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Opinion What’s up with Amnesty International and its moral myopia on Ukraine?

Amnesty International's secretary general, Agnès Callamard, poses in Paris in April 2021. (Christophe Ena/AP)

In February, Amnesty International, one of the world’s premier human rights organizations, removed the status of “prisoner of conscience” from Alexei Navalny, arguably the world’s most famous political prisoner. Amnesty apparently acted in response to a coordinated pressure campaign by pro-Russian trolls pointing out that Navalny, a fearless critic of Vladimir Putin, had once echoed some Russian nationalist views. In May, the organization backtracked, redesignating Navalny a “prisoner of conscience” and apologizing for taking the label away.

Yet Amnesty International seems to have learned nothing from what should have been a chastening experience. It is still exhibiting a bewildering and unconscionable bias against Putin’s enemies. On Thursday, the organization issued a morally myopic statement accusing Ukrainian forces of “violating the laws of war” by “establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”

The Russians, who have launched an unprovoked war of aggression, were predictably delighted — and the Ukrainians, who are fighting to save their country from a merciless and bloodthirsty foe, just as predictably dismayed.

The head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, Oksana Pokalchuk, quit in disgust, writing on Facebook that the organization had not given the Ukrainian Defense Ministry enough time to respond to the accusations. “The organization created material that sounded like support of Russian narratives,” Pokalchuk said. “Seeking to protect civilians, this study instead has become a tool of Russian propaganda.”

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Sure enough, the Russian mission in Geneva tweeted that “when a civilian [house] is used for military purposes, it turns into a legitimate target for a precision strike. Ukraine continues to do it but now even @amnesty can’t handle it.” The Russian Embassy in London, which recently called for the execution of Ukrainian POWs, chimed in to say that Amnesty’s report is “exactly what Russia has been saying all along.”

I hope Amnesty’s employees, executives and board members at least have enough moral sense left to feel embarrassed that their research is being used to justify war crimes. Amnesty itself has chronicled Russia’s barbarous actions, noting that by “using indiscriminate weapons such as cluster munitions in populated areas, including in cities such as Kharkiv and Chernihiv, Russian forces have killed civilians and demolished residential structures, including apartment blocks.”

And yet now Amnesty is suggesting that Ukraine somehow brought these monstrous cruelties on itself by positioning troops in its cities. What was Ukraine supposed to do? Not defend its cities and allow Russia to occupy them without a fight? That would simply expose Ukrainians to the horrors of Russian occupation, which has resulted in credible accusations of murder, rape, looting, mass deportation and other heinous crimes.

It’s true that part of the reason Ukrainian forces fight in urban areas is that these areas offer strong defensive positions. But Ukraine is hardly compelled by international law to surrender its cities. Marc Garlasco, a veteran war-crimes investigator, tweeted that Amnesty has gotten the laws of war wrong: “Ukraine can place forces in areas they are defending — especially in urban warfare. There is no requirement to stand shoulder to shoulder in a field — this isn’t the 19th century.”

Ukraine does have a responsibility to safeguard civilians from combat as best it can, and it is doing so. Ukrainian authorities urge, and even order, civilians to evacuate areas under Russian attack and help them to do so despite the constant threat of bombardment. (In April, a Russian missile struck a train station full of refugees in eastern Ukraine, killing at least 50 people.)

There is no record of the Ukrainians deliberately attacking civilians in Russian-occupied cities such as Kherson, as the Russians routinely do in Ukrainian territory. Nor have the Ukrainians used civilians as human shields to deter attacks, as groups such as Hamas and the Islamic State so often do. Indeed, such tactics would prove entirely ineffective against Russian generals, who show no concern for the lives of their own soldiers, much less for Ukrainian civilians. Amnesty International is blaming the victims by suggesting that Russian attacks on urban areas are somehow justified by the presence of Ukrainian defenders.

On Sunday, following an uproar, Amnesty issued a statement saying that it “deeply regrets the distress and anger” that it caused, but that “we fully stand by our findings.” Agnès Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary general, only made it worse with a self-pitying tweet blaming “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls” for “attacking @amnesty investigations” and spreading “war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation.” So now Amnesty is accusing not just Russia but also Ukraine of spreading “disinformation”?

This is more evidence that the faulty logic of moral equivalency has taken deep root at Amnesty International. It is a shame that Amnesty is harming its own credibility, because it undoubtedly does a great deal of good in calling out human rights abuses around the world. But until Amnesty recants its offensive accusations against Ukraine — as it previously recanted its risible refusal to list Navalny as a prisoner of conscience — it does not deserve to be taken seriously. It certainly does not deserve more of the individual donations that it uses to support its faulty findings.

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