After almost six decades working on the front line of human rights campaigns all over the world, Per Wastberg resigned last week. Wastberg, 88, the co-founder of the Swedish arm of Amnesty International, did so not because he had finally reached the end of a lifelong commitment to support the silenced, but because of his outrage at a press report produced by his counterparts in Amnesty’s international secretariat.
“Ukrainian fighting tactics endanger civilians,” read its headline. It went on to say that Ukrainian forces were putting civilians at risk and violating the laws of war, by basing themselves in schools and hospitals near residential areas. “Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” wrote Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, on August 4.
This, unsurprisingly, was seized on by Russia, with the Russian Embassy in the UK tweeting: “@Amnesty confirms #Ukraine tactics violate international humanitarian law & endanger civilians … exactly what #Russia has been saying all along. #StopNaziUkraine”.
“I found this very unfair,” says Wastberg, who founded Amnesty’s Swedish chapter in 1964. “It has a kind of false air of objectivity.” It ignored the fact, he argues, that Ukrainian troops are fighting a war they didn’t provoke against an aggressor intent on attacking them in civilian areas, where they have no choice but to operate.
Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty’s Ukrainian chapter, also resigned in protest, as did 60 members of Amnesty Norway. President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Amnesty of “trying to shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim”.
Amnesty has stood its ground, saying last Sunday in a statement that its fully stood by its findings, and that its “priority in this and in any conflict is ensuring that civilians are protected”. It also pointed out the multiple reports it has produced on Russia’s violations of international war in this conflict, and said that their assertions on Ukraine do not justify Russia’s actions.
Just how did the world’s largest and best-known human rights organisation seemingly get it so wrong?
Founded in Britain in 1961 by a lawyer, Peter Benenson, Amnesty has become the authoritative voice on questions of torture, imprisonment, freedom and war. It used to have a singular objective: to support prisoners of conscience, a term coined by Benenson after he read that two Portuguese students had been imprisoned for seven years for raising a toast to freedom. He conceived of a network of letter-writers who could pressure governments into freeing those jailed for their views, as long as they were non-violent. He also pressured governments whatever their politics: from right-wing autocracies to communist dictatorships. It laid the groundwork for one of Amnesty’s most proudly cited values: objectivity.
It now goes far beyond letter-writing — putting researchers on the ground during wars and interviewing civilians. Amnesty has operated in countless conflict zones and helped hold both sides of a war accountable.
“In recent conflicts between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, the reports were extremely influential, in that they directed attention to what is legitimate and what is not on both sides,” says Eyal Benvenisti, professor of international law at Cambridge.
Yet the Ukraine report is not Amnesty’s only recent controversy. In February this year it designated Israel an apartheid state, a move that the head of its Israeli arm described as a “punch in the gut”. In February 2021 it revoked the prisoner-of-conscience status of Russian anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny for anti-immigration views he had espoused in 2007. The decision was later reversed.
Some blame the expansion of Amnesty’s remit into the inevitably complicated area where good and evil are not always black and white: how can it stand up for migrant rights and simultaneously support Navalny, who talked about deporting migrants?
“Amnesty gradually became a more and more bureaucratic organisation with great influence, and the Nobel peace prize [which it won in 1977], and changed a lot,” Wastberg says.
It is a sentiment echoed by a former Amnesty employee, who wished to remain anonymous, who claims that the large international secretariat is “extremely dismissive” of local chapters operating on the ground.
According to Benvenisti, the only way to assess the necessity of where Ukrainian forces are fighting is to talk to them directly, something Pokalchuk campaigned for.
“If there are other good reasons to situate a military objective within a civilian area, then it is not prohibited. For example, if you are the defensive force, and you want to defend your territory from an invading army,” he says.
Legal issues aside, a more pragmatic question looms over Amnesty’s work.
“Before you do anything, you think: ‘What is it that you’re trying to achieve?’” says the former Amnesty employee. “Because if you really wanted to make Ukrainian civilians more protected, you definitely achieved the exact opposite.”