted an 18-page report in early February.
The panel’s report, which was leaked to the New York Times last week, concluded what everyone already knew — Amnesty International’s allegations of Ukrainian war crimes were unsubstantiated.
Not only that, but, according to the New York Times’ sources, the panel had initially used harsher language to condemn the August report, but was successfully pressured by Amnesty International to soften its criticisms. Amnesty’s board then allegedly sat on the report for three months and did not circulate it beyond citing it, as one of several sources, for an internal “lessons learned” document.
The panel argued that, while Amnesty International’s factual claims about how Ukraine had stationed its troops were mostly accurate (i.e. that troops were sometimes present in hospitals or civilian areas), the organization’s subsequent legal analysis was deeply flawed and did not show that international humanitarian law had been violated.
International law stipulates that if there are two equally good locations for the military to station itself, combatants should opt to use the one farther away from civilians, so as to minimize collateral damage. If there is no viable alternative, the military should try to evacuate civilians to a safer place, if feasible.
In other words, to establish a violation of international law, it is not enough to simply show that troops were in civilian areas — you need to also prove that these troops neglected to use viable alternative places or make feasible efforts to evacuate civilians.
According to the panel, Amnesty International failed to do this vital work, seemingly because it “failed to meaningfully engage with Ukrainian authorities” and made little, if any, effort to understand or fairly assess the rationales behind Ukrainian military practices. This deprived the organization of information “that would have provided a stronger basis for its findings.”
“The only evidence that Ukrainian forces could have located in other, equally beneficial places more removed from civilians is the opinion of the researchers themselves. Amnesty did not have information from the Ukrainian military concerning why its forces located in the positions that they did. Nor did (the report) itself consider any potential justifications for the positioning of Ukrainian forces,” concluded the panellists.
This oversight becomes even more concerning when one considers the testimony of New Zealand journalist Tom Mutch, who, last August, wrote a scathing article about his interactions with Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis researcher, in eastern Ukraine. The article was not directly mentioned in the independent review.
According to Mutch, when he met Rovera in May, she seemed uninterested in Russian war crimes and was fixated on finding fault with the Ukrainians. According to Mutch, Rovera insisted that having troops in populated areas was a violation of international law, and, critically, said that it was “irrelevant” if this made it impossible for Ukrainians to defend populated areas (even though this is very much relevant).
Based on Mutch’s account, Rovera either did not understand international humanitarian law, or had a deep bias against Ukraine that clouded her objectivity. Mutch alleges that he told Rovera that civilian evacuations were happening in certain areas, only for Amnesty International to later falsely claim that no such evacuations occurred.
In its 2022 annual report, Amnesty International accused the west of double-standards when it comes to Ukraine — but perhaps the organization should look in the mirror. Inventing international humanitarian law violations out of thin air is not a good look, and neither is meddling with, and suppressing, an independent review criticising your practices.