Amnesty International issued a report on Thursday accusing the Ukrainian military of stationing its troops and artillery near hospitals, schools and residential buildings in ways that may amount to war crimes. The international human rights organization says it spent two months in Ukraine interviewing locals and collecting physical evidence to compile the report.
“Viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians – such as military bases or densely wooded areas nearby, or other structures further away from residential areas,” the report states.
The report got harsh pushback from Ukrainian officials and civil society leaders. Perhaps the most surprising criticism came from Amnesty’s very own Ukraine operation.
“We did everything we could to prevent this report from going public,” wrote Oksana Pokalchuk, Amnesty Ukraine’s leader on Facebook. She and her team claim that there are several discrepancies in the report, which was compiled by foreign observers, without any assistance from local staff.
Responding to questions about Amnesty International’s findings, Ukraine’s deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, said that Ukraine “regularly conducts evacuations of civilians from conflict areas.” Thousands can’t or won’t flee some of the towns along the front.
But Amnesty International says that Ukrainian troops shelter alongside civilians far from active conflict zones, and that Russian rocket strikes on Ukrainian military positions have left several nearby civilians dead.
Donatella Rovera, the report’s author, says that situations like these arise on all sides of any war, and that it’s up to Ukrainians to address the concerns as soon as possible.
“I think the level of self-censorship on this issue has been pretty extraordinary,” said Rovera.
A clue to that self-censorship may lie in how Ukrainian public sentiment has coalesced against any criticism of the Ukrainian military. Even despite Pokalchuk’s efforts to shut down the report, a Ukrainian website notorious for leaking the personal information of Ukraine’s alleged “enemies” listed her as a “participant in acts of humanitarian aggression in Ukraine” and “guilty of denying Ukraine’s right to defend itself.” One of the website’s founders is a high-ranking official in Ukraine’s foreign ministry who manages relationships with foreign journalists.
Like Amnesty International, NPR’s journalists also have witnessed some evidence of military presence near bombed civilian areas.
Ukrainian officials have claimed that their defensive posture against Russia justifies all tactics used so far, and that the report unfairly implicates Ukraine in war crimes. One top adviser to Ukraine’s president even accused the human rights group of being Russian propagandists fostering disinformation.
“Please stop creating a false reality where everybody is equally to blame [for the war]” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, in a video broadcast on television. He joined a chorus of others in saying that foreign observers should blame only Russia for any threats against civilians.
“Every single member of Amnesty’s Ukraine office knows that only the russian federation [capitalization-sic] bears responsibility for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, not the least of which because several of our colleagues had to leave everything behind to save themselves and their families,” reads Amnesty Ukraine’s statement.
Amnesty International has produced dozens of reports about Russian war crimes. Rovera said she personally investigated when hundreds of tortured bodies turned up in suburban Kyiv after Russia retreated from the area.
“To say that issuing a four-page press release compares to hundreds of pages that we’ve published since the beginning of the Russian invasion … it’s just not true,” said Rovera.
The report notes that reports of Russia’s use of illegal weapons in civilian areas — including cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines — should give Ukraine even more reason to keep its troops far away from civilians.
Amnesty International gave the Ukrainian Defense Ministry six days to respond to specific evidence about Ukrainian military presence in civilian areas. The rights group’s Ukraine office says that wasn’t enough time.
Rovera says that she understands Ukrainians are, in many ways, outgunned and outmatched, but that the credibility of Ukrainian’s moral high ground requires a total adherence to international law — even if it puts its military at a tactical disadvantage.
As for Amnesty Ukraine, Pokalchuk writes, “we will continue to fight in every way we can, no matter the cost. My office and I believe in human rights, we believe in Ukraine’s victory, and we believe that every person guilty of war crimes will be brought to Justice.”