Amnesty International’s shame

While writer Myroslav Marynovych was a political prisoner of the USSR from 1977-87, he received letters from supporters who were organised through the international human rights organisation, Amnesty International.

‘A free person can never understand that unbelievable feeling when [as a political prisoner] you have in your hands a letter with a simple statement like, “We are thinking of you. Stay strong!”’ Marynovych wrote to me this week.

On release from incarceration, including forced labour in Kazakhstan, and as an act of both gratitude and service to other ‘prisoners of conscience’ around the world, Marynovych founded Amnesty International Ukraine and chaired it from 1991-97.

Now, in 2022 and with his country under a full-scale invasion by the USSR’s Russian authoritarian successors, Marynovych, the current Vice Chancellor of the Ukrainian Catholic University, was ‘shocked by the unverified allegations and unprofessionalism’ of a report released last week by the organisation he was once so indebted and close to, Amnesty International.

That report accuses Ukraine’s armed forces of endangering Ukrainian civilians by operating on or near civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Based on three weeks of research in Ukraine, and having given the Armed Forces of Ukraine four days to respond to a draft, Amnesty International’s Head Office reported: ‘Such tactics violate international human rights law and endanger civilians.’

Marynovych is certainly not alone in expressing very strong concern about or condemnation of Amnesty International’s report and, indeed, the organisation itself which, starting out from a non-aligned position at its founding in 1961, has been accused of becoming a fellow traveller of the elitist left that dominates some of international NGO scene. The leadership of Amnesty International Ukraine has quit in disgust.

The Times of London last week pointed out that the report ‘pays no attention to the realities of military operations’ and ‘blame[s] and defame[s] the victims of aggression’. In one extraordinary passage, the report demands Ukrainian soldiers in Donbas ‘shoot from a field’. The Times’ editorial writers stated: ‘Amnesty International has determinedly set about shredding its credibility by serving as a megaphone for the propaganda of the Putin regime.’

The Kyiv Independent, one of the journals of record about the current war on Ukraine, noted: ‘The report was precisely what Russia has been waiting for: a carte blanche to continue to target civilian infrastructure and claim there were soldiers or military equipment located at the site. All Russia has to do now after an attack on a hospital is point to Amnesty’s report as justification.’ Indeed, the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs actively promoted the report through social media channels immediately upon its release.

General Secretary Agnès Callamard has apologised for the ‘hurt’ caused by her organisation’s report, while continuing to defend its content and dismissing her critics as ‘trolls’. It’s important and timely to ask: Why? Why would a once highly respected and once genuinely neutral NGO produce such a blatantly dumb and dangerous report in the middle of a deadly war?

The answers can range from the benign to the malicious. It could, for example, be argued that Amnesty International, having earlier condemned war crimes by Russia, may have been seeking to somehow ‘square the ledger’ or demonstrate its alleged objectivity. Thinking of some donors, perhaps, some strange group-think about ‘balance’ may have set in.

As Marynovych writes: ‘By all appearances, Amnesty International’s inspectors came to Ukraine with the clear assignment to reveal Ukrainian breaches in order to “balance out” previous and completely appropriate allegations against Russia. If one starts with such partiality, it is impossible to then speak of one’s impartiality.’

If ‘balance’ was core to Amnesty International’s thought process – which they are yet to explain – it shows how they perpetuated an enormous false equivalence between a democratic country that’s been attacked and an arguably fascist country that has illegally and brutally invaded its neighbour, including terroristic targeting of its civilian population. As the Kyiv Independent states: ‘[By] adopting a policy of fake neutrality [and] by putting the aggressor and its victim on an equal footing, the organisation is helping to further Russia’s narrative.’ One recalls Putin’s pre-invasion statement that compared Ukraine to a young female rape victim who is urged to accept her fate. Victim blaming at its most grotesque and evil.

(I have earlier written about how Putin’s propaganda machine, in always seeking to legitimise its abhorrent actions, actively exploits the West’s relativist tendency to look for ‘both sides of the story’. Marynovcyh wrote to me: ‘The concept of a “balanced approach” can actually distort or mask the truth. And, if it prevails, the victim of a rape can become the accused because she somehow “provoked” her rapist.’)

Could Amnesty International have truly been so stupid or so naive?

I don’t think so. Let’s remember that there is a whole concerted push – on the social media cesspool and at substantive levels of policy-making – that asserts that Russia has been provoked by Nato ‘incursions’. Let’s note that Amnesty International’s authors did not visit Russian-occupied territories, such as the Zaporizhzhia power station now being used as a nuclear shield and international leverage by Russian troops based there. Let’s just look at our screens and see the images of countless Ukrainian schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings – and their occupants – blown to bits by $6 million Kalibr missiles fired from more than a thousand kilometres away from battleships on the Black Sea.

I have personally visited Ukrainian medical facilities near Kyiv and in Mykolaiv where there is clear and direct evidence of intentional targeting and destruction by Russian artillery and mortar fire units. These facilities were not within cooee of any military operations – or indeed any residential housing where the Ukrainian military might have allegedly been. So far, some 180 hospitals and clinics have been documented as wiped out in an attempt at ‘desertification’ of Ukraine’s cities and making them unlivable.

I have above listed several commonsense aspects Amnesty International should have considered. But commonsense gets curbed when there is an ideological or institutional interest to pursue. Or as per the Kyiv Independent: ‘The fact that Amnesty could not properly articulate who the main perpetrator of violence in Ukraine is an indictment of the organisation as a whole.’

It’s time for Amnesty International to come clean about its motives, methods, and relationships.

Amnesty International needs to practice transparency and to atone by withdrawing its report. Not only for its own sake and any moral conscience it may have, but to ensure that its egregious and reckless report isn’t further used by Putin as cover to kill more Ukrainians.

(In answer to detailed questions by the author about the report, rather than a media release, and following protests outside its Sydney offices this week, the Australian branch of Amnesty International provided the attached statement from its National Director, Sam Klintworth: 

Since the Russian war on Ukraine commenced, Amnesty International Australia has worked with the Ukrainian community here in Australia. On Tuesday we met with Ukrainian community leaders, listened to their concerns about the media release, and conveyed these concerns to our international colleagues, including the international board. We believe Russia is clearly the aggressor in this war, and this media release could have been more effectively handled, including the consultation with our colleagues in AI Ukraine on the content, as well as the timing and context of the release.

We support people’s right to protest and will staunchly defend people wishing to engage in peaceful protest.’)

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