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To protect civilians

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Henning Næss
Literary critic in MODERN TIMES.
COMMENT / Should Amnesty International have been asked not to reveal the truth for purely strategic reasons?

In a report from 4 August this year, Amnesty International claimed that Ukraine violates the rules of international law on the protection of civilians. The organization writes, among other things: "Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians."

The report further states: "Ukrainian forces have put civilians at risk by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated areas, including in schools and hospitals." After the report was published, around 80 Norwegian members resigned from Amnesty in protest.

Amnesty's report has exposed Ukraine's violation of international law, with the deliberate use of civilians as human shields. The organization believes it has found reliable evidence that Ukraine's army has used civilians as shields in the conflict. The report reveals war crimes committed by the Ukrainian army and its paramilitary neo-fascist forces, particularly targeting Russian prisoners of war. It unequivocally condemns Russia's invasion, but insists that this "does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law." In the report, it is clear that the conditions uncovered in no way justify Russia's arbitrary attack.

The criticism

What is it that Amnesty is so unequivocally criticized for? Is the organization criticized for having uncovered truths at an unfortunate time? Or is the organization criticized for having lied?

As far as I can tell, it is Amnesty's task to impartially expose war crimes on both sides of a conflict, regardless of the unfortunate consequences it may have for the attacked party. If the facts revealed are true, shouldn't they have been revealed due to the fact that Ukraine is the attacked party in the conflict? The report has met with strong opposition from the Ukrainian authorities, who have accused Amnesty of supporting a narrative that supports Russian propaganda. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi has stated that Amnesty equates Ukraine with the Russian invasion force.

Ukraine is said to have had military bases in primary schools, hospitals and in residential areas.

The report has determined that "Ukraine does not protect its own civilians in defense against Russia". Ukraine is said to have had military bases in primary schools, hospitals and in residential areas, which is contrary to international law. Ukrainian soldiers are said to have put civilians at risk in 19 towns and villages, the report states.

The Ukrainian soldiers are said to have taken up positions in neighborhoods miles away from the front line. From here, the Ukrainians are said to have attacked the Russians with their weapon systems. The Ukrainian authorities reject this.

Being in a defensive position does not exempt a country from respecting international law. Amnesty has used satellite images and weapons analysis to confirm its findings. The organization has also carried out its own inspections and witness interviews.

Secretary-General of Amnesty, Dr. Agnes Callamard, has stated: "We have documented a pattern of Ukrainian forces putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war when operating in populated areas." The incidents are said to have taken place in the regions of Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolajiv.

Should the report still not have been made public? Because it can be used as part of Russian propaganda? In other words: Is it the case that Amnesty should not have reported the truth in this situation? Because the report, as Zelenskyj claimed, helps to blame the victim instead of the attacker? Everything indicates, however, that what Amnesty writes is correct.

I am of the opinion that the criticism against Amnesty has been wrong and has been put forward on a failing basis. Amnesty is intended to be an impartial organization that will uncover war crimes on both sides of a conflict. Moreover, not only Amnesty, but also Human Rights Watch and the UN Human Rights Office have listed critical points in Ukraine's warfare.

  1. august skrev blant annet Human Rights Watch: «Russian and Ukrainian forces have put civilians in Ukraine at unnecessary risk by basing their forces in populated areas without moving residents to safer areas.»

Amnesty in Norway

Amnesty's leader in Norway, John Peder Ægenes, has said that the report on Ukraine's use of civilian infrastructure in the war is well founded and meets a high standard. Now it should also be added that Ægenes in an interview with Morgenbladet 12.–18. August this year has acknowledged certain weaknesses on Amnesty's part. Among other things, Ægenes points out that Amnesty gave an unreasonably short response time to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence, which only had four days to respond to Amnesty's detailed findings. He has also defended Amnesty's choice not to share all information about Ukraine's positions and military structures with Russia, especially information that would endanger lives. In the interview with Morgenbladet, he also admits that "[our] findings unfortunately [are] very good for Russian propaganda".

In the newspaper Vårt Land on 12 August, Ægenes also promised an internal investigation by Amnesty. This will be led by an external group, i.e. by people who are neither shop stewards nor employees of Amnesty.

Claiming that what Amnesty writes in its report should nevertheless not have been made public is the same as asking Amnesty not to reveal the truth for purely strategic reasons. The criticism against Amnesty is completely without understanding what the organisation's task is: namely to uncover war crimes, regardless of who may be the attacking and defending party in a case. Amnesty must primarily contribute to the protection of civilians. The question is which type of behavior best protects civilians.

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