Between April and July, researchers from Amnesty’s IS spent several weeks investigating Russian strikes in the Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolaiv regions. They inspected strike sites, interviewed survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims and carried out weapons analysis. The subsequent press release, which can be read here https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/08/ukraine-ukrainian-fighting-tactics-endanger-civilians, has proved highly controversial. The researchers stated that there was evidence of Ukrainian forces basing themselves in civilian buildings such as hospitals or schools in a number of towns and villages, and launching strikes from within populated residential areas, thereby putting civilians at risk.
International humanitarian law requires all parties to a conflict to avoid locating, to the extent possible, military objectives within or near densely populated areas. They are expected to protect civilians and warn them of any likely attacks. Using hospitals for military purposes is a clear violation of international humanitarian law, but the law does not specifically ban military forces from basing themselves in unused schools. The IS press release argues that by failing to take all feasible precautions to warn civilians or help them evacuate, the Ukrainian forces exposed residents to retaliatory fire from the Russian military.
The press release clearly states that many of the Russian strikes documented were carried out with inherently indiscriminate weapons, including internationally banned cluster bombs (and Amnesty International had previously published a series of reports on Russian war crimes). However, the ‘big’ news story has been that Amnesty is critical of the Ukrainian military – so this more nuanced element has largely been ignored. The IS findings have been widely disputed. For example, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (a non-profit defence and security think tank) wrote that the press release demonstrated a ‘weak understanding of the laws of armed conflict’ and added that it was not a breach of international humanitarian law for military personnel to situate themselves in the area they are tasked to defend and that the Ukrainian military had regularly urged civilians to leave the area and helped them do so. Inevitably, the press release was used by Russia as propaganda to support their allegations of aggression by Ukraine.
The Ukrainian representative of Amnesty International, Oksana Pokalchuk, accused the IS of publishing ‘inadmissible and incomplete’ evidence. She said her colleagues had been shut out of the investigation and were not involved in the preparation or writing of the text. Furthermore, they had done everything they could to prevent the material being published. She has since resigned. President Zelensky stated that the report sought to pardon Russian war crimes in Ukraine and ‘attempts to amnesty a terrorist state’ by shifting ‘responsibility from the aggressor to its victim’. AI’s Secretary General has apologised for any distress caused but stood by the findings. She said ‘this is called war propaganda, disinformation and misinformation. This won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts.’
The AI International Board has decided to conduct a review of the events, processes and actions in the preparation of this press release, a decision fully supported by Amnesty International UK (AIUK). We will report on this in due course.