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Amnesty International has issued a 33-page report on the treatment of captured combatants and of civilians caught in the crossfire of the civil war (‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’) that the governing regime in Kyiv launched in eastern Ukraine in April 2014. Titled, ‘ Breaking Bodies: Torture and Summary Killings in Eastern Ukraine‘, the report presents grave allegations against the Ukrainian government and against the defense forces of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics. Allegations include forced and illegal detentions, prisoner abuse and torture, and summary executions.
The report has made headlines in Western mainstream press. One reason for that is its authorship. Amnesty International is a respected and renowned agency. But another reason is the nature of the report itself-it accuses both sides in the civil war with equal vigour.
That appeals to editors of Western publications who for the past year have systematically ignored or downplayed the documented accusations levied against the Ukrainian government and its armed forces and allied paramilitaries in earlier human rights reports. Those include the report of Human Rights Watch in October 2014 saying that Kyiv is using cluster weapons against civilian targets, and the lengthy reports in November 2014 and March 2015 of the Moscow-based Foundation for the Study of Democracy. The Human Rights Watch report concerning cluster weapons was corroborated by a separate and coincidental New York Times investigation and by later findings of inspectors of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Is there any basis to Amnesty International’s equal treatment and equal blame against both sides? No there is not.
Firstly, Amnesty produces no numbers to back its equivalency treatment. It says these are difficult to ascertain. This may be true for arriving at very specific numbers. But given the volume of media and human rights reports documenting human rights violations and war crimes by Kyiv, and considering that the Ukrainian government controls more than 95 per cent of the territory of the country, it is a stretch, to say the least, to make an equivalency argument.
Secondly, the Amnesty report excludes reporting on the multiple documented cases of human rights atrocities throughout Ukraine, for example the massacre in Odessa on May 2, 2014 that saw more than 50 people killed by right-wing vigilantes. It makes no mention of the economic embargo and routine interruption of aid shipments imposed by Kyiv against the rebel territory, including cutting the pensions of seniors. Instead, the report selectively chooses the band of territory proximate to the actual combat zone in the southeast of Ukraine. As if documented human rights violations by the Ukraine government elsewhere in the country would have no bearing on its conduct in the war zone, a war zone, moreover, that Kyiv has created. As if the recent string of killings of journalists and politicians in Kyiv and other cities of the country are incidental.
The Amnesty report shows extreme bias against the rebel forces in Donetsk and Lugansk by its selective language. It calls them “separatists”, “the separatist side”, or “the self-styled Donetsk People’s Republic… and Luhansk People’s Republic”.
The term “separatist” is a pejorative, used to discredit those so labelled. Considering the changes to Ukrainian law in the past year which have made the advocacy of “separatism” in Ukraine a grave criminal act, not to speak of an invitation to vigilante violence and murder against anyone so accused, it is inconceivable that a human rights organization would so carelessly use the term.
Two additional reasons make Amnesty International’s use of the term a scandal. One, there is the small matter that it is not true. The leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics as well as the advocates for political rights throughout eastern Ukraine have made it clear that they are receptive to any and all political options for the Donbas territory. The leaders of Donetsk and Lugansk signed the ceasefire agreement in Minsk, Belarus to this effect on February 12, 2015. Unfortunately, the Kyiv regime refuses to adhere to the clauses in that document, including the one that obliges it to negotiate forms of political autonomy (‘federalization’) with the rebel movement (a fact which the report by Amnesty omits mentioning).
Two, Amnesty International as well as the supporters of the governing regime in Kyiv throw around the term “separatist” (by which we can understand “political self-determination” or “secession”) as if it were some high crime. It is not. It is enshrined in international law. Many of the major countries of the NATO military alliance presently supporting Kyiv in its war have had perfectly legal “separatism” votes take place in their territories, including in Quebec, Canada in 1976 and 1995 and in Scotland, United Kingdom in 2015. Irony of ironies, modern, independent Ukraine itself was born of two “separatist” acts which made the country independent—the revolution of 1917-18 and the vote in 1991 to discontinue the Soviet Union.
While Amnesty has harsh language for the “separatists” of Donetsk and Lugansk, the extremist militias who are fighting alongside the regular Ukrainian army and committing no end of human rights atrocities are given kid-glove treatment. The Amnesty report calls the extreme-right militias that are waging cruel war in eastern Ukraine “volunteer militia formations”. This is the same, polite language used by Western media to minimize and obfuscate exactly who it is, exactly, the NATO countries are backing in Ukraine, including with weapons and military training. (In recent months, the extremist paramilitaries have been incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard in order to lessen embarrassment to their NATO country benefactors.)
Amnesty’s report commits another significant travesty in the field of human rights investigation by drawing an equivalency of responsibility between the national government in Kyiv and the rebel forces in eastern Ukraine. The two are not equivalent. Kyiv has sent its army against its own people, a violation of international convention and law. Kyiv is a member of the United Nations and is a signatory to all manner of international laws and conventions obliging it to protect the human and political rights of its citizens.
Kyiv has shelled and bombarded civilian targets on a scale far in excess of whatever shells from the opposite side have incidentally struck civilian targets. Last September, when the rebel side had huge military momentum in its favour, it declined to press its advantage and retake the city of Mariupol, saying the civil damage and civilian casualties that would result were unthinkable and would be unpardonable.
Of course, the rebel military should be subject to the same standards governing human and political rights as any government. Indeed, there is ample evidence, including in this latest report by Amnesty, that the governing powers in Donetsk and Lugansk are living up to their responsibilities. But to charge them with the same degree of responsibility as the internationally recognized government in Kyiv is to make a mockery of international law. How many judges would give a free pass to rights violations by a national government were it to argue, “Hey, you can’t accuse us of war crimes, we say that the other side committed them, too.”
The fact that Kyiv is able to perpetrate war crimes and massive rights violations against its civilian population while enjoying the vigorous backing of many of the major governments of the world and of much of mainstream media, while a leading, international human rights organization apparently turns a blind eye, is a very alarming sign of the deterioration of the regime of accountability for war crimes that the post-WW2 trials against officials of Nazi Germany established.
Lastly, in its hasty and all-too-brief summary of the human rights topic it is supposedly investigating, Amnesty leaves a gaping, unanswered question. It writes in the report, “The [Donetsk Peoples Republic] officially suspended prisoner exchanges on 5 April 2015, but even since that time it has released some prisoners on an ad hoc basis. Some have been released directly to relatives who picked them up from their places of detention, while others have been released after informal negotiations, including by priests and war veterans on both sides of the conflict.”
Now why did the DPR suspend prisoner exchanges? Left unsaid in the Amnesty report is that the decision was made by Donetsk officials because of Kyiv’s failure to implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement, specifically, its obligation to join in creating working groups to oversee implementation of all the agreement’s terms. Questions have also been raised about whether Kyiv is providing genuine prisoners of the conflict for exchange or whether it is emptying its jails of common prisoners, as it did following the first ceasefire agreement in September 2014 (New York Times report).
Overall, this report by Amnesty International is an example of the bad place where a human rights agency ends up when it promotes a “plague on both your houses” line in a conflict where feigned neutrality only obscures the human rights issues at stake.
Unfortunately, Amnesty’s “both sides are to blame” message will carry a great deal of weight and will be spread far and wide. It deserves vigorous response and challenge.
Roger Annis is an editor of The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. In mid-April 2015, he joined a four-day reporting visit to the Donetsk People’s Republic. This is his third article from that visit. All his articles can be found on his author page on ‘The New Cold War’ website.
Read also on CounterPunch: Amnesty International and the war in Ukraine, by Vladislav Gulevich, July 21, 2014