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Experts widely condemn Amnesty International report alleging Ukrainian war crimes

DANIEL ESTRIN, HOST:

On Thursday, the human rights group Amnesty International published a scathing report accusing the Ukrainian military of stationing its troops near civilian areas in ways that may amount to war crimes. Almost as quickly as it was released, Ukrainian and international experts condemned the report as misleading. Joining us now from Kyiv is NPR's Julian Hayda, who has been following this for us. Welcome.

ESTRIN: Hi, Daniel.

ESTRIN: First question, is the amnesty report credible?

JULIAN HAYDA, BYLINE: Well, critics from Ukraine's president on down say that the report amounts to disinformation. And Amnesty's own Ukraine office says that the foreign-based researchers glossed over critical information that can be easily manipulated or misunderstood. Now, I don't think there's much doubt that what the researchers saw is technically true, that there are situations where soldiers are quartered in homes next to civilians, that Ukrainian troops do spend time inside of vacant hospitals and schools and so on. My colleagues and I have even seen some examples of this. And that can theoretically set a bad precedent where Russians returning fire might miss and kill some bystanders. Amnesty says Ukraine should do better at evacuating civilians from the areas that they're operating in, but Ukraine's defense ministry says that they've done that. Thousands of people either can't or won't leave.

ESTRIN: So if what the Amnesty researchers documented is true, as you say, what is the criticism against the report?

HAYDA: Yeah, so the criticism mostly comes down to what the report doesn't say as opposed to what it does say. The report implies that Ukraine may be committing war crimes and says that soldiers actions might be interpreted as using civilians as human shields. So I talked to the report's author, Donatella Rivera, who's very well known in this area of human rights research. And she said that being in schools and hospitals isn't strictly against international law. And so critics are asking, who gets to determine what is or isn't within the bounds of international law? How far do soldiers need to be away from civilians, especially in cases of defensive urban warfare, to be within the bounds of legal warfare? It's just too ambiguous.

ESTRIN: This report has made a lot of people pretty mad in Ukraine, right?

HAYDA: Yeah. It's been the talk of the streets for days. There's even a viral meme that the organization might change its name to something like Shamnesty (ph) International. Now, one of the reasons for this is because Russia has been trying to justify its invasion of Ukraine since before it even happened. And Ukrainians are mad that Russian media has really run with this Amnesty report, and they've jumped onto some of those implied conclusions that Ukrainians are all war criminals. I talked to Ilya Lozovsky from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, which just like Amnesty, monitors compliance with international law in Ukraine. He says the Amnesty report was written so clumsily, it borders on negligent.

ILYA LOZOVSKY: God forbid, you know, some explosion in a shelter at a hospital that kills 50 people, the Russians are going to say, well, look, even Amnesty International said the Ukrainians are making us do this.

HAYDA: What's interesting is that Amnesty International itself has reported plenty of cases where Russians have attacked civilian sites without any pretext of returning fire, like the time that the Russians bombed a theater in Mariupol where civilians were sheltering back in March. Ukrainians say there wouldn't have been any dead civilians at all if Russia hadn't invaded in the first place. Ukraine's foreign minister says any suggestion Ukraine provokes attacks is simply untrue and amounts to victim blaming.

ESTRIN: How is Amnesty's Ukrainian researchers on the ground? How are they affected by all this?

HAYDA: Well, when the report came out, the local office immediately distanced themselves. They claimed it was compiled by foreign observers who just parachuted into the country. The head of the Ukraine office was personally criticized, though. And yesterday she resigned after getting doxxed (ph). That's a term for having your personal details posted online against your consent.

ESTRIN: NPR's Julian Hayda. Thank you.

HAYDA: Thank you, Daniel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julian Hayda