Amnesty International (AI) said on Sunday that it “deeply regrets the distress and anger” caused by a press release last Thursday in which the group accused Ukrainian forces of deliberately endangering civilians by exposing them to Russian attacks.
“Amnesty International has been rigorously documenting and reporting on war crimes and violations committed in Ukraine, speaking to hundreds of victims and survivors whose stories illuminate the brutal reality of Russia’s war of aggression. We have challenged the world to demonstrate its solidarity with Ukrainians through concrete action, and we will continue to do so,” AI said on Sunday.
The group said that its press release on August 4, headlined “Ukrainian Fighting Tactics Endanger Civilians,” was unduly harsh on the Ukrainian military. It argued:
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, Amnesty International said today.
Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets. The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.
“We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas,” said Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary General. “Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
Radio Free Europe (RFE) reported that Oksana Pokalchuk, head of AI’s Ukraine office, resigned in protest because AI was “parroting Kremlin propaganda,” while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused AI of trying to “shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
“In an effort to protect civilians, this study became a tool of Russian propaganda,” Pokalchuk charged in a Friday Facebook post written after her resignation. “Even yesterday, I had a naïve hope that I would be able to fix everything. That we would hold even 200 meetings but explain, reach out and convey our opinion. And that text would be deleted, and another one would appear in its place. Today I have realized this will not happen.”
In its apologetic statement on Sunday, AI insisted it stood fully by the earlier report. The group appeared sensitive primarily to accusations that it was helping the Russian war effort by absolving the invaders of responsibility for firing on civilians:
In our press release, we documented how in all 19 of the towns and villages we visited, we found instances where Ukrainian forces had located themselves right next to where civilians were living, thereby potentially putting them at risk from incoming Russian fire. We made this assessment based on the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL), which require all parties to a conflict to avoid locating, to the maximum extent feasible, military objectives within or near densely populated areas. The laws of war exist in part to protect civilians, and it is for this reason that Amnesty International urges governments to comply with them.
This does not mean that Amnesty International holds Ukrainian forces responsible for violations committed by Russian forces, nor that the Ukrainian military is not taking adequate precautions elsewhere in the country.
We must be very clear: Nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations. Russia alone is responsible for the violations it has committed against Ukrainian civilians. Amnesty’s work over the last six months and our multiple briefings and reports on Russia’s violations and war crimes reflect their scale and the gravity of their impact on civilians.
U.N. war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco accused AI of getting the laws of war wrong. “While nothing has stopped Russia from hitting civilian areas, now they have an excuse. A respected human rights org. said the targets are there. I fear they will expand their targeting of civilian areas at worst. At best they can claim a defense,” Garlasco said.