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Opinion What Amnesty got wrong in Ukraine and why I had to resign

A priest prays for unidentified civilians killed by Russian troops near Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 11. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Oksana Pokalchuk is a Ukrainian lawyer and human rights activist. She was the executive director of the Ukrainian office of Amnesty International from 2016 to Aug. 5.

On Aug. 4, Amnesty International issued a report that accused the Ukrainian army of violating the laws of war by placing military bases close to civilian infrastructure. The report triggered a wave of public outrage worldwide and across Ukraine. For me, the report’s deepest flaw was how it contradicted its main objective: Far from protecting civilians, it further endangered them by giving Russia a justification to continue its indiscriminate attacks. That’s why I resigned as head of Amnesty International’s Ukrainian office. Many of my colleagues followed.

As a human rights defender, I am driven by a core set of values. Before this crisis, I had always felt proud of Amnesty’s work and guiding statute. However, I believe the organization’s current approach is at odds with its mission. Having worked for the organization for seven years, I would have never imagined that a single report could jeopardize 30 years of achievements in human rights protection in Ukraine. Yet this is exactly what happened.

Most of the recent Amnesty research on Ukraine has been produced by a special “Crisis Team” that works on armed conflicts around the world. These researchers have exceptional training and experience in human rights, laws of war, weapons analysis, etc. What they often lack is a knowledge of local languages and context.

Of course, no one can be expected to understand the local context and languages of every conflict. But instead of trusting and relying on local staff, some international organizations like Amnesty fail to be inclusive and centralize decision-making, which was the case with this report. The attitude couldn’t be more condescending and unfair, because we all signed up to work together out of commitment to shared values.

The fact that we were not properly consulted and included in the drafting of this report shows a total disregard to the principle of international solidarity proclaimed in Amnesty’s statute and the aim of amplifying local voices.

The latest report had many glaring problems.

First of all, International Humanitarian Law does not impose a blanket prohibition on establishing military bases in proximity to civilian infrastructure. Instead, the military should, to the maximum extent possible, avoid locating military objectives near populated areas and should seek to protect civilians from the dangers resulting from military operations. This warrants an assessment of each situation on a case-by-case basis, not just from a legal perspective, but also in terms of the military realities on the ground.

The reality of the war in Ukraine is that Russian forces are seeking to occupy towns and cities in Ukraine, and Ukraine’s armed forces are trying to prevent that. Given the widely publicized accounts of Russian atrocities against civilians in Bucha and Irpin, it is not immediately evident that by withdrawing from populated areas, the Ukrainian military would have achieved the maximum possible protection of civilians.

Moreover, situations that Amnesty statement identified would require a response from the Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. This “right of response” is fundamental for human rights work, no matter the government.

The Ukrainian government, for its part, has a solid record of answering to Amnesty’s requests. This would have allowed a better understanding of whether Ukraine’s armed forces acted in a way that ensured the protection of civilians to the maximum possible extent or, instead, are putting them in danger, as Amnesty suggests.

We cannot rule out that there was some necessity in placing Ukrainian forces in residential areas. It is only when the ministry presents its reasoning that anyone can claim that they have impermissibly endangered civilians (which can then be further assessed and, if necessary, criticized). Similarly, while Amnesty researchers were “not aware” if the Ukrainian military asked or assisted civilians to leave, the ministry could have presented them evidence that they did.

But this time, Amnesty did not even intend to request an official response; they did so only after insistence from the Ukrainian office, and they gave the Ukrainian ministry only three working days to respond — which is in no way a reasonable time frame.

Furthermore, if Ukraine’s armed forces were indeed found to be in breach of international law, a potential way of implementing the recommendations would have been further advocacy with the ministry. Ukraine has been keen to demonstrate compliance with its legal obligations, partly because of reliance on Western weapon deliveries, and partly due to a desire to integrate closely with the European Union. This presented a unique opportunity to get Ukraine’s armed forces to comply with their obligations. But again, pushing for actual actions did not seem to be the goal in this case.

As a result, the publication put Ukrainian civilians at a potentially greater risk. Russia repeatedly justifies attacks against civilian infrastructure by falsely claiming that civilian targets were military objectives. After the Russian bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol in March, Russian propaganda attempted to justify the attack by saying the hospital was controlled by the Ukrainian military.

The Amnesty report is causing long-lasting damage to the group’s reputation in Ukraine and around the world. But the blunder of the leadership does not reflect the important work of local offices, which are in danger of losing of support. My goal is to call attention to the vital work that local staffers perform and urge leaders to respect and include them in all decisions equally.

The focus must be on values, evidence and action. Only then will we be able to truly restore faith in our ability to help those we are meant to serve.