World: Amnesty International stumbles on human rights in Ukraine, provoking global outrage

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The world’s leading human rights advocacy voice (Australia’s, too) has stumbled into the big question: how do you manage the risk that being right on a little thing can lead to getting the big picture wrong?

  Amnesty International stumbles on human rights in Ukraine, provoking global outrage © Provided by Crikey

Late last week, Amnesty International released a report asserting that Ukraine was violating international humanitarian law by basing its defence forces in residential areas placing civilians at risk.

Compared to Amnesty’s months-long callouts of Russia for the war crimes of killings, targeted destruction of hospitals and schools, blocking of aid and “surrender or starve” sieges, it was a bit like handing out a ticket for reckless driving.

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  Amnesty International stumbles on human rights in Ukraine, provoking global outrage © Provided by Crikey

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“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” Amnesty says, “is an act of aggression that has unleashed the gravest human rights and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” It’s one of the key organisations documenting war crimes that, in a just world, will lead to post-war prosecutions.

But in a war defined by human rights, even a speeding ticket was potentially devastating. Ukraine relies on the moral power of its message as the frontline of democracy. It fears being caught in a both-sides argument that feeds into conflict fatigue within NATO.

Predictably, the report earned Amnesty a rare favourable hat-tip from the Russian government, who gleefully tweeted a tear-out of the report’s heading — “Ukraine’s fighting tactics endanger civilians” — together with two of the three main dot points: that Ukraine had set up military bases in residential areas, including in schools and hospitals, and had launched attacks from populated civilian areas.

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Ignored was the third Amnesty point: “Such violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks, which have killed and injured countless civilians.”

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy jumped over it, too, accusing Amnesty of shifting blame from aggressor to victim: “There cannot be, even hypothetically, any condition under which any Russian attack on Ukraine becomes justified. Aggression against our state is unprovoked, invasive and openly terroristic.”

Amnesty’s Ukrainian head Oksana Pokalchuk resigned (although without repudiating the factual findings), saying Amnesty’s work needed to be framed “within the local context and with consideration of the consequences”.

On social media, journalists and a war crimes investigator on the ground followed Zelenskyy’s lead.

So far, Amnesty has been unmoved, with its Secretary-General Agnès Callamard hitting back with overheated rhetoric on Twitter: “Ukrainian and Russian social media mobs and trolls: they are all at it today attacking @amnesty investigations. This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation. This wont dent our impartiality and wont change the facts.”

AI defends its «impartiality and freedom of action» after Ukraine criticizes report against it

  AI defends its «impartiality and freedom of action» after Ukraine criticizes report against it The NGO Amnesty International (AI) has assured Friday that it is not linked to governments or political parties, defending its «impartiality and freedom of action» after criticism launched from Ukraine over a report accusing the Army of putting civilians at risk in the framework of the war with Russia. © Provided by News 360 Archive - Amnesty International - Sebastian Kahnert/dpa In its brief, AI criticized the Ukrainian Armed Forces for "establishing bases and operating weapons systems in areas inhabited by civilians", including educational and health facilities, with the aim of repelling the Russian offensive.

  Amnesty International stumbles on human rights in Ukraine, provoking global outrage © Provided by Crikey

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It’s not the first time that Amnesty has been caught out over how to manage Putin’s enemies. In February last year it removed the designation of “prisoner of conscience” (which triggers Amnesty’s global campaigns) from Russian political dissident Alexei Navalny over racist and homophobic comments he had made in his past.

After protests (and after Callamard took over as Secretary-General), Amnesty restored Navalny’s status in May. (A fairly rapid development, considering it took the organisation 40 years to recognise that it got it wrong in refusing to recognise Nelson Mandela as a prisoner of conscience after he was convicted of sabotage and armed struggle against the apartheid regime.)

The weekend’s brouhaha is a reminder of both the strength and weakness of the global human rights movement. (Disclosure: I think of that as my movement, too. I’ve worked with Callamard in her earlier roles on freedom of expression campaigns).

Amnesty regrets ‘distress and anger’ caused by Ukraine report

  Amnesty regrets ‘distress and anger’ caused by Ukraine report Report alleging Ukraine military violations of international law caused head of Amnesty Ukraine to resign in protest.The rights group said “we fully stand by our findings” but stressed, “nothing we documented Ukrainian forces doing in any way justifies Russian violations”.

The global human rights NGOs bring a moral capital; a power that activists have built to deliver a consistent moral voice that shifts debate. They give life to universal principles by refusing to accept the lazy cynicism (from both left and right) that international law without state-backed enforcement makes it irrelevant.

Instead, the assertion of the primacy of human rights gives those rights a meaning that states would rather avoid, filling the gap left by the willingness of democratic states to rub off the hard edges of human rights for local political goals and national security concerns.

In Ukraine, the global frontline between democracy and authoritarianism runs like a bright line between the Russian invasion and Ukraine’s defenders. It left Amnesty with a hard choice to make.

Was Amnesty International right to call out Ukraine, or did it need to look at the bigger picture? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

The post Amnesty International stumbles on human rights in Ukraine, provoking global outrage appeared first on Crikey.

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