Secretary General of Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard speaks during the Amnesty International press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on May 6th, 2022. Getty

False Accusations and Ideological Bias

Amnesty International, Ukraine, and the Illusion of NGO Fact-Finding Expertise.

Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg
13 min read

The intense debate triggered by an Amnesty International report alleging Ukrainian violations of international law highlights wider questions of credibility and bias in the campaigns led by powerful NGOs which purport to advance human rights agendas. The pronouncements of the two superpowers—Amnesty and Human Rights Watch—are routinely transcribed directly into media headlines, and then uncritically cited in academic publications. Their agendas are central to determining the priorities of international institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, and officials move back and forth between the NGOs and these international bodies.

But as the Ukraine report and other examples demonstrate, NGO claims are often constructed on weak foundations. Although Amnesty officials repeat the mantra that they are politically neutral and simply report what they observe, the focus and timing of their activities are inherently political. With a massive public relations machine at its disposal (Amnesty’s total annual budget exceeds €350 million), the publication and accompanying media blasts of war crime allegations and accusations that states are “putting civilians in harm’s way” have an immediate impact on public opinion and governmental policies. In this case, Russia—and Western opponents of assistance to Ukraine—seized on Amnesty’s report to bolster their positions. Examining the credibility of NGO reports is therefore of pressing importance.

Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson to campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience worldwide. In its original iteration, the organization encouraged volunteers to bombard non-democratic governments with postcards and to hold protest vigils. Benenson and his group were very successful, at least in raising funds and building the organization, but when the Cold War ended, a new mission was needed to maintain relevance and keep donors interested. At this point, Amnesty and its US-based twin, Human Rights Watch, reinvented themselves as experts in the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) and international humanitarian law (IHL).

As members of the international human rights community, the new leaders of these NGOs embraced a post-colonial political ideology that was anti-Western and implicitly anti-democracy. Although they maintained that they were above politics, the top officials in Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and similar groups were in fact deeply involved in partisan political movements and used tendentious interpretations of international and human rights law to promote their agendas. The contradictions were managed through complex and closed decision-making structures—NGOs that call on others to practice transparency do not practice it themselves. The process by which Amnesty chose to issue a report alleging Ukrainian human rights violations, the composition and editing of this document, and the objectives that they hoped to achieve, remain opaque.

Amnesty’s Ukraine campaign

On August 4th, Amnesty International published a document headlined “Ukrainian Fighting Tactics Endanger Civilians,” in which the organization accused Kiev of putting civilians “in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals…” Based on these accusations, the authors conclude: “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.” In other words, according to Amnesty, Ukraine is at least partly responsible for the deaths of Ukrainians attacked by the Russian military.

Ukraine: Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians
Military bases set up in residential areas including schools and hospitals Attacks launched from populated civilian areas Such violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks, which have killed and injured countless civilians Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establi…

The Amnesty report was immediately endorsed and promoted by Russia and its supporters, providing them with a rare success in the propaganda war. The same day the report was published, the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeted: “@Amnesty confirms #Ukraine tactics violate international humanitarian law & endanger civilians. [Ukrainian] forces set up bases in residential areas, incl schools & hospitals; launch attacks from populated civilian areas—exactly what #Russia has been saying all along. #StopNaziUkraine.” A Telegram post from the Russian Embassy in Washington declared that, thanks to Amnesty, “It is becoming increasingly difficult to conceal the truth. The criminal Kyiv regime has no sympathy for its own population.” Russia 1 News triumphantly informed its audience, “Even the international crooks and scoundrels of the so-called human rights organization Amnesty International have accused Ukraine of violating the laws of war by placing military equipment in educational and medical facilities thus endangering civilians. If even they are saying that the rules of warfare have been violated, then the Ukrainians should reflect on it.” [emphasis added]

In response, Ukraine’s President Zelensky condemned Amnesty’s “very eloquent silence” on Russian attacks on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power reactor, adding that the attack on Ukraine “once again indicates the manipulative selectivity of this organization.” In the Spectator, Ukrainian journalist Svitlana Morenets wrote, “Amnesty’s statement was a gift for the Kremlin. The comments became one of the most-read news stories in the Russian media. Of course, they only covered the part of the report that accused Ukraine of violating international humanitarian law. The remarks that this does not justify shelling the civilian population by Russia were completely ignored.” Twitter and Facebook were saturated with similar condemnations.

At first, Amnesty’s Secretary General Agnès Callamard disdainfully dismissed the criticism as the work of “Russian and Ukrainian social media mobs and trolls: they are at it today attacking @amnesty investigations.” But this did not stem the attacks. The head of Amnesty’s branch in Ukraine, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned from the position she had held for seven years. Pokalchuk noted that she had pressed Amnesty’s head office to obtain comment from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense before publication, but that Amnesty’s leadership had delayed and “gave very little time to respond. As a result of this, although unwillingly, the organization created material that sounded like support of Russian narratives. Seeking to protect civilians, this study instead has become a tool of Russian propaganda.” (Amnesty and HRW routinely make last-minute requests to government officials who are otherwise engaged in defending their citizens, allowing the organizations to present an image of good faith, if not the substance.)

Я звільняюсь з Amnesty International в Україні. Це – ще одна втрата, яку мені принесла війна. Улюблена робота, 7 років...

Posted by Oksana Pokalchuk - head of Amnesty International Ukraine on Friday, August 5, 2022

On August 7th, Amnesty issued a formal press statement, declaring that it “deeply regrets the distress and anger” the report had caused. It added, “While we fully stand by our findings, we regret the pain caused and wish to clarify a few crucial points.” No names or quotes were included—this was an institutional attempt to limit the damage and move on. The “clarifications” consisted of a reiteration of the original report’s claims to have been based on objective documentation, and analysis according to “the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL).” In an attempt to counter the charges of handing Russia’s propaganda campaign a massive victory, the statement asserted: “Nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations.” Critics immediately pointed out that Amnesty’s statement of regret and clarification ignored the substantive and detailed criticisms, and so it was generally ignored (or ridiculed). On August 10th, Swedish branch co-founder Per Wästberg, announced: “I have been a member for over 60 years. It is with a heavy heart that, due to Amnesty's statements regarding the war in Ukraine, I am ending a long and fruitful engagement.” Others are likely to follow.

Setting aside questions of intentional bias and underlying political ideology, the major flaws in Amnesty’s Ukraine report can be addressed under two headings:

1. Unverifiable or false factual claims

The foundation of Amnesty’s report is the claim that they have documented “evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages in the regions.” The evidence, we are told, was collected in investigations conducted between April and July 2022. The researchers “inspected strike sites; interviewed survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims of attacks; and carried out remote-sensing and weapons analysis.” According to the witnesses, “Ukrainian military had been operating near their homes around the time of the strikes, exposing the areas to retaliatory fire from Russian forces. Amnesty International researchers witnessed such conduct in numerous locations.” In addition, Amnesty’s “Crisis Evidence Lab has analyzed satellite imagery to further corroborate some of these incidents.”

However, as is generally the case in such NGO reports, none of the factual claims can be independently substantiated or verified; every aspect is anonymous, from the members of the Amnesty research team to the various witnesses (“survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims”). This core deficiency is common in reports with sweeping conclusions, such as the organization’s numerous publications on military confrontations involving Israel in Gaza or the 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Following a recent report on Israel, a former head of Amnesty’s Israel branch wrote that the organization “lacks the manpower and financial resources” necessary for serious investigations. Detailed analysis of that report demonstrates that many of the 1,600 footnotes reference Amnesty’s own publications, as well as those from affiliated NGOs and UN bodies that, in turn, rely on previous Amnesty reports. In other words, the dubious credibility of the report on Ukraine is not exceptional—it is the norm. And Amnesty’s practices violate many of the international guidelines for undertaking credible investigations of IHL violations (known as the London-Lund framework).

There is no way to determine whether or not the anonymous witnesses on whose testimonies the Ukraine report relies are credible, how they were selected, if their versions of events are firsthand or relayed from others, and whether the information is complete or filtered (see specific issues below). If identifying the witnesses is likely to endanger their security, information on the circumstances in which the interviews were conducted, such as the presence of other individuals including translators, and efforts made to verify the specifics, including cross-referencing with other sources, should be provided.

Indeed, a number of the claims Amnesty attributed to these witnesses are contradicted by other sources. For example, according to journalist Tom Mutch, who visited many of the sites on Amnesty’s itinerary:

In regard to civilian evacuations Amnesty International claimed it was “not aware that the Ukrainian military who located themselves in civilian structures in residential areas asked or assisted civilians to evacuate nearby buildings”. In fact, Ukrainian authorities and the military frequently insisted that civilians leave the active fighting zones and offered evacuation assistance to those who wished to do so. I was in one of the locations mentioned in the Amnesty report, a school block in the under-fire city of Lysychansk, with Ukrainian soldiers as they offered an evacuation ride to any civilian residents who wished to leave. Three did, and we traveled with them as we returned to safer locations. I had reported this all at the time.

After publication, information emerged showing that Amnesty Senior Crisis researcher Donatella Rovera had led this project, as she then acknowledged. Rovera has worked for Amnesty in different capacities and regions for over three decades, and has no military experience. (Full disclosure—in 2009, I debated Rovera on Al Jazeera following the publication of a report accusing Israel of depriving Palestinians of water. I pointed out basic errors and contradictions in the report and in Rovera’s presentation which exposed her lack of expertise and credibility.)

Rovera was also interviewed for a CBS documentary in which she threw out the claim “that only 30 percent of Western weapons supplied [to Ukraine] were reaching the front.” She also suggested that the weapons sent by NATO to Ukrainian forces were being sold on the black market. But as Yaroslav Trofimov (chief foreign-affairs correspondent of the Wall Street Journal) wrote, “Why would or should an Amnesty representative know anything about how and where Ukraine deploys the weapons it receives from the U.S.? Those are some of the most closely guarded secrets in any war.” And Times journalist Maxim Tucker, who previously served as Amnesty’s manager for Ukraine, tweeted: “Amnesty now courts controversy by suggesting Nato weapons to Ukraine go to black market: ‘We have no idea where they go.’ … Why would army supply this sensitive info to a human rights org?” CBS subsequently removed the video from its website.

Questions of selectivity, context, framing, and factual omissions constitute additional issues in NGO reports that claim to document IHL and human rights violations. Media quotes from unnamed members of Amnesty’s Ukraine staff point to extensive filtering of the information that was collected: “Our team’s arguments about the inadmissibility and incompleteness of such material were not taken into account.” Another post (perhaps from the same staff member) stated: “When releasing this report, Amnesty did not take the opportunity to highlight all the reporting they had done about Russia, as a way of framing the extent of the alleged Ukrainian violations in a proper context.” Another analyst wrote that the report “doesn’t address Russia’s demonstrated strategy of targeting civilian objects of no military value. Moreover, it ignores evidence that Ukraine has made a concerted effort to evacuate civilians from areas of intense fighting.”

Summarizing these issues, Tucker recalled: “When I worked at Amnesty we took time on detailed reports putting events in context. Amnesty’s release on Ukraine today does not. The result suggests Ukraine bears more responsibility for people killed by Russian strikes than Russia itself. It is both bizarre and misleading.”

2. Distortion and exploitation of the ambiguity in international law

Beyond the pretense of credible and neutral documentation, “highly respected expert organizations” such as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch routinely use their self-projected reputations as arbiters of international law to manipulate agendas and policies. The inherent ambiguity—compounded by the absence of duly constituted courts, procedures, and precedents—creates the conditions in which their claims of expertise are readily accepted by journalists, diplomats, and political leaders. In this way, the questionable, invented, or aspirational interpretations expressed by NGOs assume the appearance of authoritative legal statements. This was highlighted in the detailed critiques of efforts by Amnesty and HRW to use false definitions of apartheid in their recent campaigns to delegitimize Israel.

In the introduction to the August 4th report, Callamard made an assertion that embodied this misleading presumption of expertise: “We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war. … Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law.” With the pretense of expertise at the intersection of IHL and military strategy, the report declares, “Viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians—such as military bases or densely wooded areas nearby,” and accuses Ukrainian forces of failing “to take all feasible precautions to protect civilians.” Similarly, in the August 7th response to its critics, Amnesty states: “We made this assessment based on the rules of international humanitarian law (IHL). … 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.”

In the real world, however, decisions made by military leaders in the middle of a chaotic conflict are extremely complex and difficult. Terms such as “viable alternatives,” “feasible precautions,” “legitimate military objectives,” and “military necessity” (linked to proportionate use of force) are inherently ambiguous and subjective. In this Amnesty report, as in others related to combat situations, NGO officials assert, without evidence, that they have the required qualifications and experience to make such judgments.

In contrast, real experts (for example, Jack Watling from the Royal United Services Institute, UK) concluded that, “The @amnesty report demonstrates a weak understanding of the laws of armed conflict, no understanding of military operations, and indulges in insinuations without supplying supporting evidence.” Watling added, “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.” Similarly, in contrast to Amnesty’s allegations, the report’s suggestions that Ukrainian forces should relocate to a nearby field or forest “demonstrated a lack of understanding of military operations and damages the credibility of the research.” These recommendations, he concluded, “are pointless, frivolous and trivial.”

The specifics of the military situation in Ukraine following the Russian invasion further highlight the absurdity of Amnesty’s accusations. Aspirational claims notwithstanding, IHL and LOAC make no sense in a vacuum, independent of the situation on the ground. In order to defend and respond to the ferocity of Russian assaults on urban areas and the civilian population, the presence of Ukrainian forces in those locations was clearly necessary.

Furthermore, symmetry is a fundamental premise of a rules-based international order, in which IHL and LOAC have a potentially constructive role. When one party to a conflict flagrantly violates these codes of conduct (as Russia is doing), expecting adherence from the targeted country is tantamount to calling for political self-destruction. In the face of massive Russian military attacks against the civilian infrastructure, including indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, and destruction of clearly marked structures such as the International Red Cross warehouse and the Mariupol Theater, Ukrainian forces must take action according to the demands of military strategy, in contrast to the abstract and uninformed opinions of NGO activists.

Conclusion

In his critique of Amnesty’s report, Tom Mutch describes an encounter with Rovera during her “investigations”:

In May this year, I was sat around a table with Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis researcher predicting their upcoming report would land like a lead balloon. We were in the kitchen of our hotel in Kramatorsk, the administrative capital of Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk and we could hear the boom of artillery outside our windows every hour.

Rather than expressing shock at the relentless Russian bombardment, the Amnesty staff seemed much more concerned with the fact that a Ukrainian army unit had taken refuge in the basement of a college building.

We’d all been to the building: an abandoned language school in the frontline town of Bakhmut which had been turned into a temporary barracks for a Ukrainian unit. This is not a war crime. A military is perfectly entitled to set up in an evacuated educational institution, although of course that building can no longer claim civilian protection and there was a mainly abandoned civilian apartment block over the road, which had not been fully evacuated.

But Rovera was insistent that this military presence in a populated area was a “violation of international humanitarian law”’. When I pressed her on how the Ukrainian Army was supposed to defend a populated area, she said that it was irrelevant.

In many respects, this exchange summarizes the absence of credibility—both factual and legal—in these NGO attempts to investigate and report on conflict, and to assign blame. The same fundamental flaws in Amnesty’s report on the Ukraine, and the allegations of “putting civilians in harm’s way” have been documented in numerous other reports, particularly in the attempts to delegitimize Israeli responses to war and mass terror. Amnesty’s researchers, like those of HRW or the UN Human Rights Council, are not experts and do not even attempt to provide credible and verifiable sources to support what are often their pre-determined conclusions. Their judgments on international humanitarian law and the laws of armed conflict are no more than opinions, exploiting the ambiguity and largely theoretical nature of this discourse.

The sooner journalists, academics, diplomats, UN officials, and others acknowledge this reality, and the hollow state of the NGO campaigns based on these illusions, the better. More than enough damage, much of it irreversible, has already been caused by “reports” based on false accusations and ideological bias.

PoliticsForeign AffairsUkraineAmnesty International

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Gerald M. Steinberg is the founder and president of NGO Monitor. His most recent book is ‘Last book: Menachem Begin & the Israel-Egypt Peace Process; Next: Human Rights and Soft Power War’