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Amnesty’s Ukraine chief quits over report accusing country of using human shields

Oksana Pokalchuk says rights group’s international leadership ignored context of Russian invasion, battlefield conditions; report has been panned by Kyiv, used in Moscow propaganda

Amnesty International Headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, September 8, 2015 (chameleonseye/istock)
Amnesty International Headquarters in Auckland, New Zealand, September 8, 2015 (chameleonseye/istock)

KYIV, Ukraine — The head of Amnesty International’s Ukraine chapter has resigned, saying the human rights organization shot down her opposition to publishing a report that claimed Ukrainian forces had exposed civilians to Russian attacks by basing themselves in populated areas.

In a statement posted Friday night on Facebook, Oksana Pokalchuk accused her former employer of disregarding Ukraine’s wartime realities and the concerns of local staff members who had pushed for the report to be reworked.

The report, released Thursday, drew angry denouncements from top Ukrainian officials and criticism from Western diplomats, who accused the authors of making vague claims that appeared to equate the Ukrainian military’s defensive actions to the tactics of the invading Russians.

“It is painful to admit, but I and the leadership of Amnesty International have split over values,” Pokalchuk wrote. “I believe that any work done for the good of society should take into account the local context, and think through consequences.”

Russia has repeatedly justified attacks on civilian areas by alleging that Ukrainian fighters had set up firing positions at the targeted locations.

Pokalchuk said her office had asked the organization’s leadership to give the Ukrainian Defense Ministry adequate time to respond to the report’s findings and argued that its failure to do so would further Kremlin misinformation and propaganda efforts.

“I am convinced that our surveys should be done thoroughly, bearing in mind the people whose lives often depend directly on the words and actions of international organizations,” she said.

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

In a news release that accompanied the report’s publication, Amnesty International Secretary-general Agnes Callamard said the organization had “documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when they operate in populated areas.

“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” she said Thursday.

Russian state-sponsored media quoted the report to support Moscow’s claim that Russia has only launched strikes on military targets during the war. The spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry cited the Amnesty International assertions as proof that Ukraine was using civilians as human shields.

Multiple Western scholars of international and military law went on social media to reject the human shield claim. They said the report contained poor phrasing that muddied legal distinctions and ignored the combat conditions in Ukraine.

Ukrainian soldiers attend their positions, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, July 2, 2022. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

United Nations war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco, tweeting in a personal capacity Friday, accused Amnesty International of “getting the law wrong” and said Ukraine was taking steps to protect civilians, such as helping them relocate.

Ukrainian authorities at the national and regional levels have repeatedly urged residents of frontline areas to evacuate, although tens of thousands of people who left their homes since Russia’s invasion have returned after running out of support or feeling unwelcome.

Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky and the country’s foreign and defense ministers, have been scathing in their condemnation of the report, which they said failed to provide context on Russia’s bombardments of populated areas and documented attacks on civilians.

Agnes Callamard, the secretary general of Amnesty International, speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem, on February 1, 2022. (Flash90)

Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary-general, posted a tweet Friday that defended the organization’s work and took aim at its critics.

“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 won’t dent our impartiality and won’t change the facts,” she wrote.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba issued an angry response to Callamard in which he accused her organization of “fake neutrality” and playing into the Kremlin’s hands.

“Apparently, Amnesty’s Secretary General calls me a ‘mob’ and a ‘troll’, but this won’t stop me from saying that its report distorts reality, draws false moral equivalence between the aggressor and the victim, and boosts Russia’s disinformation effort. This is fake ‘neutrality’, not truthfulness,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

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