Another Mess for Amnesty International

A Fact-Finding Organization Operating in a Narrative World

On August 4, 2022, Amnesty International published a report that claimed Ukraine “put civilians in harm’s way by establishing bases and operating weapons systems in populated residential areas, including in schools and hospitals….” It goes on to claim that “Such tactics violate international humanitarian law and endanger civilians, as they turn civilian objects into military targets.”

The response was immediate, strong, and condemnatory, including from Amnesty Ukraine where Oksana Pokalchuk claimed “that we did everything we could to prevent this report from going public.” They thought the report was inaccurate and contained several discrepancies. The blogosphere was less kind.

Why such a strong negative response? Well, we are talking about a war, so this is serious stuff. There is an incredible amount at stake in terms of how this is being perceived internationally. Who wins has implications for the funding of Ukraine’s reconstruction, the future of multilateralism, and the viability of autocratic states. Amnesty International also has a lot at stake. This is an organization that has been subjected to much criticism and derision, and is equally disliked by what passes for the right and the left.

Holding sentiments aside, Amnesty International is in a tough spot. It attempts to position itself as an unbiased source of information about human rights, armed conflict, and international justice. They think of themselves as a scientific evidence-based organization but live in a communicative world where narratives dominate. They can search for the best evidence, try to present it without bias, and come out looking terrible. Yet, while they know they have a difficult path to navigate, they were a bit surprised by this latest event. To get a better understanding of how they got into this situation, let us go back and look at a map.

Modes of Understanding

In Actual Minds, Possible Worlds (1986), Jerome Bruner famously offers two diverse ways of understanding reality. He calls them the logico-scientific and the narrative modes of understanding. The titles are sufficiently descriptive and mean what you think they mean.

The goal of the Logico-Scientific form of understanding is to provide something that approximates a general truth. Hypotheses or conjectures are subjected to verification by deduction and comparison with relevant data; An assessment is then made about whether to report the results or keep working. The findings are meant to be context free and universal, and legitimacy is judged by the accuracy of its claims.

In the Narrative form people use stories to make inferences about the meanings of actions, motivations, and cause and effect. Information is processed by how it fits a story, not the logic of the argument or the rules of evidence. Legitimacy is judged by coherency. If the story makes sense, and there is a logical flow from step to step, the greater the plausibility, and the stronger the narrative. Information that does not fit a narrative tends to be resisted, and information that does fit is welcomed without hesitation. Not surprisingly, narratives have a tough time with the truth; in fact, this is not genuine truth, it is the appearance of truth, or verisimilitude. Context is everything.

Kyiv, Ukraine, Sunday, April 3, 2022 (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Amnesty International and The Scientific Form

This is the game Amnesty International claims to play, and they hope the reader does as well. Their primary research objective in Ukraine is to identify and verify the details of unlawful attacks on civilians. To get as accurate as possible, they use audio-visual material, satellite imagery, sensors, video footage, and witness interviews. They know what is lawful, assess the findings, and publish a report.

The report in question was published August 4. Here is part of what they found.

“Throughout these investigations, researchers found evidence of Ukrainian forces launching strikes from within populated residential areas as well as basing themselves in civilian buildings in 19 towns and villages in the regions.”

“Amnesty International researchers witnessed Ukrainian forces using hospitals as de facto military bases in five locations.”

“The Ukrainian military has routinely set up bases in schools in towns and villages in Donbas and in the Mykolaiv area.”

The Guardian confirmed many of the factual results.

“Guardian reporters have seen at least seven instances in three regions of Ukraine where schools and nurseries in residential areas were used as bases by the Ukrainian army. Five of the schools and nurseries the Guardian visited had been bombed. In each instance, several surrounding buildings were damaged in the attack.”

“In one instance, in Donetsk region, at least three people died when the wave of the blast that destroyed a base hit a neighbouring residential building.”

Most of the criticisms are based on matters of context or an interpretation of the law, not the facts. To give you an idea, look at Amnesty USA’s response to the controversy:

“We recognize that the timing and framing of that press release engendered numerous concerns from individuals and organizations in Ukraine, the U.S., and other parts of the world regarding its framing, timing, context, and legal analysis. Our global movement has committed to engage in a thorough and independent review of the internal process behind the release.”  

Oksana Pokalchuk, who resigned over this, an op-ed for the Washington Post on August 13:

“Of course, no one can be expected to understand the local context and languages of every conflict. But instead of trusting and relying on local staff, some international organizations like Amnesty fail to be inclusive and centralize decision-making, which was the case with this report. The attitude could not be more condescending and unfair, because we all signed up to work together out of commitment to shared values.”

The critics talk about framing, context, timing, and the sharing of values as desired properties. For a scientist or even an objective journalist, this is a problem. Good science is that which adheres to the scientific method, makes inferences that are objective, and produces facts that are universally accepted. The fact there is a massive disconnect between scientific discourse and public debate is not Amnesty’s problem. From their perspective, they are just reporting the evidence. The credibility they have, they wish to keep.

Amnesty International and Existing Narratives

In Bruner’s other world, the one in which most of us live most of the time, information is processed through narratives. There are a lot of stories in this issue space, but two are obvious, fit the narrative voice quite nicely, and are universally accepted. You can either see the war as a Geopolitical Conflict or as part of a Clash of Values.

The War as a Geopolitical Conflict

The idea of geopolitics had its beginnings as an intellectual exercise in studying the relations between space and power. In this narrative, Russia views Ukraine as part of the “Russian World” and seeing Ukraine align itself with Western institutions, such as the EU and NATO, fractures the deep political, cultural, and economic bonds Russia has had with Ukraine. Andrew Wilson, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote a great piece that captures this narrative wonderfully. Russia sees itself as the hegemonic leader of the Russian World, and as Wilson writes, the edges of this world can get a little messy.

“This is sometimes defined as the whole post-Soviet space, sometimes as the east Slavic core of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus; sometimes the Orthodox world; sometimes the Russian Orthodox world; sometimes the world of Russian-speakers; sometimes the “Russian-thinking” world. The imprecision is part of the definition; Russia likes to make sliding claims on all its neighbours.”

As part of this narrative: “Hegemons have full sovereignty, other states have only legal, external sovereignty. The latter therefore cannot choose their friend or enemy, or alliances. Hegemons are superior to the other, limited-sovereignty, states in their civilisational space.”

In this story line, the invasion of Ukraine is viewed as part of a renewed geopolitical rivalry between great powers. In the spatial world, the US and Europe see Ukraine as a counterweight.

The War as a Clash of Political Values

As opposed to seeing this as neighborly dispute, one could instead view this as a clash between systems of values. We have the liberal West versus the Russian world of traditional cultural values. The “West” values liberty, toleration, progress, and self-determination; while Russia sees itself as the guardian of moral, social, and family values, and essentially all the values that identify with what it means to be “Russian.”  

In this narrative, the West sees Russia as a violator of humanitarian law and principles, and Putin as morally and criminally responsible for the atrocities. Russia started this; they are the aggressor; and given their past, none of this is surprising.

Activating the Narrative

The starting point is the source. Just knowing that the report originates from Amnesty International activates a heuristic that incorporates perceptions of reputation, credibility, and motivation. Look at the news item below. The nature of the activation might be complicated by the fact is this is coming from NPR, but I suspect that most people who listen to NPR have already made the determination that NPR does not have a credibility problem.

NPR August 4:


“The human rights group Amnesty International has often and repeatedly accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. Well, now it’s issued a damning report accusing the Ukrainian military of stationing its troops and artillery near residential areas. That goes against international conventions of war intended to protect civilians caught up in conflict.”

The Static Activation: Amnesty International as the Source

Amnesty International is perceived as an organization that deals with certain types of issues. They are filing a report on the War in Ukraine. No surprise, this is what they do. It is also no surprise that the content of the report is about the legality of the conduct of the war. They are out there looking for war crimes and attacks on civilian targets.

Now the fun part. They are also perceived as an organization that has a distinct bias on these issues. The narrative on Amnesty is that they are driven by a western view of what constitutes human rights and that they have a foreign \policy bias against non-western countries. To illustrate, they are explicit in their defense of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). According to the Amnesty website:

“The UDHR is the foundation stone of the rights that Amnesty, and its seven-million strong power base, fight for day in, day out. More than 50 years since we started, we continue to take action and campaign for justice, freedom, truth, and dignity wherever it has been denied.”

Many question the just how “universal” these rights are. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) for example, states that by claiming human rights are universal, cultural differences are ignored.

“The anthropological study of human rights has documented cross-cultural variation and complexity in definitions of the person, the balance of individual and collective rights, the interrelationship between rights and duties, and humanity’s responsibility to non-human life. Different words and symbols have different meanings to different cultures…. The universality of human rights is therefore rooted, at least partly, in their contingency and contextual relativity.”

For Michael Ignatieff,

“The West now masks its own will to power in the impartial, universalizing language of human rights and seeks to impose its own narrow agenda on a plethora of world cultures that do not actually share the West’s conception of individuality, selfhood, agency, or freedom.”

Amnesty’s language is stimulative and strongly anti-Russian. This is from the March 9 story.

“The air strike that hit the streets of Chernihiv shocks the conscience. This was a merciless, indiscriminate attack on people as they went about their daily business in their homes, streets and shops,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director.

“This shocking attack is one of the deadliest that the people of Ukraine have endured yet. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court should investigate this air strike as a war crime. Those responsible for such crimes must be brought to justice, and victims and their families must receive full reparation.”

The context established is clear, correlative, and quite consistent across all the reports (I checked). There is little question what Amnesty International thinks about Russia’s actions. I am also sure Amnesty International would formally deny the appearance of bias. Again, we are not seeking truth here, just the appearance of truth.

The Iterative Pattern

The Ari Shapiro statement not only offers the source, it defines the incoherency.

You just read the entry for March 9, 2022. I summarized the content of the 16 reports for the table below. (1 – Russia Violates; 2 – Both Violate; 3 – Ukraine Violates)

The iterative coherency is briefly interrupted March 7 with an admonishment to both parties and then comes August 4. How do we interpret this?

First, this type of anxiety is going to engender a strong affective response and that certainly is what happened here. It does not fit the Amnesty narrative and it does not fit the iterative pattern. No wonder people were mad.

What happens next? Theory tells us if the narrative is strong the information will just bounce off and have a negligible effect. Amnesty International was formed in 1961 and has been around far longer than most of the readers of this blog. A puzzling N of 1 will not matter much.

There is always the chance the unexpected narrative breakdown may cause people to cognitively engage and seek more information. Questions may arise such as: Are the actions of Ukrainian forces justified given the context of how the war is being conducted? Why is it that Amnesty Ukraine has such a unique perspective on this? Does Ukraine share the values of the West?

The final option is that we may see a shift in context and the activation of a different narrative. War is messy, and this one is as well. If both sides are playing this game, it is best to think of this as a war between elements of the “Russian world.” The geopolitics narrative takes over.

Concluding thoughts

This is massively overly stylistic as the real world of human rights issue spaces and information cues are exceedingly complex and getting more so. Amnesty International’s challenge lies in the larger arena of human rights and the competitive marketplace that structures organizational practice. Human rights are becoming more difficult to define as societies and the boundaries of moral clarity become more complex. We constantly see new threats, new categories, and new perspectives on what it means to be human.

Amnesty adapts and makes tradeoffs. Controlling their narrative is worthy strategy, but not at the expense of the perception of objectivity.