How Amnesty’s Ukraine report harmed the fight for human rights

There is no more cutting commentary than an organization like Amnesty having fallen into the trap of acting like a useful fool. That’s the accusation leveled against the leading human rights organization last week, after it published a report into the conduct of Ukraine’s defense forces in orchestrating the nation’s response to the Russian invasion.

Prejudicial allegations have emerged that the Amnesty reports were, in fact, the products of a colonialist and biased mentality. The decision by Agnès Callamard, the organisation’s general secretary, to then take to social media to label her critics as “mobs and trolls” has further exacerbated the backlash.

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

The leaders of these organizations would privately dispute that thought, but their leaders actually revel in stirring up controversy like this because it’s good for business. Their calculation is that a strong pool of supporters can be tapped. This constituency rallies in times of opprobrium and signs new memberships or makes larger donations.

The extra revenue increases funding for more research that takes controversial positions, sparking new rounds of controversy. The catch, of course, is that there’s really no game on the high moral ground anymore. This becomes just one side of the swamp that Amnesty and its peers willingly deliver to those who earn its derision.

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

Others meaner than me attribute this to something called the Savior complex

Oksana Pokalchuk, head of Amnesty’s Ukraine office, took to Facebook to reveal the report was compiled by what is called the organization’s crisis response department. This London-based unit had ignored and ignored every possible argument against the findings it wanted to promote. She said Amnesty management had rejected her team’s requests not to publish the report.

So a major report on Ukraine and the plight of its civilians ended up being an English-only effort. Amnesty’s office in Ukraine has not translated the report into Ukrainian or uploaded the material to its Ukrainian website. The fact that Russia’s major TV news outlets and the country’s embassy in London happily picked up and promoted the report tells its own story.

It’s hard to imagine that Amnesty’s internal culture would allow this kind of power play of one part of the organization through another section, especially the specialized beat.

There is an explanation which lies in the bias of ideology. This allows a conviction to override the process. The flaw is more likely to be found where action is tolerated from above. In other words, Amnesty International’s own worldview, at the highest level, demanded these conclusions and the system duly complied with them.

Others nastier than me attribute this to something called the Savior complex, which corrupts the work and produces material that is either technically wrong or distorted in drawing its conclusions.

The organization’s record, particularly in the Middle East, has long come under fire. Syrian opposition groups are regularly the target of hostile reports while lack of access has led to a dearth of studies on the Assad regime and its allies.

Members of the White Helmets, equipped with protective gear, prepare to search for and neutralize unexploded weapons in a field in Aleppo province, northern Syria, in June.  AFP

One of the many issues that has arisen is that it employed Muslim Brotherhood figures in 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 murder of Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad.

The group worked with Cage, a London-based advocacy organization linked to extremists. In doing so, he lent his international authority to fringe campaigns against the detention of Cage sympathizers and allies as well as his work to undermine counter-extremism efforts in Western Europe.

The architecture of the human rights legal system built in the second half of the 20th century actually poses serious challenges. Keepers of the century-old Laws of War are more desperately needed than ever due to the events of a battery of conflicts. Not only does this mean embracing once again the very principles of civility and compassion that underlie these conventions, but it also means updating these laws and precepts so that modern technology is covered and automation does not not be considered incidental to the overall effort. .

Alienation from key constituencies is something that can be pushed out of the militant organizations themselves. The rise of social media wars over the subject is a battleground that people like 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 this calamity.

Published: 08 Aug 2022, 04:00

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