Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, there have been several high-profile scandals related to the activities of international organizations.
The latest report by leading human rights activists Amnesty International, who accused the Ukrainian military of endangering civilians by defending cities from Russian troops, had an explosive effect. Before that, scandals flared up several times around the Red Cross: due to the removal of Ukrainians from hot spots to the territory of the Russian Federation, as well as due to the evacuation and subsequent death in the Yelenovskaya colony of part of the Ukrainian military who defended the Azovstal plant in Mariupol.
The Ukrainian information field sees this as playing with the enemy, or at least as the weakness and uselessness of most international institutions. And folk art has spawned bitter memes about “deep concern.”
However, in conditions of war, Ukraine needs international support. Both military-political and humanitarian. But are there other mechanisms for help and solidarity?
What is the Amnesty scandal about?
Amnesty International is a leading human rights organization founded in 1961 in Britain. It has about 10 million employees and volunteers worldwide and is represented in 150 countries, including Ukraine, where one of the most notable was the 2011 campaign against police violence. Amnesty has many achievements to its credit and is a magnet for young idealists worldwide.
However, on August 4, 2022, Amnesty released a report stating that the Ukrainian military is endangering civilians by being stationed on the grounds of schools and hospitals. At the same time, the organization recognizes that we are talking about particular cases. And that is the main reason for everything that is happening in the attack on the Russian Federation. But still, the turns and generalizations in the report allowed the Russian side to immediately, concerning Amnesty, declare Ukraine's war crimes.
The reaction of Kyiv became unequivocal - Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba noted that Amnesty creates a "false balance between the victim and the perpetrator," and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the organization is trying to amnesty the terrorist state and shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim.
In turn, the head of the Ukrainian office of Amnesty, Oksana Pokalchuk, resigned, the co-founder of the Swedish branch of Amnesty Per Westberg announced his resignation, the Polish office recalled the crimes of the Russian army in a separate statement, and the leading British newspaper The Times categorically called the Amnesty report Putin's propaganda.
An important nuance is that the Ukrainian office was not involved in preparing the sensational report. This is done intentionally - so that the authors are as neutral and unbiased as possible. And this is the main complaint of those critics who do not believe that Amnesty is deliberately playing along with Moscow. Instead, in the European press and partly in Ukraine, the human rights organization is accused of a colonial approach: ignoring the context, excluding local experts, putting rigid frames on any case, and declaring its complete neutrality, which is impossible to achieve in principle.
Moreover, the head of Amnesty, Agnes Callamard, first stated that behind the wave of criticism of the publication “ are Russian and Ukrainian bots and trolls in social networks," who want war. And only a few days later, the organization apologized for causing suffering to Ukrainians. But she did not abandon her approaches and the report as a whole. Now the campaign for the resignation of Callamard is gaining momentum on social networks.
Cross on the Red Cross?
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is the world's oldest humanitarian organization, which was the first in history to assist all war victims without exception. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has up to 100 million volunteers worldwide and is mainly involved in helping civilians, evacuating, treating wounded soldiers, and exchanging prisoners. Before the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, the offices of the International Red Cross in Ukraine were represented in the Donbas, both in the controlled territory and in the “LDNR.”
Before the outbreak of the armed conflict, the ICRC worked exclusively in the Donbas, with offices in Mariupol, Sloviansk, Severodonetsk, Donetsk, and Luhansk. The help in the warehouses in these places was designed to help tens of thousands of people living in small villages and towns along the contact line 450 km long. In February, the front line instantly increased to 2500-3000 km, and the number of people needing help began to be measured in millions. We distributed all the aid in our warehouses in Donbas. Still, even for Mariupol alone (more than 400,000 inhabitants), this was not enough,” said Oleksandr Vlasenko, representative of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine.
However, in the first apocalyptic weeks after February 24, the Red Cross moved management to Lviv like many other eminent international organizations movedmoved management.
International organizations should be here, next to us. Help with the evacuation of civilians from the occupied territories and monitor what is happening “in the field,” and not from European offices, as their mandate stipulates , ”said Alexandra Matviychuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties, in a commentary for the Sotsportal journalist in the spring.
At the same time, a number of the Ukrainian civil sector called on global organizations to reconsider their policies and start organizing assistance directly on the spot.
However, after the Russian troops left the north of Ukraine, many international organizations resumed their full-fledged work in different regions.
We have strengthened the delegation in Ukraine; 140 new employees arrived here with experience in hot spots and complex contexts, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Congo. Humanitarian aid has begun to come here - trucks with humanitarian assistance continue to leave our warehouses in Hungary and Romania, several convoys have already been organized, but due to the ban on air traffic and the large area of Ukraine, it is impossible to distribute aid quickly, - Vlasenko noted.
However, the main complaints against the Red Cross in Ukraine are their organization of the evacuation.
So, at the end of March, several tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens were taken through humanitarian corridors with the support of the Red Cross to the territory of the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian side condemned such actions, calling them deportation. It is believed that such actions could have dire consequences for Ukrainians. The ICRC, in turn, stated that it had never undertaken a forced evacuation.
The second case concerns the evacuation from Azovstal. The Red Cross team, together with UN representatives, began the evacuation of citizens from the plant's territory in Mariupol on May 1.
Then, several hundred civilians were rescued from the bomb shelters of the plant, which remained the city's last bastion of the Ukrainian army. The Ukrainian military was also taken out alive, 95 of whom were returned to Ukraine in June as part of a prisoner exchange. However, a month later, an explosion occurred in the Yelenovskaya colony on the territory of the “DPR,” where the rest of the prisoners from “Azovstal” were kept. About 50 people died.
We did not guarantee the safety of prisoners of war after they fell into the hands of the enemy since this is beyond our capabilities. We informed the parties in advance,” he said in response to the reproaches of the ICRC, which caused an even greater wave of anger.
However, one of the Ukrainian volunteers of the Red Cross, who, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, as part of the work with the organization, evacuated people, pulled the victims from the rubble, and provided first aid, notes that the ICRC, of course, has all the shortcomings of a large international organization. Such as bureaucracy, sluggishness, and deliberate neutrality. However, in her opinion, Russia, for its part, is doing everything possible to discredit the ICRC in the eyes of Ukrainians and push for a break in cooperation.
After all, the Red Cross is, in fact, the only guarantor of the Geneva Convention, ” the volunteer believes.
Local vs Global
However, if we do not consider the factor of the Russian Federation, then the main drawback of prominent players is the lack of flexibility.
For example, the internal procedures of such organizations often do not provide for the “redirection” of funds. If a global organization allocated money to a local initiative for the construction of a kindergarten, then in a war, these funds would be more likely to be frozen than redirected to evacuate children from a besieged city.
And the security rules, following which most international organizations left Ukraine for the first weeks and did not work directly in hot spots, had the opposite effect on some Ukrainian employees. They continued to help people on the ground - but already as volunteers and without proper protection.
And in these conditions, small Ukrainian foundations and NGOs have shown much more efficient; they know local specifics better and can track hostilities in real-time.
For example, the evacuation from hot spots is carried out by the local charity foundation Popomogaem, supported by the international organization SOS Childhood Mistechka Ukraine Charitable Foundation and the Consortium of Partner Organizations. The foundation chat called “Hot Evacuation” was constantly flooded with messages.
A serviceman turned to us for help: “My relatives are in Dobropolye, Pokrovsky district, my wife has diabetes, she is after a stroke. There are two more daughters and a granddaughter of five months. In total, four minors. Do we help? Operators collect groups by city and negotiate with the local administration. Navigators look at the current map of hostilities and calculate the route. And then buses with the inscription "Children" on the windshield drive," the fund said.
The Angels of Rescue Initiative is another local charitable foundation involved in evacuations. With the support of partners, including Vostok SOS and private benefactors, they evacuated 300 people a week during the hot phase of the first months of the war. Most of the evacuees are wounded and bedridden.
The Fight for Right initiative has made it its mission to evacuate people with disabilities.
International organizations almost do not include people with disabilities in their humanitarian programs. We turned to each other for help, and activists from all over the world quickly mobilized. The community is stronger than ever, they say in the organization.
It also emphasizes that smaller organizations and grassroots initiatives cater to people's needs better. In addition, it is easier for people to contact them and directly ask for help.
Another example is World Central Kitchen (WCK), which was able to distribute hot meals within hours of the invasion of Ukraine. Their point is still working on the Polish-Ukrainian border.
WCK in Ukraine is for Ukrainians, but funding comes from American donors, says organization representative Katerina.
According to her, the system works like this: local coordinators find restaurants that will prepare hot meals for the city's needs, displaced persons, and hospitals. WCK finances the cost of goods, the work of people, and delivery.
As for medical care, volunteers from the Monster Corporation charity fund, founded by Ekaterina Nozhevnikova in Odessa, actively help the military and civilians. Especially for those who today are on the verge of survival: single mothers, lonely older adults, bedridden, and children with disabilities. The foundation supplies them with food and baby food, diapers, medicines, and hygiene items.
We do not work with global organizations; we rely on private donors. There are details on our website, and money comes from both Ukraine and all over the world. But these are private donations. How will they know about us? We have been working for a long time. People tell each other about us both to get help and make a donation,” the Foundation said.
Such an approach, especially about medications, is often the only possible one, says Almut Rohanovsky, a consultant on the work of civil society organizations.
Let's say an older woman needs medicine. A local volunteer can get it at exorbitant prices but quickly. A global organization can buy tons of such a drug at a considerable discount but deliver it to a city where an older woman lives for a month. However, we all understand that a woman, in this case, may simply not wait for this medicine, the expert notes.
And yet, she says, the best way to help people comes from a combination of the flexibility of local organizations and resources—international partners.
There is hope that after the stabilization of the front and the resumption of work on the ground by many international organizations, the efforts of global and local representatives have been combined.
In turn, Socportal will continue to publish a series of materials about Ukrainian human rights and humanitarian organizations that work during the war. So that as many people as possible know about their activities and needs.