Consider Amnesty’s message, don’t shoot the messenger – POLITICO


Paul Taylor, a POLITICO editor, writes the « Europe At Large » column.

PARIS — Amnesty International, the global human rights group, is no stranger to controversy.

In its 60 years of illuminating the darkest corners of man’s inhumanity to man, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization has often offended the powerful and made it more inconvenient for the liberal democracies to ignore their own values ​​in the conduct of foreign policy.

Today Amnesty is accused of ‘victim blaming’ and acting like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ‘useful idiots’ because it issued a statement criticizing the conduct of Ukraine’s armed forces at a time when democracy was buoyed by the West resists a Russian invasion. But it is wrong to accuse the group of criticizing Ukraine.

Let’s be clear: Amnesty has relentlessly criticized Moscow’s war of aggression against its neighbor, documenting assaults on civilian neighborhoods; collect evidence of war crimes, torture and disappearances; and denounce the blocking of humanitarian aid to civilians in the war zone. Their assessments prompted Russian authorities to close the group’s Moscow office in April, along with those of other international NGOs, all of which were branded as « foreign agents ».

Yet a single report criticizing the Ukrainian armed forces for endangering the lives of civilians through the way they operated in certain residential areas sparked a storm of Ukrainian and Western outrage, prompting the head of Amnesty’s office to Kyiv, Oksana Pokalchuk, as well as the co-founder of the Swedish branch of Amnesty International to resign.

Pokalchuk said his local team was not properly consulted on the report, which « unintentionally sounded like support for Russian narratives » and failed to take into account the full context of a country torn apart by invaders. “Seeking to protect civilians, this research has instead become a Russian propaganda tool,” she added.

Western critics have also recalled that Amnesty stripped Putin’s most vocal domestic political opponent, Alexei Navalny, of its ‘prisoner of conscience’ label last year over xenophobic comments he made. more than a decade earlier, only to restore the status after protests.

Some see it as a model of pro-Russian or anti-Western bias.

However, as even a cursory glance at Amnesty’s publications on Russia shows, this is nonsense. Any trustworthy human rights organization must apply consistent standards to all parties to a conflict, without turning a blind eye to the behavior of “our side”.

Western citizens are happy enough to light an Amnesty candle in support of prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, Iran or Cuba. However, the group has been lambasted for criticizing the United States for its use of indefinite detention without trial at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for terrorism suspects after the September 11 attacks, and similarly for comparing Israel’s treatment Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. apartheid.

In seeking to use an objective ethical standard, Amnesty faces the same moral dilemmas as reputable international media.

When I was Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem in the 1980s, for example, I came under frequent pressure from supporters of Israel and the Palestinians regarding our real-time coverage of the first Palestinian intifada, a largely unarmed uprising in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, which broke out in 1987.

Some accused us of double standards because we were unable to provide similar coverage of the repression in Syria or Algeria. We have also been accused of creating a false equivalence between occupiers and occupied – or between “security forces” and “terrorists” – and of underreporting higher casualty numbers in other parts of the world.

Sometimes we’ve been criticized for not letting local staff determine the angle of an article, or for not giving authorities enough time to respond before publication – even though it mostly denied them the chance to use censorship to silence us or to expose us preemptively. .

I remember being greeted with denials and accusations of anti-Semitism when I briefed a Jewish delegation from Canada on the situation in Gaza. I invited the band members to come to Gaza the next morning to see for themselves. There were no takers.

Amnesty’s report may be politically inconvenient for the Ukrainian government and its Western allies, but that doesn’t make it wrong or inaccurate. No country, even under the brutal assault of a bullying neighbor, is beyond reproach.

The organization says its researchers have documented several instances of Ukrainian forces basing themselves in schools and hospitals and launching attacks from populated neighborhoods, drawing Russian fire that endangered civilian lives. Of course, since Moscow’s forces brought the war to the cities early on, the Ukrainian defenders had no choice but to operate in these urban areas. But Amnesty says they should have done more to evacuate non-combatants.

A mature response to such criticism would be to take the findings seriously and work to improve military practices and civilian protection – not shoot the messenger.

President Volodymyr Zelensky would have been better off acknowledging that even his heroic defenders are capable of error and taking the report to heart, instead of accusing Amnesty of granting « amnesty to the terrorist state and shifting responsibility from aggressor to victim.

Encouragingly, there are signs that Kyiv is now trying to persuade civilians to leave combat areas before launching military operations, notably in the Kherson region, where it has made repeated public appeals to citizens to leave before a probable Ukrainian counter-offensive.

It is also important to remember that Amnesty International is not above criticism either. A 2019 report commissioned after the suicides of two employees revealed a toxic workplace culture of bullying, public humiliation and discrimination within the organization. And in response to the findings, Amnesty introduced a series of internal reforms and decentralized its organisation, reducing the power of its London-based international secretariat.

Ukraine should respond to Amnesty’s criticisms in the same spirit. And its Western supporters should want to ensure that the billions of taxpayers’ money poured into Ukraine to bolster its self-defense and keep it financially afloat are properly spent.

Maintaining public support for Ukraine’s struggle requires a constructive response to criticism from reputable human rights organizations, without trying to muzzle them or discredit their findings.


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