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Amnesty International published a report accusing the Ukrainian army on Thursday of stationing its troops and artillery near hospitals, schools and residential buildings in a way that could constitute war crimes. The international human rights organization says it spent two months in Ukraine interviewing residents and collecting physical evidence to compile the report.
“Viable alternatives were available that would not endanger civilians – such as military bases or densely forested areas nearby, or other structures further away from residential areas,” the report said.
The report was harshly rejected by Ukrainian officials and civil society leaders. Perhaps the most surprising criticism came from Amnesty’s own operation in Ukraine.
“We did everything we could to prevent this report from being made public,” wrote Oksana Pokalchuk, head of Amnesty Ukraine on Facebook. She and her team say there are several discrepancies in the report, which was compiled by foreign observers, without any help from local staff.
Answer questions about Amnesty International’s findings, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said that Ukraine “regularly carries out evacuations of civilians from conflict areas”. Thousands of people are unable or unwilling to flee some of the towns along the front.
But Amnesty International says Ukrainian troops are sheltering alongside civilians away from active conflict zones, and Russian rocket fire at Ukrainian military positions has left several civilians dead.
Donatella Rovera, the author of the report, says situations like this happen on all sides of any war, and it is up to Ukrainians to address concerns as soon as possible.
“I think the level of self-censorship on this issue has been quite extraordinary,” Rovera said.
A clue to this self-censorship may lie in the way Ukrainian public sentiment has coalesced against any criticism of the Ukrainian military. Even despite Pokalchuk’s efforts to shut down the report, a Ukrainian website known for leaking the personal information of suspected “enemies” of Ukraine listed her as a “participant in acts of humanitarian aggression in Ukraine” and “guilty of denying Ukraine’s right to defend itself”. “One of the site’s founders is a senior Ukrainian foreign ministry official who handles relations with foreign journalists.
Like Amnesty International, NPR reporters also witnessed evidence of military presence near shelled civilian areas.
Ukrainian officials claimed that their defensive posture against Russia justified all tactics used so far and that the report unfairly implicated Ukraine in war crimes. A senior adviser to the Ukrainian president even accused the human rights group of being Russian propagandists promoting disinformation.
“Please stop creating a false reality where everyone is equally to blame. [for the war]Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said in a video broadcast on television. He joined a chorus of others in saying that foreign observers should blame only Russia for any threats against civilians.
“Every member of Amnesty’s Ukrainian office knows that only the Russian Federation [capitalization-sic] bears responsibility for the crime of aggression against Ukraine, in particular because several of our colleagues had to give up everything to save themselves and their families,” reads the statement from Amnesty Ukraine.
Amnesty International has produced dozens of reports on Russian war crimes. Rovera said she personally investigated when hundreds of tortured bodies ended up in the outskirts of Kyiv after Russia withdrew from the area.
“To say that issuing a four-page press release compares to the hundreds of pages we have issued since the start of the Russian invasion…is simply not true,” Rovera said.
The report notes that reports of Russia’s use of illegal weapons in civilian areas – including cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines – should give Ukraine even more reason to maintain its troops. away from civilians.
Amnesty International has given the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense six days to respond to specific evidence regarding Ukrainian military presence in civilian areas. The rights group’s Ukrainian office says that was not enough time.
Rovera says she understands that the Ukrainians are, in many ways, outgunned and outmatched, but that the credibility of Ukraine’s high morality requires full respect for international law — even if that puts its military at a tactical disadvantage.
As for Amnesty Ukraine, writes Pokalchuk, “we will continue to fight in any way possible, whatever the cost. My office and I believe in human rights, we believe in victory for Ukraine, and we believe that anyone guilty of war crimes will be brought to justice.”