The intense debate triggered by an Amnesty International report alleging Ukrainian violations of international law highlights wider questions of credibility and bias in the campaigns led by powerful NGOs which purport to advance human rights agendas. The pronouncements of the two superpowers—Amnesty and Human Rights Watch—are routinely transcribed directly into media headlines, and then uncritically cited in academic publications. Their agendas are central to determining the priorities of international institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, and officials move back and forth between the NGOs and these international bodies.
But as the Ukraine report and other examples demonstrate, NGO claims are often constructed on weak foundations. Although Amnesty officials repeat the mantra that they are politically neutral and simply report what they observe, the focus and timing of their activities are inherently political. With a massive public relations machine at its disposal (Amnesty’s total annual budget exceeds €350 million), the publication and accompanying media blasts of war crime allegations and accusations that states are “putting civilians in harm’s way” have an immediate impact on public opinion and governmental policies. In this case, Russia—and Western opponents of assistance to Ukraine—seized on Amnesty’s report to bolster their positions. Examining the credibility of NGO reports is therefore of pressing importance.
Amnesty International was founded in 1961 by Peter Benenson to campaign on behalf of prisoners of conscience worldwide. In its original iteration, the organization encouraged volunteers to bombard non-democratic governments with postcards and to hold protest vigils. Benenson and his group were very successful, at least in raising funds and building the organization, but when the Cold War ended, a new mission was needed to maintain relevance and keep donors interested. At this point, Amnesty and its US-based twin, Human Rights Watch, reinvented themselves as experts in the laws of armed conflict (LOAC) and international humanitarian law (IHL).
As members of the international human rights community, the new leaders of these NGOs embraced a post-colonial political ideology that was anti-Western and implicitly anti-democracy. Although they maintained that they were above politics, the top officials in Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and similar groups were in fact deeply involved in partisan political movements and used tendentious interpretations of international and human rights law to promote their agendas. The contradictions were managed through complex and closed decision-making structures—NGOs that call on others to practice transparency do not practice it themselves. The process by which Amnesty chose to issue a report alleging Ukrainian human rights violations, the composition and editing of this document, and the objectives that they hoped to achieve, remain opaque.