A storm seems to be hitting Amnesty International (AI). The international non-governmental organisation has been subject to strong criticisms since the release of its report on 4 August 2022 about the alleged conduct of the Ukrainian military during the current Russo-Ukrainian War.
The international human rights organisation says its staff spent two months in Ukraine conducting their investigation, collecting evidence and interviewing local residents.
The report accuses the Ukrainian side of stationing its military and artillery near civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, schools and residential neighbourhoods, which could amount to war crimes. By firing from these locations, the Ukrainian troops would draw retaliation from Russian forces, putting civilians at risk and causing damage to civilian infrastructure. The report also criticised the Ukrainian military for lacking evacuation plans for civilians in conflict zones.
These assertions triggered immediate responses from the Ukrainian government. In a press conference, Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister, Hanna Maliar, rebuffed Amnesty's s allegations. Setting the record straight, Maliar accused Amnesty of turning the situation upside down by failing to report that the Ukrainian soldiers were deployed in populated areas to defend them from the Russian invasion. She also added that Ukraine "regularly conducts evacuations of civilians from conflict areas." However, thousands of people cannot flee some towns along the frontline due to the intensity of the conflict.
Harsher criticisms came from Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine's defence minister, who stated that "any attempt to question the right of Ukrainians to resist genocide, to protect their families and homes…is a perversion." Similarly, presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that "the only threat to Ukraine is a Russian army of executioners and rapists coming to Ukraine to commit genocide."
Worse still, Amnesty's Director in Kyiv, Oksana Pokaltschuk, resigned on 6 August, citing disagreements with the report. According to her, the publication contains several discrepancies, and the authors were mostly foreigners who did not get assistance from local experts. The result, according to Pokaltschuk, is that "this study has become a tool of Russian propaganda."
Given the name that Amnesty had built for itself internationally, the controversy brought up by the report represented the perfect chance for the Kremlin's info-warriors to exploit its findings to serve its narratives while harming its foe's reputation.
The first salvo was given via the Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in the UK, which quoted Amnesty's report, stating that "Amnesty confirms…exactly what Russia has been saying all along." Such a statement is no surprise, as Moscow's playbook is opportunistic, and any chance to target "the consciousness of the masses" is taken without reservations.
Consequently, pro-Russian accounts, trolls and bots ran amok on social media, using Amnesty's report and findings to prove their narrative that the Russian side is not, in fact, guilty of deliberately targeting civilians; they merely retaliate against a Ukrainian army that allegedly takes civilians as human shields.
Such a social media blitzkrieg further inflamed the situation, triggering calls to cancel donations and memberships with the human rights organisation.
Things worsened when the Amnesty report's methodology came under scrutiny. Amnesty's researchers appear to have interviewed Ukrainians who were displaced to Russian-occupied territories, including detention camps and jails. There are also allegations that elements from the Russian secret services were present during these interviews. To add insult to injury, legal experts found the report's understanding of international law to be lacking.
Some observers tried to dilute the impact of the report, stating that decades of advocacy on behalf of human rights should not be erased by one ill-conceived report. However, this is not about one publication. It is about numerous positions that seem to align with the Kremlin's agenda. For example, Amnesty International at one stage stripped Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny from his 'prisoner of conscience' status, which offered him some protection while in prison. It also condemned Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania for pushing against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko's weaponisation of refugees.
There was a time after the Cold War when non-state actors were perceived as benevolent forces that could positively influence international policymaking. International theories were put forward, noting how the growth of non-state actors could even weaken the "state-centric" paradigm of international politics. It is true that the growth of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), reaching at least 40,000 worldwide, is a tribute to their prominent role in the global arena. Many thought that such a growth would steer international affairs towards fairer outcomes on behalf of the people.
However, the multiple scandals that have rocked this sphere are not a good omen for the INGOs' credibility and sustainability. Over the last 20 years, accusations ranging from management inefficiency and lack of accountability to embezzlement and sexual exploitation have recurrently made headlines.
Amnesty's most recent report is yet more evidence of the lack of transparency plaguing this sector. It is time to understand that INGOs, especially those focused on human rights, are no angels. At times, they follow political agendas that do not serve the underdogs of this world they claim to speak for. Some even go to the extent of aligning with the perpetrators against their victims. Worse still, many of their findings are tainted with false equivalence, whereby victims are equated with their tormentors.
Amnesty's report represents most, if not all, of these unsavoury characteristics. It is also symptomatic of how segments of the European left continue to be in sync with the Kremlin's agenda. The subsequent storm that hit the international organisation could ultimately devastate its standing and credibility. Therefore, unless and until Amnesty International and other INGOs clean up their act, not only will their recommendations amount to no more than hot air, but they will be in no position to lecture anybody about democracy and human rights.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.