On August 4th, Amnesty International released a report claiming that Ukraine had broken international humanitarian law.
Between April and July, Amnesty researchers had been investigating charges against Russian strikes in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Mykolaiv regions when they discovered that Ukrainian forces had set up military bases in residential areas, including schools and hospitals. According to the report, such tactics violate international humanitarian law and turn civilian objects into military targets.
“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 Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard, adding that “being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.”
Other war experts and scholars have challenged Amnesty’s conclusions. Jack Watling, an expert on land warfare at the prestigious Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), declared that Ukraine’s military defense protocols were within the law, drawing attention to international humanitarian law itself: “The Ukrainian military has regularly urged civilians to leave areas of fighting and facilitated them doing so. Forcing displacement is itself a violation of IHL and throughout history many civilians have chosen to remain in areas where there are ongoing military operations.” He explained that “it is not a violation of IHL for Ukrainian military personnel to situate themselves in the terrain they are tasked to defend rather than in some random piece of adjacent woodland where they can be bypassed.”
On the surface, data seems to substantiate the Amnesty report. Researchers found evidence in 19 towns and villages—in the assaulted regions—that civilian buildings were used as military bases. These buildings were in residential areas located several kilometers away from the front lines, which, according to the report, offered a safer alternative to the populated areas. More egregiously, Amnesty reported finding little evidence of the Ukrainian military asking or assisting civilians to evacuate nearby buildings–a claim disputed by the Ukrainians.
A central accusation of the report decries the use of hospitals and schools as de facto military bases, stating that “using hospitals for military purposes is a clear violation of international humanitarian law,” and is critical of the use of schools as military bases. Out of the 29 schools visited, 22 of them were used by soldiers. While schools have been temporarily closed to students since the invasion on February 24th, the buildings are mostly located close to populated civilian neighborhoods.
According to the report, in many instances attacks on military stationed in schools led to civilian casualties in nearby residential areas, a maneuver already widespread in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in 2016 and reported on by Human Rights Watch. There were also documented instances of military vehicles parked in the courtyards of residential buildings that subsequently were attacked.
International humanitarian law does not specifically ban parties to a conflict from basing themselves in schools that are not in session. However, militaries have an obligation to avoid using schools that are near houses or apartment buildings full of civilians, putting these lives at risk, unless there is a compelling military need. If they do so, they should warn civilians and, if necessary, help them evacuate. This did not appear to have happened in the cases examined by Amnesty International.
The report cites Ukraine’s endorsement of the “Safe Schools Declaration,” an agreement among UN member states which allows parties to “make use of abandoned or evacuated schools only where there is no viable alternative.”
Russia, meanwhile, stands accused of using “inherently indiscriminate weapons, including internationally banned cluster munitions.” Such indiscriminate attacks leading to the loss of civilian lives are considered war crimes. However, Secretary General of Amnesty International Agnès Callamard said Russia’s disregard for international law does not justify Ukraine’s failure to protect civilian lives. She called upon the Ukrainian government to “immediately ensure that it locates its forces away from populated areas,” stressing that “militaries should never use hospitals to engage in warfare, and should only use schools or civilian homes as a last resort when there are no viable alternatives.”
The report was met with frustration and anger by Ukrainian officials. Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office vehemently disagreed with the report. She, along with her entire department, was “cut out of the pre-publication process,” after complaining that the report was “based on incomplete evidence compiled by foreign colleagues.” Pokalchuk said that the representatives of the Ukrainian office “did everything they could to prevent this material from being published” due to the partiality of the data.
Pokalchuk has since resigned from her position, having lost trust in an organization that “created material that sounded like support for Russian narratives. Seeking to protect civilians, this research instead became a tool of Russian propaganda.”
Immediately following the publication of Amnesty’s report, social media exploded with objections. Significantly, the international law expert who developed the guidelines on the military’s use of schools during times of conflict weighed in to counter Amnesty’s conclusions. Dr. Steven Haines from the University of Greenwich explained that with Russia invading Ukraine’s cities, city warfare was unavoidable. He pointed out that no law had been broken:
The use of schools—if they are not also being used for their primary purpose—is not invariably unlawful. Very obviously, the situation in Ukraine counts as exceptional in this respect … so the Ukrainian military are [sic] not necessarily breaching the guidelines.
Ukraine’s defense department provided immediate rebuttals to Amnesty’s accusations, in turn accusing Amnesty of twisting the war narrative to Russia’s favor. Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov called “any attempt to question the right of Ukrainians to resist genocide, to protect their families and homes” is “a perversion.” The presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that “the only thing that poses a threat to Ukraine is a Russian army of executioners and rapists coming to Ukraine to commit genocide.”
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, directly countered the report by insisting that Ukrainian armed forces did in fact provide buses to evacuate civilians, even pleading with them, but said that some refused to go. She accused Amnesty of “distorting the real picture,” as well as failing to understand the situation on the ground. “The Russian Federation is committing the crime here. Ukraine is protecting its land. Moscow ignores all the rules of war,” said Maliar.
Other media outlets, such as the German taz criticized the report as being an example of Amnesty’s clumsy communication, as the findings could lend support to pro-Russian sentiment and increase criticism of Ukrainian President Zelensky. Taz even admitted that “in the heated climate surrounding the war in Ukraine, there is no room to differentiate.” Despite Amnesty stressing that Ukrainian tactics are no justification for indiscriminate Russian attacks, taz worried that the report might lead to a perpetrator-victim reversal—a prospect that is deeply disconcerting to Ukrainian officials.
While Amnesty International has previously been accused of political bias against non-Western countries, it had never been suspected of pro-Russian bias. Critics refer to Amnesty’s rootedness in the Cold War era as an important key to understanding its bias. This background offers nothing by way of an explanation for why Amnesty would suddenly have turned into a bullhorn of Russian propaganda, especially considering that the organization accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine as recently as June.
On Sunday, August 7th in an email to Reuters, Amnesty International apologized for the “distress and anger” the report caused:
Amnesty International’s priority in this and in any conflict is ensuring that civilians are protected. Indeed, this was our sole objective when releasing this latest piece of research. While we fully stand by our findings, we regret the pain caused.