Amnesty International report on Ukraine: Chalice of dangerous rot
Flaws and false equivalence explained
ANALYTICS 08 August 2022 - 09:22
It is not just that Amnesty International’s latest bulletin, published on 4 August, wherein Ukraine was accused of employing illegal warfare practices, namely establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, thereby endangering civilian lives, is riddled with flaws and inaccurate evaluations; it also invokes the self-same mistake committed in the organisation’s assessments connected with the military confrontation in Karabakh, which is the equation of the victim with the offender, in other words, ‘false equivalence’.
What does the report say?
That any report by Amnesty International has to be taken with a pinch of salt is something of which those long familiar with its modus operandi are aware. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the document that has induced fierce uproar in Ukraine and beyond is examined in its full entirety, so as to be appreciated in a proper light.
The report in question is based on a field investigation, carried out in the Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolaiv regions from April to July, and its investigative methodology is allegedly comprised of the inspection of strike sites, interviews with survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims of attacks, examination via remote-sensing and weapons analysis, and further use of satellite imagery.
Its main finding is that, by basing themselves in civilian buildings, namely hospitals and schools in 19 towns and villages, and launching strikes from residential areas, the Ukrainian forces employed illegal warfare tactics by endangering the lives of civilians.
The moral and legal self-justification of the report by Amnesty, as could be ascertained from the statements of Agnès Callamard, Secretary General, and Donatella Rovera, the author of the bulletin, seems to hinge on two tenets.
Firstly, while doing something which is perfectly legal, namely self-defending itself against aggression, Ukraine was obligated to honour its obligations under humanitarian law. That is, being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international law, according to the verbatim statement of Mrs Callamard.
Secondly, Amnesty claims it is bound by the duty to be fair and impartial, referring to its more voluminous criticisms of Russian war practices as a justification. Mrs Rovera, in her interview with German Deutsche Welle, stated that the self-same team that conducted field investigations and produced reports disparaging the Kremlin’s military tactics has worked on the Ukraine report.
What does the law say?
The Amnesty International report is purported to be a judicious examination of the circumstances on the ground, on a par with a post-war tribunal. Although the organisation by no means claims to be a court of law issuing a definitive verdict, its report makes points of a legal nature, accusing Ukraine of neglecting its obligations under international humanitarian law due to the employment of forbidden warfare tactics.
Rule 23 of Customary International Humanitarian Law refers to the norm which mandates that each party to the conflict must, to the greatest extent feasible, avoid locating military objectives within or near densely populated areas.
The relevant practice of international law distinguishes two separate circumstances, namely the use of civilian objects for placing troops or weapons therein for launching attacks and distancing military objects from residential areas.
The first is permissible if doing so constitutes a last resort. Removing military objects from those areas populated with civilians is to be done “to the maximum extent feasible”. Although no particular reservation is made to this norm, its own prima facie substance entails certain extenuating circumstances that may apply to the case at hand.
Amnesty International claims that, in accordance with its findings, the Ukrainian forces, despite having ‘viable alternatives' such as ‘military bases’ and ‘densely wooded areas nearby’, located themselves in spots that endangered the lives of civilians, having failed to conduct the necessary evacuations and issue warnings.
This claim is riddled with factual errors, incomplete evidence and a failure to appreciate the exigencies brought about, combined with a dire situation on the ground, according to the mores of self-defence.
Firstly, as it could be ascertained from open sources accessible by Amnesty itself, civilian buildings – hospitals and schools – had been evacuated prior to their use by the military. Secondly, a huge evacuation was reportedly undertaken as permitted by the circumstances on the ground.
Thirdly, in the light of existential self-defence measures being put into practice, facing an intruding enemy with considerably superior capabilities in an open field was a recipe for suicide, as could be ascertained by many military experts.
The question that begs to be answered is “how you are going to defend a city without being within it”. Amnesty's report does not bear in mind the supreme necessities of warfare and a given military objective, by ascribing a disproportionately excessive and impracticable responsibility to the defending side in light of its obligations to provide the security of civilians, in a way that was utterly unfeasible under the circumstances.
Fourthly, any evacuation measure is to take into account the safety of evacuated persons, and the Ukrainian side claims that many independent observers have issued the view that removing civilians under such dire conditions would have subjected them to an enemy assault.
Fifthly, the report does not take into account the perspective of the victim, the defending side, thereby not taking into account all the relevant factors; in other words, there is an issue of incomplete evidence being used as a basis for the text.
It is very clear that the preparation of the document neither involved the Ukrainian branch of the charity, the head of which, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned from her post after realising that the report’s removal from the website or significant alterations were impossible, nor did it take into account the official view of Kyiv, by giving them six days for a reply, rendering their involvement impossible due to time constraints and the not insignificant fact that they are fighting Russia.
The net effect of the bulletin’s impact, perhaps unwittingly, serves the Russian narrative, which has been acknowledged by Mrs Pokalchuk. Maria Zakharova, Spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry, snatching at a chance, in her Telegram account, referred to the report as further evidence of Moscow's claims on the illicit practices employed by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, posting the screenshot from the Amnesty website, with the quote ‘such violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks’ carefully airbrushed for convenience.
Neil Watson, a British journalist who has been closely monitoring Amnesty reports for more than a decade, believes that, under the pretext of being fair, indiscriminate and morally absolved, the fact that this organisation does not justly equate the victim and the aggressor seems to fit well into the Kremlin-orchestrated gargantuan propaganda.
“I cannot ever rule out the possibility of the involvement of ‘Russian interlopers’ doing a carefully disguised job of peddling distortions”.
Parallels with Karabakh
Amnesty's latest report on Ukraine bears striking similarities to its evaluations of the Second Karabakh War and subsequent developments in the region.
As is the case with the Ukrainian report, in the Azerbaijani-Armenian case, it fails to distinguish between the party that is conducting self-defence under international law in its own sovereign territory and the party that, in violation of the self-same norms, is operating in the internationally recognised territories of another nation. The same 'false equivalence' has defined its assessments related to the military confrontation between Baku and Yerevan, without a 'victim-aggressor' distinction.
On a more specific level, Amnesty’s Karabakh reports during the war and afterwards repeatedly accused Azerbaijan of ‘targeting civilian objects’ in Khankendi, without pointing to the fact that the Armenian side was using churches, hospitals and schools for launching attacks on the opposite side, thereby endangering the lives of civilians nearby.
The irony here is that, in the case of Ukraine, which was engaged in self-defence in the face of adversity, the defending side is required to ensure it is in conformity with its international humanitarian law objectives, whereas in Karabakh reports, the occupying force was never blamed for not taking necessary evacuations, which were both feasible and practicable; instead Amnesty went on incriminating Baku for targeting civilian objects, which by virtue of being used for military purposes had lost their protected status.
At no point did Amnesty point a finger at the use of a civilian population as a human shield by the Armenians which constitutes a distinct form of an international war crime. Evaluations on the failure of conducting safe evacuation of non-combatants from the affected areas have also been absent in the organisation’s press releases regarding Karabakh.
In a similar fashion, as the Ukrainian report is self-justified by reference to an extensive body of investigation, establishing Russian wrongdoings during the war, its reports on Karabakh have claimed to be equally distanced from both conflicting sides, without taking into account that one party was conducting lawful restoration of its territorial integrity, whereas the other was in breach of international law.
Amnesty, for all its globally recognised brand carefully cultivated over past decades, is not a group of impartial lawyers engaged in judicious examinations of a wide range of cases entailing human rights elements. It is more of an organisation, with its own myopic horizon in terms of focal points, regularly conducting investigations centred on humanitarian aspects in a given situation without the appreciation of a larger spectrum of factors.
And, despite constant references to international law, they are not a judicial body and their evaluations are not verdicts of a court of law.
False equivalence and flaws in appreciation of the facts on the ground and exigencies engendered by the situation run through Amnesty's latest report on Ukraine, and its numerous assessments on the Second Karabakh War and subsequent developments.
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