An Amnesty International report accusing the Ukrainian military 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 his findings.
The report accused the Ukrainian military of endangering civilians by positioning themselves in residential areas, and said soldiers should not base themselves in empty schools or repurpose civilian buildings in urban areas because it meant the Russians would attack them. and civilians would be caught up in the crossfire.
But critics say the report was poorly researched and compiled. They argue that the report ignores Ukraine’s war realities and draws moral equivalence between Russia, the aggressor, and Ukraine, the victim.
The report has been widely cited by Kremlin-led Russian media as a way of proving their false claims that Russian forces are only pursuing military targets in Ukraine.
Criticism of the organization’s conclusions was leveled almost immediately after publication by Ukrainian deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar, academics and civil society actors. Maliar argued at a press conference in Kiev that Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense systems should be deployed in cities to protect civilian infrastructure and that if Ukrainian troops were stationed only outside urban settlements, “Russian forces would simply invade unopposed.”
There was also criticism within Amnesty. The head of Amnesty’s office in Ukraine, Oksana Pokalchuksaid the organization had removed them from the publication process when they expressed concerns that the investigation, by their foreign colleagues, was incomplete and inadmissible.
Criticisms later expanded to include those from Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, who called the report a “perversion,” and foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, and then Zelenskiy himself.
During his late-night speech, Zelenskiy accused Amnesty of “immoral selectivity” that aids a terrorist state by portraying the victim and the aggressor as the same and ignoring what the aggressor is doing. Zelenskiy said there can be no conditions – even hypothetically – under which a Russian attack on Ukraine is justified.
Hundreds of Ukrainians also took to social media to post images and stories about the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Ukraine over the past six months, pointing out that it was Russia, not Ukraine, that harmed civilians in Ukraine.
In response, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnès Callamard hit back, describing the criticism as an attack on Amnesty’s investigation by “mobs and trolls on social media”.
“This is called war propaganda, disinformation, disinformation. This will not affect our impartiality or change the facts,” Callamard wrote on Twitter.
Amnesty International has not made a statement since the report’s publication and has not immediately responded to the request for further comment.
Kuleba responded by saying that Callamard would label him as a troll, not stop him from saying that “the report distorts reality, draws a false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the victim, and the misinformation efforts of Russia encourages”.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova held up the report as evidence that Ukraine was using civilians as human shields.
The US and British ambassadors to Ukraine have made critical statements about Amnesty’s conclusions. British Ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons tweeted: “The only thing that endangers Ukrainian civilians are Russian missiles and guns and looting Russian troops. Point. If Russia stopped invading #Ukraine, there would be no danger.”
US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink tweeted: “After 163 days of unprovoked war started by the Kremlin, it should be absolutely clear that Ukrainians are in danger because of Russian aggression, the brutality of its troops and their relentless barrage in cities across the country.”
Steven Haines, a professor of public international law at London’s University of Greenwich who drew up guidelines on the military’s use of schools and colleges during conflict — which 100 states, including Ukraine, have endorsed but which are not legally binding — said the actions of Ukraine not necessarily they broken.
“The use of schools – if they are not also used for their primary purpose – is not always illegal. It is clear that the situation in Ukraine is exceptional in this regard… so the Ukrainian military is not necessarily violating the guidelines,” he said.
While Haines agreed that buildings should be chosen as far from residential areas as possible, he said the nature of the invasion meant urban wars were inevitable.
Meanwhile, Jack Watling, an expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London, said the Amnesty report had “no understanding” of military operations and “indulged in innuendo without providing corroborating evidence”. The Amnesty report concluded that the Ukrainian armed forces had other viable options they could have chosen for bases further away from residential areas, but did not include any examples.
“It is not a violation of IHL for Ukrainian military personnel to be located in the terrain they must defend, rather than in any adjacent forest where they can be circumvented,” 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, forced displacement was.