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Amnesty International’s 4 August statement. A response by the “Tribunal for Putin” initiative

09.08.2022

David Esser, Shutterstock

On 4 August 2022, Amnesty International published a statement entitled “Military endangering civilians by locating forces in residential areas[1]. It is based on research conducted by Amnesty International since April 2022, when the organization’s Secretary-General came on an official country visit to Ukraine.[2]

The three-page statement contains an analysis of the use of civilian sites by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and considers the safety measures provided for civilians in Ukraine by the civil authorities. Both are examined in the light of International Humanitarian Law.

There is frequent mention of various types of evidence: satellite photos, the analysis of weapons, interviews, and other unpublished documents. We assume, as of today, that a more detailed report does not exist. An earlier Amnesty International report should be considered, since it is mentioned in the 4 August statement. The 39-page report,“Anyone can die at any time”. Indiscriminate Russian attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine”, was published on 13 June 2022.[3]

The publication of the 4 August statement without an accompanying report presenting evidence and other confirmatory materials prompts reasonable doubt as to the validity of its central thesis.

We do not question the veracity of the published quotations or of the incidents it describes, but it is impossible to assess how the evidence was collected.

Much additional information should have been accumulated and investigated before these conclusions were reached.

1.International Humanitarian Law

In its 4 August statement, Amnesty International asserts that

  • the Ukrainian military has created bases in populated areas, in schools and hospitals, turning civilian sites into legitimate military targets;
  • the Ukrainian military has launched attacks on the enemy from populated areas, leading to Russian reprisals against civilian targets;
  • the State in Ukraine is neither fulfilling its obligation to evacuate the civilian population nor taking adequate measures to protect it.

International Humanitarian Law distinguishes between civilians and military personnel and imposes an obligation on the State to conduct military operations in such a way as to ensure the greatest possible safety of its civilian population. Some examples of these measures are evacuation, warnings of danger, the construction of shelters, circulation of information, and the protection of civilian property.The military should also avoid the use of civilian sites, as this turns them into legitimate military targets.

The adoption of particular measures depends on many factors.

  • the capacity of State and military;
  • the availability of resources;
  • an analysis of existing threats;
  • a choice between alternative actions for the military that could reduce damage; 
  • the tactics of the attacking party.

In order to sustain an accusation of non-compliance with the provisions of International Humanitarian Law, many circumstances should be examined in detail and on a case-by-case basis.

Under International Humanitarian Law, the use of schools by the military is specifically prohibited[4]. Yet the illegitimacy of the military's use of civilian premises, even schools or hospitals, when civilians are not present is debatable under international law. Currently the law contains only recommendations about the military use of civilian sites. That use depends, therefore, on an analysis of many other circumstances and, especially, an assessment of potential harm.

Unfortunately, there is no assessment in the 4 August statementof the key factors that led its researchers to conclude that violations of International Humanitarian Law had occurred in the cases it describes.

2.Ukraine and International Humanitarian Law

2.1:Do Ukraine’sArmed Forces employ tactics that endanger civilians?

Amnesty International’s recent statementcites surveys of people and research in three of Ukraine’s Regions: Kharkiv, Donetsk and Mykolaiv. (In addition, one example is quoted from the city of Odesa.)

The June 2022 Amnesty International report on the Kharkiv Region does not refer to the constant use of civilian sites, including schools and hospitals, by the Ukrainian military. In the August statement we did not find mention of any significant factors that might alter the conclusions provided in the June report. Neither did we see any information about tactics of the Ukrainian military that are dangerous for civilians. It is simply asserted.

This calls into question the main conclusion of the 4 August statement,i.e., that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have a particular tactic of using civilian sites. If the researchers of the June report did not say this aboutthe Kharkiv Region, it seems unlikely that a generalization about the deliberate tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces can be considered accurate based on examples from the study of only two other Regions (Donetsk and Mykolaiv).

When investigating such violations, it is always important to determine: the specific intention of the military in that situation (e.g., to use civilians as a shield); whether information was provided to civilians; and were they offered the chance to evacuate or was evacuation prohibited. Up to the present, Ukraine’s human-rights defenders have been in possession about isolated cases when the Ukrainian military deliberately created obstacles to evacuation or tried to use civilians as shields.

Were the military able to choose between alternative courses of action? Merely mentioning that the troops could have withdrawn from the city or that there is a forested area nearby is not enough: these choices must embrace an ability to resist enemy aggression.

The consequences of occupation for civilians must also be understood. Cases of mass murder, torture, and disappearance of civilians in the temporarily occupied territories are measured in the thousands. Under such conditions, when assessing the consequences of occupation, defensive action in population centres is usually the only way to protect civilians from the many crimes being perpetrated against them by the invader. In such a situation the need to preserve civilian sites and ensure the right to education are not immediate priorities; the preservation of life and protection against international crimes by Russia’s armed forces clearly take precedence.

*

We would like to comment here on the use of schools and hospitals by Ukraine’s Armed Forces.

A systematic country-wide study has been carried out and published by the Luhansk Region Human Rights “Alternative” Centre. In June it produced a 51-page report on the destruction of health-care facilities in Ukraine between 24 February 2022 and 31 May this year.[5] The “Alternative” Centre documented 65 separate incidents when health-care institutions in Ukraine were shelled by Russian troops. It did not identify a solitary case in which military personnel were present at these hospitals. There is no information, moreover, about the presence of military bases at hospitals.

Amnesty’s 4 August statement mentions the presence of military in 22 of the 29 schools it visited in Ukraine. It does not say that those schools were then not being used for teaching although that is evident. As already mentioned, the use of schools by the military is not in itself a violation of International Humanitarian Law. To draw conclusions about military tactics it is necessary, therefore, to study the wider circumstances in each case. Amnesty does not provide any additional information. During an assessment of this kind, the obvious priority is to save civilian and military lives, and to protect territory from aggression that could lead to more catastrophic consequences, even though individual civilian sites might be destroyed in the process.

In Bakhmut (Donetsk Region), according to the statement, the military made use of a university, where seven soldiers later died after shelling by the enemy. This cannot be considered a violation of International Humanitarian Law: no civilians were in the building, no civilians were harmed, and it is unclear whether there were other options for the deployment of the military.

Amnesty concludes that the very deployment of the military leads to the shelling of civilian sites. To draw such a general conclusion, it is necessary to analyze and assess more information. The statement gives no indication that this was done.

In Bakhmut (Donetsk Region), for example, the military was ordered to stay away from schools. The schools were not being used for teaching, but humanitarian aid was sometimes distributed there by the local authorities. Twelve of the 14 schools in the city were nevertheless damaged by Russian shelling.

A local human-rights defender describes the situation in Kramatorsk (Donetsk Region) as follows:

“...two schools were damaged and there were no soldiers there. One wing of school No. 15, where the sports hall and dining room were located, was completely destroyed; half of the building of school No. 23 was destroyed. There were no soldiers or military equipment there.”

A similar situation is observed in almost all settlements in the zone of active hostilities or at a distance of up to 20 km from the frontline. This is explicable in terms of Russian tactics. Russia’s armed forces attack all populated areas indiscriminately, whether the Ukrainian military are present or not. As a result, 70-90% of the area of those villages, towns and cities in the Luhansk and Donetsk Regions were destroyed or suffered extensive damage.

In this context. the allegation that the tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces provoked Russian shelling of civilian sites is weakly substantiated by Amnesty’s statement. This is because it does not take account of the offensive tactics of the Russian troops. They were demonstrated unequivocally, on the other hand, in Amnesty International’s 13 June report about the shelling of the city of Kharkiv.The conclusions reached in that report were not included, for some reason, in the recent Amnesty International statement.

In most of the examples presented, there is no consideration of the way in which the Ukrainian Armed Forces could have protected civilians in populated areas, if they were completely separated from them.Werethere alternative military locations? What harm would be done by their separation and what could be done to avoid that risk?

2.2: Protecting civilians in Ukraine

In its 4 August statement, Amnesty International reproaches the Ukrainian Armed Forces with inadequate protection of the civilians population. Once again, we are not offered evidence and arguments to support this assertion, except for the words of certain interviewees. This is not an adequate basis on which to reach such broad conclusions.

According to official data, almost three quarters of the civilian population was evacuated from the Ukrainian-held areas of the Donetsk Region in April-May 2022. In February this year, the population of those areas was over 1.6 million; by May 2022 about 400,000 civilians remained.

In Kramatorsk, for example, about 40,000 of the city’s population of 200,000 remained. On 2 August 2022, a mandatory evacuation order was issued in the Donetsk Region. In such changed circumstances it is not accurate to describe these areas as “densely-populated”.

Without analysing the circumstances of evacuation, it is impossible to assess how serious the risks are for civilians. Another problemis that of people do not want to leave although they are close to, or within, a war zone. One interviewee in Amnesty International’s 4 August statement claims that he refused to evacuate. Without taking such situations into account, there are no grounds for accusing the State of failing to fulfill its obligations.

3. Conclusions

The 4 August Amnesty statement does not contain a detailed presentation of the information it had accumulated. It fails to provide an analysis of key factors that might permit an assessment of the alleged violations of international humanitarian law by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In particular, the statement completely ignores such important factors as: the nature and tactics of the invader; the measures taken by Ukraine to warn, inform, protect or evacuate the civilian population; and the necessary analysis of available alternatives in the deployment of the military.

According to established standards of proof, we cannot determine whether there were violations of International Humanitarian Law in most of the cases cited in the statement. There is a lack of evidence or a failure to analyse the key factors. We question Amnesty’s generalization about the tactics of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The assertion contained in the title of the statement and in its three pages of text is not supported by sufficient evidence.

We would like to draw Amnesty’s attention to the importance of disseminating statements accompanied by full disclosure of evidence and a more detailed justification of the allegations made against the parties to this and any other military conflict. Otherwise, there is a danger that such a statement

  • will undermine trust in the work of human rights organizations investigating international crimes;
  • could contribute to the propaganda efforts of the opposing sides in any military conflict; and
  • might even be used to justify the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The UN Monitoring Mission, the OSCE and national human rights organizations have previously published and disseminated information about violations of International Humanitarian Law by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In particular, this concerns the protection of civilians, the use of civilian sites by the military, and significant problems encountered during evacuation, especially for those who find independent movement difficult or impossible. These facts, however, do not provide grounds for asserting [a] that the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been pursuing a particular tactic in violation of International Humanitarian Law or [b] that the Russian army fires at civilian sites solely in response to their use by the Ukrainian military.

We do not support the present campaign against Amnesty International, neither do we approve of the suggestion that its accreditation to the Ukrainian Armed Forces be withdrawn. We remain interested in dialogue with international organizations during the gathering of information about alleged violations of human rights or the perpetration of war crimes and crimes against humanity. We would like to see recommendations to the Ukrainian authorities developed and implemented.

9 August 2022


The global "Tribunal for Putin" (T4P) initiative

The global "Tribunal for Putin" (T4P)i nitiative was created in response to the all-outwar waged by Russia against Ukraine since February 2022.

Those who joined the initiative are documenting events which display features of the type of crime covered by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court – genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.They have been observed in all parts of Ukraine that have been attacked or occupied.

The initiative is working actively at the international level through the existing mechanisms of the UN, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the EU and the International Criminal Court to prevent these violent crimes and to bring their perpetrators to justice.

The initiative is supported within Ukraine by the following organizations:

  • Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union,
  • The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group,
  • Center for Civil Liberties(Kyiv),
  • Truth Hounds,
  • La Strada,
  • Environment, People and Law,
  • Docudays UA,
  • "Moloda Prosvita", Young Education (Ivano-Frankivsk Region),
  • Human Rights Protection Group (Chuguyiv),
  • Northern Human Rights Protection Group,
  • Human Rights centre (Cherkasy),
  • Fund of Charity and Health (Kherson Region),
  • Committee of Voters of Ukraine (Kherson city branch),
  • Territory of Success (Kropyvnytskyi)
  • Committee of Voters of Ukraine (Odesa Region branch)
  • MART NGO(Chernihiv)
  • Educational House of Human Rights (Chernihiv)
  • Legal League (Podilsk)
  • SICH Human Rights Protection Group (Dnipro),
  • SIM Center for Legal and Political Research (Lviv), and the
  • "Bakhmat” NGO

as well as the reception centres of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Unionin Kramatorsk, Toretsk, Mariupol, Pokrovsk, Chernivtsi, Zaporizhzhia and Uzhhorod.

The initiative is pursuing a unique policy of documentation that permits an almost daily re-creation of the chronology of the war crimesand crimes against humanitybeing committed, from 24 February 2022 onwards. We follow the “zoom” principle of working from the region to its smallest population centres.

T4P is the only collaborative project to have created a grid, based on regional organizations, each of which is responsible for a specific area where that body existedyears before the Russian invasion of 24 February 2022.


[1]Amnesty International, 3-page statement: “Ukraine: Military endangering civilians by locating forces in residential areas. New research” (4 August 2022) –  https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/08/ukraine-ukrainian-fighting-tactics-endanger-civilians/

[2]Amnesty International, 11-page statement: “High-level Secretary-General Mission To Ukraine:End of mission statement”, (20 May 2022), index EUR 50/5634/2022

[3]Amnesty International, 39-pagereport: “Anyone can die at any time”. Indiscriminate Russian attacks in Kharkiv, Ukraine” (13 June 2022)–https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur50/5682/2022/en/

[4]“The Protection of Schools under International Humanitarian Law”, Netherlands Military Law Review (2019) –https://puc.overheid.nl/mrt/doc/PUC_286172_11/

[5]The Alternative Centre report [June 2022],Destruction of medical infrastructure as an undeclared goal of the Russian armyis available in English –https://www.alterpravo.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/Destruction-of-medical-infrastructure_eng.pdf

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