Russia

Anatomy of ambivalence: The international community and human rights abuse in the North Caucasus

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Abstract

This paper advances explanations for the relative lack of international response to gross human rights abuses in Chechnya. Findings contrast starkly with scholarship that touts the power of human rights and instead highlights a crisis within the international human rights community. Regarding the responses to abuse in the North Caucasus, we find a lethal mix of residual superpower influence, coupled with widespread organizational dysfunction and high tolerance for noncompliance with human rights norms -- precisely within the very organizations that have as their mandate monitoring compliance. Russian and international human rights activists are profoundly discouraged about the international community and their inability to affect change. Despite official rhetoric on the importance of human rights, many government officials and senior members of international organizations betray a superficial knowledge of and an ambivalent relationship to human rights norms and laws. Interviews suggests that inside some policy communities in Europe and the United States, compliance with human rights law and norms is viewed as an overly expensive luxury and, rarely, if ever a necessity. Those who recognize the security implications of abuse and impunity are a minority.

Introduction

Over the last several years, Chechnya has become the site of some of the worst human rights abuses in Europe since World War II. Although no single event comparable to the Srebrenica massacre has yet been observed, both Russian and foreign nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have documented widespread violations of Russian citizens' rights (including to life) month after month, year after year. What has been the international response to Chechnya? How best to explain the relative lack of attention this ongoing conflict has received? What should the international community be doing differently?

The second war in Chechnya has played an integral part in the rollback of human rights in Vladimir Putin's Russia and has affected its political trajectory, helping to strengthen those who favor authoritarianism.(2) The international response has, however, been deeply conflicted, ambivalent and ineffectual. Within the same organization, one finds those who want to berate, sanction and isolate the Russian government, while others try relentlessly to keep channels open even when the pay-off seems minute. Major state actors are at odds over what to do. The U.S. government has no strategic plan concerning this region, even though terrorism has spread and spiked dramatically throughout the North Caucasus. At the same time, humanitarian and human rights organizations plead with international donors not to forsake the civilian populations while admitting frustration over their inability to get helpful responses from the Russian government but also the international community. Regarding the responses to abuse in the North Caucasus, we find a lethal mix of residual superpower influence, coupled with widespread organizational dysfunction and high tolerance for noncompliance with human rights norms -- precisely within the very organizations that have as their mandate monitoring compliance.

Unlike other conflicts around the world in which expertise, political will, as well as vast sums have been deployed to address, diminish or contain violence, we see dramatically less activity surrounding Chechnya or the North Caucasus. This paper seeks to advance an understanding of the politics of international organizations and of the Russian government's relations with these organizations. It also generates specific recommendations with the aim of making the international machinery that monitors and enforces compliance with human rights more functional. The research was conducted principally in summer 2005 although informed by earlier work on this and related topics undertaken since 2001.(3) The paper benefited greatly from the insights generated during a two-day meeting co-sponsored by CSIS and the Brooking Institution in Berlin in May 2005 with forty representatives from international organizations to brain-storm on what the international community should be doing to contribute to stability in Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

This paper finds that within some organizations, policy makers actively choose to avoid the topic of Chechnya and the North Caucasus. In others, they derive compromise strategies with officials from the Russian Federation that effectively do little to remedy violations but provide diplomatic cover and look as if they are fulfilling their duties effectively. The results: the norm violator -- the non-compliant state -- effectively sets the agenda. In this way and on this issue, the Russian government has influenced international organizations more than these organizations have shaped Russian policies. These findings contrast starkly with scholarship that touts the power of human rights and the activists that advance them.(4) Instead, Russian and international human rights activists are profoundly discouraged about the international community and their inability to affect change. Despite official rhetoric on the importance of human rights, many government officials and senior members of international organizations betray a superficial knowledge of and an ambivalent relationship to human rights norms and laws. Interviews suggests that inside some policy communities in Europe and the United States, compliance with human rights law and norms is viewed as an overly expensive luxury and, rarely, if ever a necessity. Those who recognize the security implications of abuse and impunity are a minority. After a brief review of human rights abuses in the region, I explore and analyze the international community's response. What happens when information on violations are presented by states or by NGOs to these international organizations? Has membership in the Council of Europe (COE), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the United Nations (UN) affected how the Russians have used force on the ground? Or has the international response created permissive conditions for additional violations? I find that while the residual power of Russia (among several other factors) in part explains the relative lack of response, this case should be seen as part of a larger crisis within the human rights machinery, one in which abuses are often marginalized and organizations ignore or deny the security implications of these abuses.(5) Much of the international human rights machinery is broken or functions poorly. Nearly sixty years after the writing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and thirty years into the Helsinki process, the international community needs once again to come to a new arrangement -- a new and more effective approach to address abuse and impunity. Such an approach should be in the interest not only of those who want to see human rights norms and laws become more robust but those concerned with international security. The paper concludes with a few specific suggestions to address this ambitious but time-urgent goal.

Notes:

(2) Sarah E. Mendelson, "Russians' Rights Imperiled: Has Anybody Noticed?" International Security, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Spring 2002), 39-69; Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, "Les droits de l'homme et la guerre en Tchétchénie," in "La Russie de Poutine," edited by Marie Mendras, Pouvoirs, Paris, n. 112, 2005, 79-92.

(3) See, for example, Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, "Divided and Confused: Public Opinion on the war in Chechnya 2001-2004," manuscript, March, 2005.

(4) Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998); Thomas Risse, Stephen C. Ropp, and Kathryn Sikkink, eds., The Power of Human Rights: International Norms and Domestic Change (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

(5) For another case study exploring the tendency to overlook the security implications of human rights abuse by the author, see Barracks and Brothels: Peacekeepers and Human Trafficking in the Balkans (CSIS: February 2005).

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