Amnesty International, an international human rights organization headquartered in the United Kingdom, published a report yesterday titled “Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians.” The report is triggering accusations of victim-blaming from Ukrainians and their allies on social media.
“Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, as they repelled the Russian invasion that began in February,” the report states. Ukraine, it states, has violated international law by failing “to the extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.” For example, when choosing a place from which to launch an attack, if there is a house or a forest, this rule requires the military to choose the forest when it can. The Ukrainian armed forces, Amnesty alleges, chose the house.
“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” notes Amnesty International Secretary-General Agnès Callamard, quoted in the report, which also notes that Ukraine’s placement of troops near civilian population centers does not justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks.
The report was met by an angry backlash from those who objected to the idea that blame for attacks on civilians should fall on the targets of such attacks and not their perpetrators. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky responded: “Unfortunately trying to grant amnesty a terrorist state and shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim. There is and cannot—even hypothetically—be any condition under which a Russian strike against Ukraine becomes justified.”
Callamard dismissed the Ukrainian response tweeting, “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls: they are all at it today attacking @amnesty investigations. This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation. This won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts.”
Objections to the report, however, also emanated from within Amnesty. Oksana Pokalchuk, head of Amnesty International Ukraine, stated that the global branch silenced her team’s objections to the report and published it without their consent or input. In a Facebook post on Thursday, she wrote, “Every person from the Ukrainian Office of Amnesty knows that it is the Russian Federation that is responsible for the crimes of aggression against Ukraine,” noting that several members of her team had been forcibly displaced by the war, in some cases twice.
Amnesty International’s attempt at impartiality is commendable in the sense that it isn’t about to let any country off the hook for human rights abuses. But it is also misleading, not least because it establishes a false equivalency between Russian abuses and Ukrainian ones. In their documentation of human rights abuses, Amnesty reports frequently invoke “both sides.” Even in her tweet, Callamard claimed both Ukrainian and Russian trolls were afoot. Ukrainian minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba put it well in a video message yesterday in which he accused Amnesty of “creating a fake reality in which everyone is a little guilty of something.”
These “both sides” narratives give the mistaken impression that Russia and Ukraine are equally culpable for a war Russia started. In the past six months, Russia has indiscriminately shelled civilian areas, targeted attacks on hospitals and humanitarian corridors, forcibly detained and transferred thousands of Ukrainians to Russia via filtration camps, and apparently tortured and executed Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Ukraine’s record when it comes to upholding humanitarian law in wartime is hardly spotless, but Amnesty appears to be nitpicking. The report offers anecdotal evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas and basing themselves in civilian buildings in nineteen towns and villages in the regions. The report makes no mention of the Ukrainian government’s repeated attempts to evacuate civilians from Kherson, Zaporizhie, Mariupol, and Donbas. Ukraine’s record on protecting civilians, while perhaps not to the “fullest extent possible,” has been very full indeed.
Lillian Posner is the former assistant managing editor of the National Interest. She earned her master’s degree in Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.