WASHINGTON — Amnesty International’s board has sat for months on a report critical of the group after it accused Ukrainian forces of illegally endangering civilians while fighting Russia, according to documents and a person familiar with the matter.
The 18-page report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, underscores the complexity of applying international law to aspects of the conflict in Ukraine — and the continuing sensitivity of a matter that prompted a fierce and swift backlash to the human rights group.
In a lengthy statement on Aug. 4, Amnesty International accused Ukrainian forces of a pattern of illegally putting “civilians in harm’s way” by housing soldiers nearby and launching attacks from populated areas. Russia, which has shelled civilian buildings and killed many civilians, portrayed the finding as vindication, but it otherwise incited outrage.
In response, the group expressed deep regret for “the distress and anger” its statement caused and announced it would conduct an external evaluation to learn “what exactly went wrong and why.” As part of that, Amnesty International’s board commissioned an independent legal review of whether the substance of what it had said was legitimate.
A review panel of five international humanitarian law experts received internal emails and interviewed staff members.
In some respects, the report by the review panel absolved Amnesty International, concluding that it was proper to evaluate whether a defender, not just an aggressor, was obeying the laws of war, and saying that Amnesty’s records made clear that Ukrainian forces were frequently near civilians.
Under international law, it wrote, both sides in any conflict must try to protect civilians, regardless of the rightness of their cause. As a result, it is “entirely appropriate” for a rights organization to criticize violations by a victim of aggression, “provided that there is sufficient evidence of such violations.”
But the review panel nevertheless unanimously concluded that Amnesty International had botched its statement in several ways and that its key conclusions that Ukraine violated international law were “not sufficiently substantiated” by the available evidence.
The overall narrative of the Aug. 4 release was “written in language that was ambiguous, imprecise and in some respects legally questionable,” the report found. “This is particularly the case with the opening paragraphs, which could be read as implying — even though this was not A.I.’s intention — that, on a systemic or general level, Ukrainian forces were primarily or equally to blame for the death of civilians resulting from attacks by Russia.”
An earlier version of the report was harsher, according to the person briefed on the matter. But Amnesty International lobbied the panel to soften its tone, and it did so in some respects — like revising its characterization of Amnesty’s conclusion that Ukrainian forces violated international law from “not substantiated” to “not sufficiently substantiated.”
The panel delivered its final revision in early February, the person said, and asked to be consulted if Amnesty International’s board decided to release only excerpts. But instead, the board decided to merely use it as one of several sources for a lessons-learned document to circulate internally, the person said.
In an email, an Amnesty International spokesperson characterized the independent review as “part of an ongoing internal process, and these findings will inform and improve our future work.”
The statement did not indicate whether the group agreed with the report’s critiques.
The panel consisted of Emanuela-Chiara Gillard of the University of Oxford; Kevin Jon Heller of the University of Copenhagen; Eric Talbot Jensen of Brigham Young University; Marko Milanovic of the University of Reading; and Marco Sassòli of the University of Geneva.
Inside Amnesty International, the panel found, some staff members had expressed serious reservations about whether the group had sufficiently sought to consult with the Ukrainian government to understand why it deployed forces where it did and whether it would have been feasible to station them elsewhere.
“These reservations should have led to greater reflection and pause” before the organization issued its statement, the report said.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Russian forces appear to have committed a series of atrocities, indiscriminately shelling and killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure. (The International Criminal Court recently accused President Vladimir V. Putin of the war crime of abducting and deporting thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia and issued a warrant for his arrest.)
Against that backdrop, Amnesty International’s denunciation of Ukrainian tactics received a large amount of attention. Proponents of the Kremlin portrayed the findings as essentially showing that Ukraine was to blame for the deaths of Ukrainian civilians at Russia’s hands.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, cited the findings as part of justifying Russia’s occupation of a nuclear power plant in Ukraine.
“We don’t use the tactics Ukrainian armed forces are using — using the civilian objects as military cover, I would say, what Amnesty International recently proved in a report, which we were saying all the time in all the meetings with the Security Council,” he said.
The statement did not, in fact, accuse Ukraine of using civilians as human shields, only of failing to take precautions to protect them. Still, the backlash was fierce. President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine accused the organization of trying to “shift the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.”
Inside Amnesty International, its statement was deeply contentious. Its Ukraine director, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned in protest, noting that Russia was accused of atrocities in the towns it occupied and Ukraine was trying to prevent more such places from falling. She accused the group of “giving Russia a justification to continue its indiscriminate attacks.” The group’s branch in Canada issued a statement expressing regret over “the magnitude and impact of these failings from an institution of our stature.”
While condemning Amnesty International’s analysis, the review panel agreed that the statement — which had lacked much detail — was backed in part by fact.
The report said the group’s researchers had documented “at least 42 specific instances in 19 towns and villages” where Ukrainian soldiers were operating near civilians. It also determined that several “attacks by Russian forces that appeared to be targeting the Ukrainian military resulted in death or injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects.”
That raised the question of whether the Ukrainian military had violated its legal obligations, under a 1977 expansion of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to take precautions to protect civilians in their areas of operations to “the maximum extent feasible.”
Essentially, that means if there are two equally good locations for the military to station itself, one closer to civilians and one farther away, combatants should opt for the latter so that any enemy does not kill civilians as collateral damage. If there is no equally good alternative, a military force should try to evacuate civilians to a safer place.
The news release accused Ukraine of a “pattern” of failing to take either step, while also saying it should have warned civilians. But the report said Amnesty International “failed to meaningfully engage with Ukrainian authorities” about whether equally good alternative locations, evacuations or warnings were feasible.
The report also said the descriptor “pattern” was imprudent because it implied that generally, “many or most of the civilian victims of the war died as a result of Ukraine’s decision to locate its forces in the vicinity of civilians,” as opposed to “Russia’s willingness to target civilians or civilian objects deliberately or indiscriminately.”
Lacking sufficient information, it said, the group should have used more cautious language.