Reviews | Why I left Amnesty International in Ukraine

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Oksana Pokalchuk is a Ukrainian lawyer and human rights activist. She was Executive Director of Amnesty International’s Ukraine office from 2016 to 5 August.

On August 4, Amnesty International published a report accusing the Ukrainian army of violating the laws of war by placing military bases near civilian infrastructure. The report sparked a wave of public outrage around the world and across Ukraine. For me, the report’s deepest flaw was the way it contradicted its main purpose: far from protecting civilians, it puts them more at risk by giving Russia a justification to continue its indiscriminate attacks. That’s why I resigned from Amnesty International’s Ukrainian office. Many of my colleagues followed.

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

Much of Amnesty’s recent 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, and more. What they often lack is 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 could not be more condescending and unfair, as we are all committed to working together out of a commitment to shared values.

The fact that we were not duly consulted and associated with the drafting of this report demonstrates a total disregard for the principle of international solidarity proclaimed in Amnesty’s statute and the objective of amplifying local voices.

The last report had many glaring problems.

First of all, international humanitarian law does not impose a general ban on establishing military bases near civilian infrastructure. Instead, the military should, whenever possible, avoid placing 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 only from a legal point of view, 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 villages in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian 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 obvious that by withdrawing from populated areas, the Ukrainian military would have achieved the maximum possible protection of civilians.

Moreover, the situations identified in Amnesty’s statement would require a response from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry. This “right of reply” is fundamental to human rights work, regardless of government.

The Ukrainian government, for its part, has a strong record of responding to Amnesty requests. This would have made it possible to better understand whether the Ukrainian armed forces have acted in such a way as to ensure the maximum protection of civilians or, on the contrary, endanger them, as Amnesty suggests.

We cannot exclude that it was necessary to place Ukrainian forces in residential areas. Only when the department presents its reasoning can anyone claim to have unconscionably endangered civilians (which can then be further assessed and, if necessary, criticized). Similarly, while Amnesty researchers were “not aware” whether the Ukrainian military had asked or helped civilians to leave, the ministry could have presented them with evidence that they had.

But this time, Amnesty had no intention of even asking for an official response; they only did so after the insistence of the Ukrainian office and they only gave the Ukrainian ministry three working days to respond, which is by no means a reasonable time.

Furthermore, if the Ukrainian armed forces were indeed found to have violated international law, a potential way to implement the recommendations would have been to continue advocacy with the ministry. Ukraine has been keen to demonstrate that it meets its legal obligations, partly because it depends on Western arms supplies and partly because it wants to integrate closely into the European Union. This was a unique opportunity to bring the Ukrainian Armed Forces into compliance with their obligations. But again, pushing for real action didn’t seem to be the point in this case.

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

Amnesty’s report has long-lasting damage to the group’s reputation in Ukraine and around the world. But the management blunder does not reflect the important work of the local offices, which risk losing their support. My aim is to draw attention to the vital work done by local staff members and to urge leaders to respect them and include them in all decisions as well.

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



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