Ukraine has reacted furiously to an Amnesty International report that accuses it of riding roughshod with civilians in the country’s fight against Russia.
In a report, the humanitarian organisation claimed the Ukrainian military has endangered civilians by placing bases and weapons in residential areas — including schools and hospitals — as it has sought to repel the Russian invasion.
“Ukraine’s tactics have violated international humanitarian law as they’ve turned civilian objects into military targets,” said Amnesty. “The ensuing Russian strikes in populated areas have killed civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure.”
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the findings.
Amnesty “transfers the responsibility from the aggressor to the victim,” he said in his daily video address, accusing the NGO of “attempting to grant amnesty to the terrorist state” of Russia.
“The aggression against our state is unjustified, invasive and terrorist,” Zelenskyy added.”If someone writes a report in which the victim and the aggressor are in some way put on an equal footing, if some data on the victim is analysed and the actions of the perpetrator ignored, this cannot be tolerated.”
In its report, which was based on several weeks of research in the Kharkiv, Donbas and Mykolaiv regions, Amnesty called on Ukraine’s armed forces to adhere to the law.
“Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” said Agnès Callamard, the NGO’s secretary general.
International humanitarian law requires that all parties to a conflict should avoid locating, to the maximum extent feasible, military objectives within or near densely-populated areas.
There are other obligations to shield civilians from harm by removing them from areas near military objectives and giving effective warning of attacks, which could affect the civilian population.
Ukraine ‘is protecting its land’
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Maliar, said Ukrainian soldiers were deployed in cities and populated areas to defend them from Russian attack, saying it was one endangering civilians.
“The Russian Federation is committing the crime here,” she said. “Ukraine is protecting its land. Moscow ignores all the rules of war. And unlike Ukraine, it doesn’t let in international organisations like Amnesty.”
Researchers at Amnesty inspected strike sites, interviewed survivors, witnesses and relatives of victims of attacks, and carried out remote-sensing and weapons analyses between April and June in their investigation.
They said investigators found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within residential areas as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages across the three southeastern regions.
Dmytro Kouleba, head of Ukrainian diplomacy, said he was “outraged” by Amnesty’s “unfair” accusations.
According to Kouleba, their report creates “a false balance between the oppressor and the victim, between the country that is destroying hundreds and thousands of civilians, cities, territories and [a] country that is desperately defending itself.”
The report claimed that the Ukrainian military could have positioned itself elsewhere to avoid civilian deaths.
“Most residential areas where soldiers located themselves were miles away from front lines and viable alternatives were available that would not have endangered civilians – such as military bases, densely-wooded areas or other structures further from residential areas,” Amnesty researchers said.
In the cases it documented, Amnesty said it was not aware if the Ukrainian military had asked civilians or helped them evacuate from nearby buildings, which it said was a “feasible precaution.”
However, Amnesty pointed out that Ukraine had not uniformly located military targets in civilian areas.
In certain areas where it claimed Russia had committed war crimes – such as Kharkiv – Amnesty did not find evidence of Ukrainian forces locating themselves in civilian areas.
Russia denies allegations it has committed war crimes in Ukraine.