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Amnesty International risks being seen as Putin’s ‘useful idiot’

Report by human-rights body gave Russia a blank cheque to continue trying to justify atrocities committed in Ukraine

Orthodox priest Andrii Halavin blesses the remains of unidentified people who were killed in the Bucha district at the time of the Russian occupation, during the mass burial at a cemetery in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday. Photograph: Roman Pilipey/Shutterstock

Almost six months into Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin spin doctors have been hard pressed to sway western opinion in their country’s favour amid the thousands dead, the millions of refugees who have been forced to flee abroad and the litany of atrocities inflicted by Russian servicemen on innocent Ukrainian men, women and children. One can therefore only imagine their jubilation when, last week, they were presented with a propaganda coup by none other than famed defender of human rights Amnesty International.

In a report published to great fanfare by Amnesty, it claimed that Ukraine was breaching international humanitarian law (IHL) and had put its civilians in harm’s way by establishing military bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas. The claim provoked a furious denunciation from president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who accused it of trying to “amnesty the terrorist state [Russia] and shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim”. He was not alone in his criticism: ordinary Ukrainians reacted with dismay to the report, as did international law scholars, who questioned the validity of its conclusions.

A close inspection of the report suggests the presence of deep flaws. The evidence on which it was based was gathered over a narrow time frame, from April to July, and it specified very few instances of Ukraine’s supposed breaches of IHL. Moreover, there also appears to have been an unseemly rush to print, with the head of Amnesty’s Ukrainian chapter, Oksana Pokalchuk, claiming that she was given insufficient time to provide input on the report’s contents. Resigning her post in the aftermath of its publication, she accused Amnesty of unwittingly creating material that “sounded like support for Russian narratives of the invasion” and said that in an effort to protect civilians, the study “became a tool of Russian propaganda”. Indeed, the Russians lost no time in welcoming the report, their embassy to the United Kingdom tweeting that it was “exactly what Russia has been saying all along” alongside the Twitter hashtag “#StopNaziUkraine”.

From a legal perspective, it is hard to escape the impression that the unequivocal manner in which the report’s conclusions were presented was geared towards generating headlines rather than reflecting the nuanced legal situation pertaining to the conflict. A key point downplayed in the report is that it is not necessarily a breach of IHL for Ukraine’s forces to base themselves in civilian areas. Rather, they have an obligation to avoid doing so to the maximum extent feasible. In that regard, Ukraine’s IHL obligations have to be viewed in the context of the conflict being waged, which sees many large urban areas on or close to the front line, and which the Russians are trying to capture or, as in the case of Mariupol, simply lay waste to. To criticise the Ukrainians for basing men and materiel in such locations in their efforts to thwart the Russian advance constitutes an astonishing degree of naivety on Amnesty’s part. The report also overlooks the extent to which Ukraine has advised its citizens to leave conflict-hit areas and facilitated them to do so.


Extraordinarily, the report had nothing to say about Russia’s use of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant at Zaporizhzhia as a base for its troops and hardware, a development which runs the risk of an atomic apocalypse, the effects of which would dwarf the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.

Additionally, Amnesty’s simplistic view of the dilemma facing Ukraine pays no regard to a long-standing debate in IHL as to whether victims of overweening aggression are strictly bound by its rules when resisting it. At the very least, the manner in which it presented its findings does scant justice to the degree of asymmetry between the Russian and Ukrainian militaries, with the latter facing an onslaught from air, land and sea and, as retired British general Richard Barrons warned over the weekend, the prospect that Putin may use tactical nuclear weapons against them to end the conflict on his terms.

Unfortunately for Ukraine, Amnesty is the gift that keeps on giving to the Kremlin in its dealings with those on Putin’s hit list. Back in January 2021 the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained in Moscow after his return from Germany, where he had been successfully treated after allegedly being poisoned by FSB agents with the nerve agent novichok. A month later, Amnesty stripped him of the status of “prisoner of conscience”, following a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign highlighting certain xenophobic comments made by him in 2007 and 2008.

In the face of an international outcry, Amnesty restored Navalny’s status in May 2021, but the damage had been done. In an apology for its actions, Amnesty acknowledged that the Kremlin has used its decision “to further violate Navalny’s rights”. Effectively cut adrift by one of the world’s leading human rights defenders at a crucial time, Navalny was later convicted by the Russian courts on trumped-up charges and is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a Russian penal colony.

At least on that occasion Amnesty had the decency to apologise to Navalny for the damage it had done, something it has failed to do this time. Responding to the furore over its Ukraine report, Amnesty’s secretary general, Agnès Callamard, doubled down on the report’s findings and rounded on her critics, labelling them “media mobs and trolls”.

The irony of the situation is that on account of its tin-eared report and its response to the criticism levelled at it, Amnesty has become the latest high-profile casualty of Putin’s criminal war. By holding Russia and Ukraine to equivalent standards and overlooking the pressing military necessity which compels Ukraine to base its forces in civilian areas, it has deprived itself of all credibility and become Putin’s pre-eminent “useful idiot” in the West.

Thanks to its report, the beleaguered citizens of Ukraine can expect an emboldened Russia to continue to target such valuable military targets as apartment blocks, shopping centres and children’s playgrounds, all the while waving as justification for its crimes the blank cheque given it by Amnesty. For the sake of decency and to make some effort to restore Amnesty’s tarnished reputation, Ms Callamard and those responsible for the report should resign their posts immediately.

Anthony Moore is a senior counsel and a member of the Bar of Ireland’s human rights committee