H.A. Hellyer is a Cambridge University fellow, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International issued a shocking report criticizing the Ukrainian government for its military’s efforts to repel Russia’s invasion. Amnesty’s international headquarters even went so far as to charge the Ukrainian military with violating the “laws of war” by “establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas.”
The human rights group was subsequently accused of “blaming the victims” and acting as “useful idiots” for the Russian government. And unsurprisingly, Ukrainians were angered; critiquing the force doing everything it can to repel an invasion from one of the world’s most powerful militaries is predictably unpopular. The outrage was shared by the director of Amnesty’s Ukrainian chapter, Oksana Pokalchuk, as well as the co-founder of the Swedish chapter of Amnesty International; both have resigned in protest.
The controversy raises important questions – not simply about Amnesty, but about how large organizations headquartered in safe Western countries, even valiant rights groups, operate internationally.
Over the last two decades, I’ve worked on controversial political issues in authoritarian states and other places of conflict. In those environments, human-rights activists on the ground certainly did not always get things 100-per-cent correct, but invariably, they were some of the most honest witnesses to the crimes and injustices taking place. We should all be grateful for their work to shed light on so many things that dictators and warlords would prefer to keep in the shadows. These rights activists remind us that state institutions, including militaries during wartime or police forces during a crime wave, are not immune from making mistakes or being malicious, nor are they off-limits for critique.
Staff and personnel from Amnesty have done such important work, often putting themselves in very dangerous situations in order to bear witness, gather testimonies, and document atrocities. Amnesty’s Ukrainian chapter, which extensively documented how the Russian invasion has flouted international law, has been brave. I’ve seen, as an analyst and scholar, the high value of Amnesty’s work in other countries too, particularly in the wider Middle East and North Africa region.
But there is often an uncomfortable aspect to the relationship between the headquarters of many international advocacy organizations and local staff on the ground in conflict-ridden places. Sometimes, that tension leads to the overriding of local reporting on the ground, in deference to politically driven analysis from faraway. Sometimes, the problem reveals itself in far more structural ways; I vividly remember one case where a senior official at a labour rights organization bluntly defended the practice of paying local staff in a non-Western region less than their co-workers with Western passports who had come from abroad. It was extraordinary to see the contradiction. The local staff had little to no recourse, however – they were simply overruled.
At its heart, the Amnesty controversy reflects this imbalance of power between those in powerful headquarters in the West, and those on the ground in conflict zones. While senior officials have more access to policymakers and may have a bigger-picture view, those on the ground can see the consequences of what they do, and what they don’t do, most vividly. Collaboration between the two groups is not only vital, it’s irreplaceable. And if it doesn’t happen, catastrophe – that is, a fatal loss of credibility in these institutions, at a time when rights abuses are only increasing – can easily arise.
That’s a critique that many of those inside Amnesty have made. Amnesty International Canadian Section (English Speaking) recently released a comprehensive response to the International Secretariat’s report: “A decolonial approach begins with the principle to do no harm and centering those we are privileged to work with, particularly when they are most impacted and when they tell us that they are in harm’s way. … Several years ago, Amnesty International purposefully decentralized to better listen, respond to, and be led by the voices of human rights defenders on the frontlines. Unfortunately, this press release defaulted to outdated ways of working that centralize knowledge and decision-making while placing local expertise and understanding at the margins. We have done this at considerable risk to our colleagues and rights holders in Ukraine.”
It’s a damning indictment, but it’s one that deserves to be heard by not only Amnesty, but all international organizations that operate in conflict zones. Solidarity with the oppressed must always mean we try to understand their frames first, and when we disagree, to engage and communicate. These organizations must remember, above all else, that when all is said and done, the local communities are the ones who face the worst of the consequences – not us.
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