Action Against Hunger's Statement on Chechnya to Senate Appropriations Committee

News and Press Release
Originally published
Statement Before the Committee for Foreign Operations, U.S. Senate
Concerning the Humanitarian Situation In the Republic of Chechnya, Russian Federation

By Nathalie Ernoult, Program Manager for the North Caucasus
Action Against Hunger

April 4, 2000

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee:

It is an honor to be here today, and I appreciate the attention the committee is devoting to the continuing conflict in Chechnya.

My name is Nathalie Ernoult, and I have recently returned from a field trip to Chechnya and Ingushetia, where our organization has been conducting humanitarian assistance programs since the beginning of this year. Action Against Hunger has a long prior history in the North Caucasus: from 1995 to 1997, we were active in the Republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia. Already at that time, relief operations were hampered by severe security problems. Our colleagues in the field suffered numerous violent assaults; in July 1996, two of them were kidnapped in Chechnya and detained for close to a month. The extension of the kidnapping problem to neighboring regions, defeating our security arrangements, finally forced us to withdraw our mission, in spite of the serious needs of the population, in September 1997.

In December of last year, in the face of the mounting crisis and of the great influx of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) into Ingushetia, our Moscow office mounted a needs and security assessment to Ingushetia. The conclusion of this assessment was that the ongoing hostilities had modified the security picture, and that security conditions in Ingushetia were, for the time being, such that the mounting of a new relief operation would be possible. Given the massive needs and the glaring lack, at that time, of international relief agencies, Action Against Hunger decided to open a mission based in Nazran, the capital of Ingushetia. This mission operates under serious constraints: expatriates are not based full-time in Nazran, but rather commute between there and Moscow; when in the field, they are protected by six armed bodyguards provided by the Ingushetia Ministry of the Interior, an extreme measure that we are practically never willing to adopt elsewhere. Beginning in January, given that the United Nations was having a lot of difficulty in setting up a systematic food aid program for all the IDPs, we began providing food aid distributions in selected areas, in an attempt to fill some of the gaps.

In February, as the humanitarian situation in Ingushetia stabilized, Action Against Hunger decided to push further and to send an assessment mission into Chechnya. The conclusions of this mission, as well as our ongoing discussions with Federal officials, were relatively positive, and we have begun food aid distributions within the territory of Chechnya. We have already conducted one large-scale distribution for over 16,000 people, including recently displaced people fleeing from the destruction of the village of Komsomolskoe; a second distribution, on a similar scale, is due to begin as we speak. These distributions have been made possible by the recently cooperative attitude of the Russian authorities in Chechnya, who have provided us with the necessary authorizations to access the zone. Serious problems, however, still remain with the checkpoints, which often refuse to recognize the authorizations provided by their superiors, and frequently deny our staff access, delay them, or otherwise harass or threaten them, thereby hindering our relief efforts. Finally, access to Grozny is still being denied to international organizations, on the grounds of security considerations that we believe to be mainly specious.

The situation of the population within Chechnya is nothing short of dramatic. Tens of thousands of people, driven from their homes by intense, indiscriminate bombardments, have sought refuge in other towns, often only to have to flee again in front of renewed assaults. Many of the towns in the lowlands, where we have access, have been massively destroyed, and thousands of families are without shelter; the situation in the mountain areas is said to be even worse, due to months of blockade, but the continuing hostilities there do not yet permit access. The hospitals are crammed with wounded who are forced to move out within days to make way for new cases; doctors operate without even the bare minimum in terms of anaesthetics, medicines, medical equipment, or sanitary conditions; medical personnel are harassed and have on several occasions been arrested by the Federal forces for simply carrying our their medical duties and caring for the wounded, wounded the Russians consider as criminals.

Humanitarian aid for the displaced in Chechnya, in particular food aid, is practically non-existent: with the exception of Action Against Hunger's distributions, and a convoy sent by the United Nations to Grozny through the Russian Ministry for Emergency Situations (EMERCOM), the IDPs receive practically nothing. In a few selected towns, IDPs identified by the Russian authorities according to extremely narrow and discriminatory criteria are indeed entitled to Federal food aid; but the agencies responsible for this limited aid have virtually no budget to implement their mandate, and we have direct eyewitness evidence that a substantial part of their bread and food items is systematically looted at the checkpoints by Federal troops.

The key issue for humanitarian assistance inside Chechnya is, for Action Against Hunger, access and independence of operations. In this context, we can only note that the agencies of the United Nations, by simple virtue of the fact that one of the parties to the conflict is a Permanent Member of the Security Council, are unable to guarantee the neutrality and impartiality of their relief operations. UN agencies such as the UN High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Programme, and UNICEF, while present and active in Ingushetia and Daghestan, are forced to work through Russian counterparts, some of which, such as the EMERCOM, are of a militarized nature. Their staff are escorted throughout the region by Federal troops similar to units involved in the conflict, and, to a substantial degree, Russia dictates to them where, how and when they can work.

In such a situation, only independent organizations such as Action Against Hunger, Doctors Without Borders, or the International Committee of the Red Cross are, in our view, able to operate with the minimum of flexibility and impartiality needed to guarantee direct access and efficient relief to those most in need. In a more or less stable context, such as Ingushetia, the agencies of the United Nations, with their far more massive means, are indeed able to provide wide-ranging and effective services to the IDPs, though we still feel that minimal international standards, especially in the fields of shelter, water and sanitation, and medical care, are not being met. However, in a context as unstable, chaotic and unpredictable as Chechnya, the UN agencies' ability to maneuver is highly restricted. Current UN plans for the possible provision of assistance within Chechnya mainly involve donating commodities to the Federal EMERCOM, and attempting to supervise their use; past experience with such a system leads us to believe it is wholly inadequate. Action Against Hunger, on the contrary, has been able to directly implement distributions, using only its own staff, and choosing its beneficiaries after an impartial needs assessment. In a context in which humanitarian aid has been so massively politicized and conditioned, we believe that such a neutral and independent approach is vital.

However, the ability of independent humanitarian organizations to carry out such operations is highly dependent on donor support. Only financial independence can guarantee independent operations. Action Against Hunger has been fortunate enough to benefit from the full trust and support, in the North Caucasus, of both the French Government, which has directly funded some assistance, and of the European Commission, which has provided funds through its Humanitarian Office, ECHO. We can however only regret that the Government of the United States has so far declined, through its various agencies such as the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, and USAID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, to directly finance non-governmental humanitarian organizations. Instead the U.S. Government has mainly relied on the agencies of the United Nations to channel its aid. In this context, we welcome the recent decision to channel over $4 million of assistance through the ICRC, which is indeed able to operate in an independent and impartial manner, particularly since the conclusion of a recent agreement with the Federal authorities concerning access to Chechnya.

But more needs to be done. Non-governmental humanitarian organizations such as ours have an opportunity, right now, to help relieve some of the terrible suffering of the people of Chechnya. We feel that we can do so professionally, with adequate security measures, and above all, impartially; and in fact we have already begun. Our presence in the field also enables us to draw, and to pass on to the international community, a clearer picture of the widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian law that have occurred and continue to occur on a daily basis. Over the course of this crisis, the Government of the United States has repeatedly expressed its concern over the methods used by the Federal forces to prosecute their campaign, and over the enormous resulting human suffering. We ask the United States to demonstrate this concern further, and provide leadership in the international community, in two ways:

1) Use all possible means to press the Russian authorities to allow free, unimpeded, and impartial humanitarian access to the whole territory of Chechnya, including the city of Grozny;

2) Provide funds directly to non-governmental humanitarian organizations to ensure impartial humanitarian aid delivery to the people most in need.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak before you today.