Silence over Israel's crimes in Gaza show the Amnesty Ukraine report outrage is hypocritical
All too often during conflicts, human rights organisations are kicked around like political footballs. Whenever they release a report criticising one side for certain violations, more likely than not, accusations of inaccuracy, bias or even more serious charges, tend to follow. Meanwhile, others will use the report as ‘gotcha’ moment against the enemy and for the purposes of their own propaganda.
This is precisely what occurred last week, when Amnesty International released a report criticising Ukrainian forces for violating international law and ‘endangering civilians’ by placing military bases close to and launching attacks from civilian areas, including schools and hospitals. Finally, Russia, with vicious excitement, had what seemed like proof of Ukrainian guilt in the conflict, something for its propagandists to get their teeth into.
The Russian Embassy in the UK retweeted a screenshot with the headline ‘Ukraine fighting tactics endanger civilians’, writing a summary of the report, concluding that this is ’what Russia has been saying all along’ alongside the absurd hashtag ‘StopNaziUkraine’. On the other side, Ukrainian president Zelenskyy condemned the report, accusing Amnesty of an “attempt … to shift blame from the aggressor to the victim of aggression.”
''Israel claimed it was waging war against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and, in order to deflect from the fact that most of the people it had murdered were Palestinian civilians, the Israeli ambassador to the UN called for the security council to place ‘full accountability’ at the hands of PIJ due to its alleged use of civilians as ‘human shields’, despite no evidence of this occurring.''
The accusation from the Ukrainian side wasn’t just that Amnesty had got the findings wrong in the report, but that they were actively aiding in the propagation of Russian propaganda. The anger against the Amnesty report was unprecedented – it united the US and UK governments, international think-tanks and all the major Western media outlets (the Times went so far as to call the group that has documented so many Russian crimes since the invasion ‘Putin’s Propagandists’ in an editorial) in condemnation of it.
Despite Russian gloating and pro-Ukrainian outrage, the original Amnesty report contained the comment that the ‘violations in no way justify Russia’s indiscriminate attacks, which have killed and injured countless civilians.’
Though originally defiant, Amnesty finally released a statement clarifying that though it stood by its findings, it recognised and ‘deeply regrets the distress and anger’ caused by the way it presented the information, and reiterating the fact nothing in the report ‘justifies Russian violations’.
There is a good argument against the idea that Ukraine violated international law, however, another key question that must be asked is whether it was right for Amnesty to publish this kind of report given the circumstances.
Human rights organisations like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, or even international bodies like the UN, claim to adhere strictly to balance and impartiality on these questions, reporting on violations from the oppressed in the same way as they report on the crimes of the oppressor.
Sometimes this unyielding, some might say utopian, quest for ‘truth’ regardless of context can be problematic – it often gives a false equivalence in terms of determining the nature of the violence of both sides.
But has this issue in Ukraine now forced humanitarian groups and the world to look at conflict through a new lens? Perhaps not so much as that of the view ultra-partial activist who brooks no criticism of the side they support, but rather of simply looking at it through the prism of the moral and ethical principle that the violence of the oppressed can never be judged in the same way as the violence of the oppressor? If not, it should.
Take another flashpoint as an example, namely the recent three-day assault by the IDF on Gaza that saw 49 Palestinians killed, including 17 children. Israel claimed it was waging war against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and, in order to deflect from the fact that most of the people it had murdered were Palestinian civilians, the Israeli ambassador to the UN called for the security council to place ‘full accountability’ at the hands of PIJ due to its alleged use of civilians as ‘human shields’, despite no evidence of this occurring.
Israel uses the accusation of ‘human shield’ as a cover for what most honest observers know are, much like Russia in Ukraine, indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas of Gaza as a means of terrorising the population. Even if this were not the case, the fact that Gaza is one of the most densely populated areas on earth means that Israel bombing the Strip is guaranteed to kill innocents.
Israel knows this and its allies and supporters – including the US, UK, EU and the very many Western media outlets and commentators who have mobilised against Amnesty’s report in Ukraine also know it. But still, when it comes to Palestine, they’d mostly all be openly or tacitly endorsing Israeli propaganda that is identical to that of Russia’s regarding ‘human shields’ – they’d be endorsing the kind of report that Amnesty just released.
This Amnesty incident ought to lead to a wider change in the way the world looks at all conflicts. Clearly, so do Amnesty who have announced an independent investigation into the report, despite impartiality and balance. After all, there needs to be a major distinction in the way the world judges groups that are forced into war, and the states that force war upon them.
The outrage over the report’s framing can’t just stop at Ukraine. Sadly, however, given the recent slaughter in Gaza was met with a deafening silence or outright support for Israel by many of those invested in Ukraine, it’s unlikely to lead to a spontaneous breakout of consistency on the fact that all victims of oppression should be worthy.
Sam Hamad is a writer and History PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow focusing on totalitarian ideologies.
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