How Amnesty's Ukraine report has damaged the fight for human rights

Among the many things, the report exposes the organisation's moral high-handedness

View of flowers and banners calling for 'peace in Ukraine' put up by Amnesty International activists in front of the Russian Embassy in Mexico City in March. EPA
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There is no more cutting a comment than an organisation such as Amnesty having fallen into the trap of acting as a useful fool. That was the charge levelled at the leading human rights organisation last week, after it issued a report on the conduct of the Ukrainian defence forces in orchestrating the nation's response to Russia’s invasion.

Damaging allegations emerged that Amnesty’s reports were, in effect, products of a colonialist and biased mentality. The decision by Agnes Callamard, the organisation’s secretary general, to then reach for social media to call its critics "mobs and trolls" further inflamed the backlash.

For organisations that depend on occupying the moral high ground, such as Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace and Amnesty, this is not a good place to be.

The leaders of these organisations would privately dispute this thinking, but their executives actually revel in stirring up controversy like this because it is good for business. Their calculation is that a strong pool of sympathisers can be tapped. This constituency rallies around in moments of opprobrium and signs new memberships or makes bigger donations.

Extra income boosts funding for more pieces of research that take controversial stances, triggering new rounds of controversy. The trap, of course, is that there is really no longer a play on the moral high ground. It becomes just one side of the swamp that Amnesty and its peers readily consign to those who earn its derision.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was among the "mobs and trolls", as was – believe it or not – Ukraine's Amnesty office. Melinda Simmons, Britain's ambassador to Ukraine, joined the pile-on with a Twitter statement that "the only things endangering [Ukrainian] civilians are missiles and guns and marauding Russian troops. Full stop".

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba speaks with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna at the memorial wall in Kyiv in May. AFP
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Others more unkind than me put this down to what's known as the Saviour Complex

Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of the Amnesty office in Ukraine, took to Facebook to reveal that the report was written by something called the Crisis Response Department in the organisation. This London-based unit had disregarded and ignored all possible arguments against the findings it wished to promote. She said that Amnesty’s leadership had dismissed her team's pleas not to publish the report.

So a major report on Ukraine and the plight of its civilians ended up being an English-language-only effort. Amnesty's Ukraine office would not translate the report into Ukrainian or upload the material on its Ukrainian website. The fact that Russia’s main television news and the country’s embassy in London gleefully picked up and promoted the report tells its own story.

It is hard to imagine that the internal culture of Amnesty would allow this kind of powerplay from one part of the organisation across another section, especially the specialist beat.

There is one explanation that lies in the partiality of ideology. This allows for a conviction to trump process. The flaw is most likely to be found where the action is condoned from the very top. In other words, Amnesty’s own world view, at the very highest levels, demanded these findings and duly the system delivered.

Others more unkind than me put this down to what's known as the Saviour Complex, which corrupts work and produces material that is either technically wrong or distorted in drawing its conclusions.

The track record of the organisation, particularly in the Middle East, has long been under fire. Syrian opposition groups are regularly targeted with hostile reports while a lack of access has resulted in a dearth of studies on the Assad regime and its allies.

Members of White Helmets, equipped with protective outfits, get ready to search and neutralise unexploded weapons in a field in Syria's northern Aleppo province in June. AFP

One of a number of problems to have arisen is that it employed figures in the Muslim Brotherhood as part of its advocacy operations and implicated the late Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres in the “murder” of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004. Ms Callamard raised human rights law objections to the 2020 killing of the Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

The group has worked with the extremist-linked Cage, a London-based advocacy organisation. In doing so, it lent its international authority to fringe campaigns against the detention of Cage sympathisers and allies as well as its work to undermine counter-extremism efforts in Western Europe.

There are, in fact, severe challenges to the architecture of the human rights legal system constructed in the second half of the 20th century. Guardians of the century-old laws of war are more desperately needed than ever because of events in a battery of conflicts. Not only does this revolve around embracing once again the very principles of civility and compassion that lay behind these conventions, it also involves updating these laws and precepts so that modern technology is covered and automation does not come to be seen as ancillary to the whole effort.

Alienation of key constituencies is something that can be laid at the door of campaigning organisations themselves. The rise of social media wars on the topic is a battlefield that people such as Ms Callamard are ill-equipped to handle.

The problem is that there is a long-running disaster unfolding in the realm of winning the argument to defend human rights. Amnesty is playing its own tragic role in that calamity.

Published: August 08, 2022, 4:00 AM
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