Amnesty report: Is Ukraine consciously accepting civilian casualties?


As of: August 17, 2022 10:49 a.m

A report by Amnesty International accuses the Ukrainian military of endangering civilians. Kyiv rejects the allegations. What do other aid organizations and experts say about this?

By Pascal Siggelkow, editorial team at ARD-faktenfinder

“Ukrainian combat tactics endanger civilians”: That is the headline of an investigative report by the aid organization Amnesty International on violations of international law in the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. In it, Amnesty complains that the Ukrainian troops are deliberately using civilian facilities such as schools or hospitals as military posts – thereby putting civilians in unnecessary danger.

The reactions to the report didn’t take long to arrive: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of a “manipulative report”, and the Ukraine head of Amnesty resigned in protest. The human rights organization itself stuck to the allegations – but distanced itself from the appropriation of the report by Russian state media.

Cities are the “main target” of the Russian army

Ulf Steindl, research associate at the Austria Institute for European and Security Policy, sees major flaws in the Amnesty report. This would, among other things, create the impression “that Russian attacks on civilian buildings are primarily because Ukrainian units are there.” However, there is no evidence of this.

“Rather, Russian units have been using weapons specifically against residential areas since the first days of the war,” says Steindl. “This appears to follow a clear strategy to cause terror among the population and consequently lower morale.” In addition, the Ukrainian army rarely has a choice as to where it has to defend itself. “The main goal of the Russian armed forces has repeatedly been to capture urban centers.” Because of the targeted attacks against residential buildings, stationing Ukrainian troops for defense also makes sense.

To do this, the Ukrainian army needs staging areas, logistics infrastructure, hospitals and protection, which is why schools and hospitals often inevitably have to be taken over. Amnesty’s report lacks details and does not provide sufficient evidence of Ukrainian wrongdoing, said Steindl. “This does not mean that there were no wrongdoings on the Ukrainian side.”

Accusations against the Ukrainian army are not new

The allegations against the Ukrainian military are not entirely new. The human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) had already warned in July that both Ukrainian and Russian military bases were endangering civilians. Specifically, the organization criticized the fact that both armies had set up military bases in populated areas without first bringing the residents to safety – a violation of international humanitarian law.

At the time, HRW wrote about four cases it investigated in which Russian forces set up military bases in populated areas and unnecessarily endangered civilians. In three cases, Ukrainian armed forces stationed troops in houses where people lived.

A report by the UN Commission for Human Rights (OHCHR) also accused the Ukrainian army of positioning troops near civilian facilities. At the same time, however, the OHCHR listed a significantly larger number and range of potential human rights violations and war crimes by Russian soldiers.

“This is a dilemma for Ukraine”

Erich Vad, former military policy advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, believes Amnesty’s allegations are plausible. Ukraine would have an interest in moving the fighting to urban areas if possible. “For Ukraine, militarily, it is the only way to slow the Russian advance.” However, fights in urban zones are usually lengthy and in any case very bloody. “This is of course a dilemma for Ukraine,” says Vad.

This puts civilians at risk virtually unavoidable. “Russia, on the other hand, wants to minimize losses in urban areas, so it uses artillery to attack,” says Vad. As a result, both parties to the war would accept that civilians would be harmed or killed.

Ralph Thiele, chairman of the Political-Military Society Association, sees it similarly. “Moving the fighting to urban areas is a classic weapon of the weaker in a war,” he says. But that is exactly what increases the likelihood of civilian casualties.

“From a military point of view, an effective means”

“From a military point of view, it is an effective means,” says Vad. “The attacker has to use more resources and has higher losses. Therefore, in view of the Amnesty International report, it is difficult to make a clear attribution of blame.” Avoiding an open field battle outside inhabited areas is often the only way to withstand a materially superior opponent. This was also practiced in previous wars such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

Vad explains his outrage over the Amnesty International report by saying that Ukraine, as a country under attack, is viewed morally differently in the West than Russia. “We are in an information war.” Therefore, any misconduct will of course be used by the other side for propaganda purposes. Thiele sees it that way too. “A critical questioning of Ukraine is not wanted,” says the retired colonel. D. “However, we must base our values ​​on both warring parties.”

All warring parties must comply with international law

The excitement over Amnesty International’s report also has a lot to do with the way the allegations are formulated and weighted. Zelensky, for example, spoke of a “perpetrator-victim reversal” because Russian war crimes would not be mentioned. Even if this certainly plays a role from a moral point of view, it should be assessed differently from an international law perspective, says Stefan Talmon from the University of Bonn.

“Every act of war is assessed individually, even if the Russian war of aggression is generally contrary to international law,” says the holder of the chair of international law. All warring parties are obliged to comply with international law. This also includes not putting civilians in danger. Through military positions in civilian facilities, these could be viewed as “legitimate targets” and justify an attack, at least from an international law perspective.

Final assessment not possible

However, that does not mean that the military is generally prohibited from operating near civilians and civilian facilities, says Alexander Wentker, research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law. This is not even possible in practice. “Under international law, the defending party is therefore obliged to endeavor to remove the civilian population and civilian objects from the vicinity of military targets, as far as possible.”

This also includes avoiding setting up military targets within or near densely populated areas. However, it was not possible to conclusively evaluate Amnesty’s allegations because of the multitude of circumstances that play a role. “In order to assess Ukraine’s compliance or violation of these obligations, further, more detailed background information on the cases listed by Amnesty International would be required.”

Stefan Oeter, professor at the Faculty of Law at the University of Hamburg, believes it is conceivable that the Russian military could use the Amnesty report as an excuse to specifically attack civilian facilities. “But the Russian armed forces clearly don’t care about the rules of international humanitarian law anyway and attack purely civilian targets indiscriminately,” he says.

In any case, international law does not allow an attacking party to accept any “collateral damage,” said Oeter. This applies, among other things, to attacks on “militarily subordinate targets” in which “excessively high accompanying damage to the civilian population” would be accepted.

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