GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 654, 7 August 2022

Ukraine: Amnesty condemns civilian cover tactics in urban warfare
Angelin Archana

Ukraine: Amnesty condemns civilian cover tactics in urban warfare 

What happened? 
On August 4th, 2022, Amnesty International released a report accusing the Ukrainian government of using civilians as a cover in the ongoing war. The organization examined strike sites, interviewed survivors, and victims who lost their family members, conducted remote sensing in warzones, and assessed weapon technology used by both sides. 

Amnesty had condemned Russia’s act of aggression that unleashed the human rights and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, apart from various war crimes and the use of banned weapons such as cluster bombs. Nevertheless, it became a heated debate, when the organization convicted Ukraine and stated, “Being in a defensive position does not exempt the Ukrainian military from respecting international humanitarian law,” as Ukraine had launched retaliatory attacks on Russian soldiers from the residential areas, civilian buildings, and the backyard of the houses, agricultural warehouses, schools, and hospitals. 

The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed Amnesty International for not designating Russian atrocities as acts of terror, immoral selectivity between aggressor and victim, and the report to be bizarre and misleading. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that the report distorts reality, boosts Russia’s disinformation efforts, initiates false moral equivalence between the aggressor and victim, and further accuses Amnesty of fake neutrality and truthfulness. Ukraine’s Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov claimed it to be a perversion. Numerous people, including the British and US Ambassadors, have condemned the report and called it manipulative. 

Subsequently, there was a spur of footage on Russian atrocities on social media, which claimed Russia and not Ukraine to be endangering civilians. Amnesty International’s Secretary General Agnes Callamard criticized both Ukrainian and Russian netizen views on the matter as “social media mobs and trolls,” terming their actions as war propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation, thus justifying its impartiality in the investigation.

What is the background? 
First, the violation of international laws of armed conflict. The International Humanitarian Law, laws of armed conflict, or laws of war, is a set of rules to wage war based on humanity, impartiality, and neutrality, created through four Geneva Conventions and three additional protocols, which were adopted in 1949 by all nations in the world. The third Geneva Convention exclusively calls for civilians’ protection in war zones, which articulates against civilian hostages, less damage to civilian objects, or execution without proper judgments. The first protocol mentions three principles of IHL: principles of distinction, proportionality, and precautions.

In the report, Amnesty accuses Ukraine of violating these principles by inspecting 19 towns and villages from April to July across multiple regions of Ukraine. The organization disclosed that Ukrainian soldiers used civilian homes in Donbas, Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv regions to attack the Russian soldiers. Amnesty visited 29 school campuses, of which 22 were used as military bases, in Bakhmut, a university building, farmlands, and hospitals in five different locations were also used as military bases, thereby deliberately causing civilian collateral damage.

Second, Urban Warfare. In Mosul, the US-backed Iraqi security conducted a full-scale city attack from October 2016 to January 2017. However, it is a high-risk tactic, as the war ended by killing thousands of civilians, millions of tons of debris, hindering essential services, and millions displaced, permanently altering the landscape and causing more harm to humans and the environment within a short period. Similar conflicts were witnessed in Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqa, and Palmyra, whereas Ukrainian cities are its latest examples. This violates the principle of distinction, especially using unguided artillery, mortars, multi-barrel rocket launchers, large bombs, and missiles. At the beginning of the war, Ukraine diluted the hostilities status by providing arms to the civilians. The principle of distinction does not encourage attacking or using civilian infrastructure and condemns the spread of terror amongst the civilians, irrespective of aggressor and victim.  

What does it mean? 
Amnesty claimed that Ukraine followed a pattern of civilian cover, and thus Ukraine breached the IHL. However, the central idea is the changing nature of warfare by the incorporation of civilian structures without differentiating between the victim and the aggressor. IHL advocates war in barren territories, during the day, without disturbing the civilian livelihood, which is eroding since the induction of urban warfare. 

The principle of proportionality demands an assessment of the operation based on civilian loss or damage and calls for the cancellation of the attack. Precautions are to avoid armed conflict near civilians and military objectives near densely populated areas, which the Ukrainian soldiers violated. Therefore, there is a need for neutral players grounded with IHL, or it will reduce the scope of humanity, impartiality, humanitarian activities, negotiations, and mediations during warfare. However, with violence harbouring in residential areas, and weapons at civilian disposal, there is a probability of Ukraine converting into the New Middle East with collapsed human development, if civilian livelihood is ceaselessly disrupted.