By Clara Ferreira Marques / Bloomberg Opinion
No one is quite able to pinpoint where the expression “useful idiot” comes from. Vladimir Lenin is supposed to have coined it, but it’s almost certainly older. All of us, though, have seen demonstrations of this behavior in recent months as too many adherents of both the far left and far right in Europe and the United States — in search of balance, or angry with Western wrongs — have provided the Kremlin propaganda machine with fuel.
So it is with the report published late last week by human rights group Amnesty International, which argues Ukrainian forces have put ordinary citizens in harm’s way by establishing bases in residential areas, including in schools emptied of their pupils. There is a pattern of putting civilians at risk, the organization says, and of violating the laws of war.
Amnesty’s concern for citizens’ lives is laudable, as is the commitment to impartiality and its effort to look at all actors on the battlefield. It has spoken out on Russian atrocities in Ukraine and on Moscow’s actions against its own citizens opposing the war. Yet Thursday’s statement on Ukraine’s actions is, at best, naive. By allowing Moscow to portray residential areas as fair game, it’s also perilous.
Where does the report go awry? First, by suggesting choice. Amnesty says it found evidence of Ukrainian forces “launching strikes from within populated residential areas,” basing themselves in civilian buildings and, in one instance, “basing armoured vehicles under trees in purely residential neighbourhoods.”
Ukraine has clear obligations with regards to its citizens, but as the defending force, it is holding back attackers where it must. Armed forces should avoid urban areas, but that is clearly not always possible given Ukrainian soldiers are defending towns and settlements, which are often seen as strategic by the Russian military. The fighting cannot always be shifted to woodlands or open fields. Amnesty experts say there are many “viable alternatives” but provide scant evidence for them in the brief report.
Then there’s the missing context. For example, the report says that, in the cases it documented, Amnesty was “not aware” of efforts by military stationed in schools, hospitals and the like to evacuate civilians in nearby buildings. But it makes no reference to Kyiv’s broader efforts to relocate civilians; or to the reality that many are reluctant to leave, understandably fearing a worse fate away from Ukraine’s soldiers. Forced displacement is itself a violation.
There’s also the basic question of how the research was carried out. Amnesty says that the report followed “extensive on the ground investigations” and that the outside experts from its Crisis Response Program had also looked into Russian war crimes. Their findings reflect rigorous research standards, the organization says. All of that may be true, even if the current report offers only a snapshot. It’s still hard to see why their expertise should require excluding Amnesty’s local team, ignoring their objections and requests. At the very least that requires an explanation. “Although unwittingly, the organization created material that sounded like support for Russian narratives,” the head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, Oksana Pokalchuk, said in a Facebook statement. She has resigned.
All violations of international law deserve to be investigated, but the danger of creating a false equivalence between attackers and defenders is real and requires far greater care, balance and self-awareness than Amnesty has demonstrated. Simply stating, as Amnesty does, that the violations don’t justify Russian attacks does not solve the problem that the report creates. This is a brutal war of conquest led by a regime seeking to wipe out a nation; not a skirmish in which both sides share the blame.
“To say that issuing a four-page press release compares to hundreds of pages that we’ve published since the beginning of the Russian invasion … it’s just not true,” Amnesty senior crisis adviser Donatella Rovera has said, defending the organization’s actions. That may be correct from the researcher’s perspective but not for many readers; nor, of course, for Kremlin propagandists, who have enthusiastically seized upon the report.
Which brings us to what is perhaps the most worrying aspect of all here: the response from Amnesty International’s secretary general. Agnes Callamard at first rejected allegations of bias but in follow-up comments suggested “attacks” were coming from “social media mobs and trolls.”
“This is called war propaganda, disinformation, misinformation,” she tweets. Reasonable questions, including from Amnesty’s own team, deserve credible answers, not arrogance. Finding balance in the fog of war while retaining trust requires openness, not an effort to dig in.
No one will suggest that Ukrainian forces are always heroic. Few participants emerge unsullied from war, and it’s clear to all that Ukraine has challenges that predate the conflict. But impartiality is simply not about publishing on one side and then on the other.
Amnesty might have reflected on the danger of presenting its findings as it has; and how a report so short of context and explanation would be used. Russia has attacked a theater sheltering civilians, bombed a shopping center and prevented civilian evacuations; it hardly needed more reason to strike residential targets. Amnesty has blundered before. Last year, it referred to Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny as a prisoner of conscience after his arrest but then revoked that because of past xenophobic comments; never mind the context, or the fact that it’s possible to object to both racism and unjustified imprisonment. It then changed its mind again. The rights group might have thought back to that instead of handing Russia another propaganda win.
Amnesty’s work matters. Its reports matter, and people’s lives depend on them, as does justice. All the more reason to do it right.
Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate.