The director of Amnesty International’s Ukraine office resigned on Friday to protest a lengthy statement by the wider organization that accuses Ukrainian soldiers of employing tactics of war that endanger civilians.
In what it called an “extended press release,” the international human rights group said on Thursday that “Ukrainian forces have put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals.”
News of the statement ignited an internal debate in Amnesty International and was met with widespread and almost universal condemnation in Ukraine, which has been defending itself against a Russian army that has vastly more firepower and has decimated urban areas and tortured and killed thousands of civilians.
The news release said that the organization’s findings in no way justified the Russian forces’ tactics, and that Amnesty International had previously documented Russian war crimes, but that was not enough to placate the group’s critics, including its Ukraine director, Oksana Pokalchuk.
“If you don’t live in a country that’s been invaded by occupiers who are tearing it apart, you probably don’t understand what it is like to condemn the defending army,” she wrote in a Facebook post announcing her resignation after seven years with the organization. “And there are no words in any language that are able to explain it to someone who has not felt this pain.”
She also worried that the statement, which was prepared in the group’s main office, not by its Ukrainian arm, would be used and abused by the Kremlin. “Without wanting it, the organization created material that sounded like support for Russian narratives,” Ms. Pokalchuk said. “Seeking to protect civilians, this research instead became a tool of Russian propaganda.”
The statement has underscored the problems raised by Ukrainian forces fighting in urban settings, one of the most destructive forms of warfare. In the five months since Russia invaded Ukraine, the country’s cities have become the focal point for both offensive and defensive operations.
Experts in the rules of war said there were no proscriptions against using schools, hospitals, museums and other public places as military command posts or bases, so long as they were not being used for their peacetime purposes.
The outcry has not altered Amnesty International’s position.
“While we fully stand by our findings, we regret the pain caused,” Alexander Artemyev, a spokesman, said in an email on Sunday. “Amnesty International’s priority in this and in any conflict is ensuring that civilians are protected. Indeed, this was our sole objective when releasing this latest piece of research.”
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