Politics

How Amnesty became Vladimir Putin's mouthpiece

Analysis 15 August 2022
How Amnesty became Vladimir Putin's mouthpiece

Late May in Kramatorsk, the administrative capital of Ukraine's war-torn Donetsk province, and in the communal kitchen of a budget establishment named Hotel Gut there is an ugly dispute brewing.

At its centre is Donatella Rovera, a 50-year-old employee of Amnesty International who recently arrived (with a small entourage) to compile a report on war crimes.

She has fallen out, rather spectacularly, with a group of Western journalists who are chronicling events on the front line roughly 20 miles away. They're worried about the exact nature of the "report" that Rovera - a flame-haired Islingtonian - will write.

Specifically, members of Hotel Gut's resident Press corps have become convinced she intends to use Amnesty's pulpit to suggest that the real villains in this ugly conflict include not only Vladimir Putin's invading army, who are raping and pillaging their way across the region but also the Ukrainian troops trying to stop them.

Why so? Well, Rovera keeps complaining about Ukrainian soldiers taking refuge from ongoing bombardments in an abandoned college building nearby. She appears to think this endangers civilians, and so represents a war crime. Others disagree.

Voices start to be raised.

"She kept saying that putting soldiers in a populated area violates international humanitarian law," Tom Mutch, a New Zealand war correspondent involved in the May clash, now recalls. "This simply isn't true. But when people tried to explain why she refused to accept that she might be wrong."

Bizarrely, to the minds of onlookers, Rovera then argued that the Geneva Convention required Ukraine to relocate its troops from urban centres (which Russia is seeking to occupy) to "forested areas" nearby.

"She seemed to have no idea how war works or how laws are applied," says US journalist Caleb Larson. "This isn't the 18th century, where you take your armies to some open plain and stand in front of each other. I couldn't believe someone from Amnesty was coming out with this stuff."

As hostilities escalated, Larson claims that Rovera displayed "the most incredible ego", combined with profound ignorance, at one point appearing to confuse the sound of nearby mortar fire with heavy artillery. "She then started lecturing a news organisation's security guys, who had been in the French Foreign Legion and Royal Marines, about how she'd been to more combat zones than them so was more knowledgeable. It was incredibly patronising."

A third witness, Canadian Neil Hauer, concluded that Rovera had come to Donetsk with the intention of producing a report critical of Ukraine.

"It was quite clear from conversations that she had an agenda," he says. "It was an absolute sight to behold. A level of condescension, hubris and arrogance that would be difficult to reproduce."

Two months on, those fears have been realised in spades. On August 4, Amnesty published with great fanfare the results of Rovera's visit to Kramatorsk via an "extended press release".

It made the astonishing claim that Ukraine has deliberately "put civilians in harm's way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals".

The tawdry document, which in effect accused a country seeking to repel an invading army of having used citizens as human shields, stated, as fact, that such military tactics "violate international humanitarian law".

It further accused Ukraine of failing to properly evacuate civilians from many urban areas.

The claims appear to be wrong on a number of basic factual points. Yet its disgraceful anti-Western posturing was, predictably, cheered to the rafters by the Kremlin, with diplomats brandishing the report at a UN meeting, while the Russian Mission in Geneva suggested on Twitter that the "findings" justify the bombing of towns and cities.

"When a civilian [house] is used for military purposes, it turns into a legitimate target for a precision strike," they wrote.

Little wonder an enormous political row is now gathering pace, with Amnesty facing widespread calls to retract the report and apologise.

Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy accused the human rights group of attempting to "shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim", while foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba has said Rovera's report "distorts reality and boosts Russia's disinformation efforts".

Meanwhile, Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty's Ukraine branch, has quit in disgust, accusing senior management of an abject failure to take "proper steps to protect the interests of the people for whom the organisation works and the entire human rights movement", and describing the report as a "tool for Russian propaganda".

Protests have been staged at Amnesty's offices in Prague, while in Norway at least 60 members have resigned. Last night, Canada's branch issued a statement saying the report's authors "failed on several fronts".

Per Wastberg, a member of the Nobel literary committee who co-founded Swedish Amnesty in 1963, has also resigned, saying: "I have been a member for over 60 years. It is with a heavy heart that, due to Amnesty's statements regarding the war in Ukraine, I am ending a long and fruitful engagement".

Several legal experts have come forward to argue that the central premise of Amnesty's report - that Ukraine is breaking international law - is factually incorrect.

Under a 1977 addendum to the Geneva Convention, they point out that parties to a conflict must try to protect civilians. However, the law states they only need to do this "to the maximum extent feasible" given the military situation.

Among the experts citing this important detail is Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. He said last week that Amnesty's report "demonstrates a weak understanding of the laws of armed conflict".

Marc Garlasco, a United Nations war crimes investigator specialising in civilian harm mitigation, tells me Amnesty "got the law wrong", explaining: "Ukraine is free to place forces in areas it is defending, especially in urban warfare. There is not a blanket prohibition. [Amnesty has] made a bad error".

Dmytro Koval, a legal expert from Truth Hounds, an NGO which investigates war crimes, adds: "International law actually gives a wide range of options that allow positioning of armed forces in cities. This report will clearly encourage the Russian military to attack civilian targets. It will result in civilians dying. And so on".

Amnesty failed to respond when the Daily Mail asked for a reaction to these and other criticisms, and for it to identify the specific law it believed Ukraine had broken.

In fact, it seemed unable to find a legal expert to speak in its support. A spokesman said: "Our research focused not on the frontlines or urban combat, but on locations kilometres away from the fighting and where alternative options existed for the military."

Facing calls for her resignation, the organisation's secretary general, Agnes Callamard, is meanwhile busy shooting the messenger.

She issued a remarkably tin-eared statement, arrogantly accusing "social media mobs and trolls" of attacking Amnesty's work.

It's an odd, not to mention highly offensive, way to describe the many legal experts who have dubbed the report sloppy and misguided - and the perfectly honourable Amnesty supporters and employees who are now resigning in protest.

This is not, however, the first time in recent months that Callamard's organisation has gone in to bat for the Kremlin. Back in February, Amnesty scandalously removed the status of "prisoner of conscience" from Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian dissident who is arguably the world's most famous political prisoner, following a coordinated campaign by pro-Russian trolls pointing out that in the distant past he'd made racist and homophobic comments.

It took three months for Amnesty to execute a sheepish U-turn.

To some critics, the Navalny episode demonstrated how wokery and cancel culture are undermining today's liberal institutions. To others, it laid bare the Kremlin's enduring ability to weaponise the useful idiots of the Left who these days control Amnesty and almost every non-profit like it. So how has it come to this? What turned a once-respected giant of human rights into a megaphone for Vladimir Putin's propaganda?

In truth, this disaster has been decades in the making. For Amnesty's descent into what one commentator described last week as "moral bankruptcy" can be traced to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The organisation was famously founded in 1961 to help "prisoners of conscience" after London barrister Peter Benenson read a Sunday newspaper report about two Portuguese students who had been imprisoned for seven years for raising a toast to freedom.

He decided to create a network of like-minded letter-writers who would bombard governments with appeals on behalf of people jailed or ill-treated for their political or religious views.

Soon, Amnesty - which took as its symbol a candle surrounded by barbed wire, because "it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness" - had chapters across the world. Part of its broad appeal was absolute political neutrality: local branches were required to sponsor three political prisoners, one from a Nato member, one from a Warsaw Pact country and one from the Third World.

However, the end of the Cold War led to a dramatic decline in the number of jailed dissidents, and in common with many non-profit organisations, Amnesty spent the subsequent Blair era trying to fill the gap by signing up to a vast array of wider causes. Many of which had nothing whatsoever to do with its original remit. All were Left-wing.

In the 2000s, for example, it began campaigning against the death penalty and in favour of abortion. By 2011, Amnesty had also declared itself at war with poverty. In 2015, it endorsed the decriminalisation of prostitution (to the dismay of anti-trafficking campaigners, including actress Meryl Streep).

Today, it lobbies on a hodgepodge of fashionable issues, from climate change and the arms industry to police brutality, corporal punishment and the deportation of refugees.

Its annual report detailing human rights violations around the world now displays a weird - if perhaps grimly predictable - hostility to the West. It dedicates three pages to chronicling human rights violations in the UK, but just two to the situation in North Korea, perhaps the world's most repressive autocracy. The US gets six pages, while the head-choppers of Saudi Arabia garner a mere four, and communist Cuba, two.

The Amnesty brand is nonetheless immensely lucrative, with 10 million supporters adding £300 million to its coffers annually. In the last year for which records are available, it boasted 544 employees - 288 of them in the UK - of which 158 earned more than £60,000 and 17 on six-figure salaries. The secretary-general earned £223,791.

In the UK, its top jobs have for years been the preserve of the Left. From 2000 until last year its director was Kate Allen, a former Labour councillor who was the partner of Ken Livingstone for 20 years.

And at times, Amnesty's slavish adoption of Leftish causes has caused serious PR problems. For example, back in 2010, Amnesty suspended Gita Sahgal, the head of its women's rights division, after she condemned its support for Cage, an Islamist lobby group founded by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo inmate she had dubbed "Britain's most famous supporter of the Taliban". Recent years have seen criticism of Amnesty's support for Julian Assange (a man accused of rape).

Meanwhile, some were offended by a bizarre PR statement - issued in response to restrictions on abortion in the US earlier this year - that saw it parrot the language of the trans lobby by claiming: "It's not just women who can become pregnant. It's women, it's girls, and it's the millions of others who can become pregnant."

Perhaps its most contentious field of work has, somewhat predictably, been the Middle East, where its perceived hostility to Israel has seen it been repeatedly accused of Corbynesque anti-Semitism.

In 2019, the lobby group Jewish Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report accusing it of an "obsession" with Israel "clearly driven by an unnatural bias, deep hostility, and antisemitism".

The report came out after a hoo-ha where Amnesty had falsely accused Israel of firing rockets on a Palestinian human rights office (in fact, it had been accidentally hit by Islamic militants).

The document chronicled the social media activity of employees working in the region, arguing that Amnesty's 2002 abolition of a long-standing rule prohibiting staff from working in their home countries meant that its ranks had become dominated by activists, many of whom were hopelessly biased.

To this end, it showed that Sahar Mandour, Amnesty's "researcher" on Lebanon, had recently tweeted: 'F*** Israel; long live Palestine!'

Elsewhere, Nadine Moawad, Middle East "communications manager" for Amnesty, called for "the full disbanding of the Israeli State" and Hind Khoudary, who used to be a "research consultant" for Amnesty, had circulated a tweet praising Islamic militants as "martyrs", saying "there is nothing better than to enter paradise with a machine gun on your shoulder".

In the UK, the culture of partisanship was such that Kristyan Benedict, then the group's campaigns manager, in 2012 posted a tweet about three Jewish MPs: "Louise Ellman, Robert Halfon and Luciana Berger walk into a bar . . . each order a round of B52s [long-range bomber jets] #Gaza."

Though the post was widely dubbed anti-Semitic, he was subsequently promoted to the role of crisis response manager.

Six months ago, Amnesty once more courted controversy, publishing a report calling Israel an "apartheid state". As with the group's more recent work on Ukraine, its document was fiercely condemned by some of its own staff, who believed it to be riddled with factual errors.

A local executive director, Molly Malekar, described it as a "punch in the gut", while a senior colleague named Yariv Mohar said it left him feeling "shocked and angry".

Now, of course, Amnesty, the supposed standard-bearer of human rights, stands accused of publishing equally sloppy and irresponsible work which bolsters the standing of Vladimir Putin, a man whose troops are currently perpetrating genocide.

Only a matter of weeks ago, as controversy raged over the claims about Ukrainian "war crimes", the aforementioned Donatella Rovera appeared as an "expert witness" in a CBS documentary which falsely claimed that only 30 per cent of weapons the West donated to Kyiv were reaching the front lines.

"We have no way of knowing where these weapons go," she complained. In fact, the 30 per cent figure was incorrect, and the broadcaster was forced to withdraw it.

A couple of weeks earlier, Rovera tweeted a line which might have been taken from the Kremlin's PR playbook - not to mention that of hard-Left cranks Stop The War - complaining that "taxpayers in Europe, the USA and other countries" are now "paying hundreds of billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid while western companies profit".

Again, Mr Putin was doubtless nodding in approval. And so a once-noble organisation, formed to curb the excesses of totalitarian states, has found itself repeatedly parroting their twisted propaganda.

Daily Mail

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