Chechnya Case Study

Originally published
Interim Report by Greg Hansen and Robert Seely

Executive Summary
I. Background
II. The Field Visit
III. The Context for Humanitarian Action
The Human Toll - Humanitarian Intervention
IV. Preliminary Findings
Humanitarian Action - Misunderstood
V. Preliminary Conclusions/Recommendations

Executive Summary

This report describes a case study in progress by the Humanitarianism and War Project, based on a visit to Chechnya and surrounding areas by two consultants earlier this month. Given the shortage of international visitors to the area, the project believes that it is important to disseminate preliminary findings and tentative recommendations at the earliest possible moment. The completed report will be available later in the year in printed form as a Watson Institute occasional paper.

I. Background

The Humanitarianism and War Project formed a research team in early January to review the humanitarian situation in and around Chechnya, where the war has presented unique obstacles to humanitarian action. A number of issues have guided the research. The war in Chechnya is occurring in a post-Soviet context on the territory of a former superpower and a UN Security Council member. Set in the multi-ethnic venue of the North Caucasus, the conflict has regional overtones and exemplifies warfare conducted without humanitarian pretensions. Still, the war has not captured the interest of the international community. Some humanitarian actors in Chechnya have recently gone public in an effort to call attention to the prevailing limitations on humanitarian access and to serious human rights abuses, but they lack the political muscle to exert effective pressure on Russia. The UN system, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and governments have political clout, but the UN is conspicuously absen

t from Chechnya, and the OSCE maintains only a very small mission. Russian military activity has increased in past months to such an extent that humanitarian agencies have found their presence and ability to work in Chechnya becoming more precarious. Many have left and others are considering a withdrawal.

II. The Field Visit
The project team, consisting of Gregory Hansen, a Canadian with background in peacekeeping and conflict resolution, and Robert Seely, a British national associated with the Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies and formerly with Harvard University, was invited in March to participate in an international delegation to Chechnya and Ingushetia sponsored by the Centre for Peacemaking in Moscow. The delegation was arranged by Chris Hunter of Friends House Moscow/The Centre for Peacemaking (Tacis).

Hansen and Seely spent five days in Chechnya including Grozny and villages to the south in rebel-controlled territory. Access to the towns of Samashki and Sernovodsk, which had recently been attacked by Russian forces, was denied at Russian checkpoints. A total of six days were spent in Ingushetia including Sleptsovskaya and Nazran, where a number of humanitarian agencies currently maintain operational headquarters for activities in Chechnya. Following the return of the delegation to Moscow, the team remained in Ingushetia to conduct interviews with humanitarian agencies and persons displaced as a result of the fighting. One day was spent in the disputed Prigorodny Rayon on the Osset-Ingush frontier, and Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia. The team spent the following week in Moscow, departing for Britain April 20. Over 60 interviews were conducted during the field visit.

III. The Context for Humanitarian Action

Following Chechen separatist leader Djokar Dudaev's unilateral declaration of independence from Russia in 1991, a period of instability was followed by the intervention of the Russian military in December 1994. The Chechen capital Grozny sustained heavy damage from Russian bombing and shelling, killing an estimated 10,000 civilians. Large areas of the city were destroyed in battles between Russian forces and Chechen fighters. The latter largely withdrew from Grozny to continue fighting from bases in the rural mountainous areas to the south.

In December 1994, Russia also invited the United Nations' help to deal with persons displaced as a result of the conflict in Chechnya. UN humanitarian agencies deployed in January 1995, but their activities have been limited to Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Daghestan. There has been no UN involvement in Chechnya with the exception of a federally-sponsored visit by an official from the UN Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR).

The OSCE received permission from the Russian Federation to field a six-member assistance group to Grozny in April 1995. The OSCE mission was equipped with a five-point mandate that included the promoting of respect for human rights, fostering the development of democratic institutions and the holding of elections, assisting in the return of refugees, facilitating the work of humanitarian agencies, and promoting a peaceful resolution to the crisis. In June, a bloody attack and hostage-taking by Chechen fighters at Budennovsk in southern Russia was met with a clumsy and widely-publicized Russian effort to free the hostages. This paved the way for the OSCE to broker a cease-fire in July 1995. The cease-fire gradually gave way to a hardening of attitudes and further resumption of hostilities by October.

The seizure by Chechen fighters of the town of Gudermes in December 1995 and another widely-publicized Chechen attack and hostage-taking in January 1996, this time across the eastern frontier at Pervomaiskoye, Daghestan, marked a new phase in the conflict during which the Russian military increasingly targeted civilian areas with unrestrained force. Russian forces now follow a strategy of imposing "peace protocols" upon Chechen towns and villages under the threat of their destruction. Russian military activity inside Chechnya has increased steadily in 1996 and continues to do so in spite of Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decree of a unilateral cease-fire and phased troop withdrawal effective March 31. Chechen forces have vowed to increase attacks on Russian forces following the recent death of rebel leader Dudaev.

Ingushetia is dangerously militarized: tensions were extremely high earlier in the year as Russian forces positioned themselves to attack Ingush villages on the Chechen frontier, ostensibly in pursuit of Chechen fighters. A confrontation was avoided only after strongly-worded exchanges between Nazran and Moscow. Tensions remain high between Ingushetia and neighboring North Ossetia over the disputed Prigorodny Rayon, the site of open hostilities in late 1992 that displaced 60,000 Ingush. The Prigorodny displaced now compete for space in the rest of Ingushetia with the newer arrivals from Chechnya.

The Human Toll - Humanitarian Intervention

An estimated 40,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the war in Chechnya. The number of combatant casualties is in dispute. Normal life throughout most of Chechnya has ceased, with appallingly insecure conditions continuing to prevail in most urban and many rural areas. Infrastructure such as waterworks and the health system have been heavily damaged, and schools are often forced to close for extended periods in the most heavily populated areas.

Humanitarian agencies estimate that 60,000 Chechens have taken refuge in Ingushetia. There are an estimated 40,000 displaced persons in Daghestan. Many of the displaced have been forced to flee more than once, including some who fled to Chechnya from the 1992 fighting in Prigorodny Rayon. The team heard reports that some Chechen internal displaced persons (IDPs), fearing reprisals at the hands of Daghestanis following the Pervomaiskoye action, fled back to Chechnya. The number of displaced persons in Chechnya itself is not known. Humanitarian agencies report that the numbers of displaced are extremely difficult to track since population movements constantly fluctuate with the ebb and flow of military activity. UNHCR officials cited difficulties in planning and implementing programs in the absence of sound information from inside Chechnya that would allow for anticipating the size and nature of back-and-forth population movements.

Extended families and strong kinship ties between Chechens, Ingush, and Daghestanis have generally reduced the longer-term humanitarian needs of the displaced, who can often find refuge with family or friends in the frontier regions. However, this further complicates the work of agencies in reaching the displaced, only a few thousand of whom are housed in camps or communal shelters. The most vulnerable among the displaced tend to be those who have been displaced earlier from Prigorodny Rayon, the elderly, and families with many children. The ethnic-Russian minority is also considered to be especially at risk because they lack the support systems offered by extended family ties. Aid agencies active among the IDP population in Ingushetia expect the numbers of at-risk IDPs to grow with time as family resources begin to wear thin in an area already struggling under the weight of the Prigorodny displaced. Some agencies have found it necessary to be vigilant in dealing with Ingush pressures towards a premature return of the Prigorodny IDPs.

IV. Preliminary Findings

In the frontier regions of Daghestan, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia, assistance to and protection for the displaced has benefited from the increased humanitarian presence resulting from agencies-formerly active inside Chechnya-adopting fallback positions in Ingushetia. The relatively small geographic area and number of agencies, sound (if informal) coordination efforts, and an effective functional division of labor among them has helped agencies to cope well with sudden influxes of new IDPs such as happened in March 1996 after the attack on Sernovodsk.

Although earlier in 1995 there was a danger of aid-instigated tensions arising between the Prigorodny displaced and those more recently displaced from Chechnya, attention to the needs of both populations has prevented problems. A small number of agencies in Ingushetia and North Ossetia have cautiously initiated projects aimed at preparing the ground for reconciliation in advance of an eventual return of displaced to Prigorodny Rayon.

The situation is entirely different inside Chechnya. The alleviation of life-threatening suffering is the first priority for humanitarian action, but with increased military activity, humanitarian agencies have expended virtually all available options in their efforts to provide protection to the civilian population.

A defining characteristic in the context for humanitarian action in Chechnya is that the Russian military has no tradition of placing limitations on the use of force, and yet it has unlimited force at its disposal. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been actively involved in disseminating humanitarian law and the rules of war in the area since 1993, it concedes that these efforts have met with limited success against a backdrop of very weak pre-existing knowledge. Russian forces continue to target civilian areas with excessive and indiscriminate force. In March 1996, the towns of Samashki and Sernovodsk were subjected to shelling and aerial bombardment before being entered by Russian ground troops. Eyewitness accounts from persons displaced to Ingushetia reported widespread destruction, many civilian casualties, random violence, extensive looting, and intimidation by Russian troops. Humanitarian agencies working in the area reported that recent attacks commenced before the civilian populations were allowed to evacuate, despite the agencies' repeated attempts to intervene.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has been a particularly effective presence, even though it has diverged somewhat from its usual migration-assistance venue into a relief and rehabilitation orientation. One of IOM's expatriate field staff was shot and killed south of Grozny in January 1996, and it chose to withdraw from its base in Grozny as operations became increasingly untenable. But since moving its operational headquarters to Sleptsovskaya in Ingushetia on the Chechen frontier, it has been at the forefront of rendering assistance and arranging evacuations for people in stricken areas of western Chechnya. Many of IOM's field staff have previous useful experience in the region, which appears to have given them a comparative advantage in dealing with the Russian military. Given the absence of UN humanitarian agencies in Chechnya, IOM has been the only agency participating in the UN Consolidated Appeal which actually worked in Chechnya itself. Its decision to close down its operation in May will result in a further absence of protection for the civilian population in western Chechnya.

Humanitarian agencies were unanimous in identifying limitations on access as being the chief obstacle to protection and assistance activities inside Chechnya. Access is being actively thwarted by the Russian military and pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, resulting in a crisis of protection for the civilian population before, during, and after Russian attacks on towns and villages. Humanitarian agencies are prevented from passing through Russian checkpoints which control entry to, and exit from, the affected areas. Following these attacks, the ICRC, IOM, and Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) have waited at checkpoints for weeks before being permitted to enter. Entry has been denied despite specific promises of access being secured from the top Russian military commander in Chechnya and other high-ranking officers. Local commanders act arbitrarily by disregarding orders from above, or are simply not informed. There is a generalized lack of accountability and blurred chain-of-command among the Russian forces, making it extremely difficult to negotiate for access or for a humanitarian truce. Two agencies reported being asked by local commanders for cash bribes in exchange for access. Entry to some areas of Chechnya, including some of the southern rebel-controlled areas, is also effectively barred by prevailing insecurity and the likelihood of encountering banditry enroute.

Two expatriate aid workers have been killed in Chechnya in the past year. Aside from sniping incidents and other random acts of violence, there has been a high incidence of theft, banditry, and armed robbery in Chechnya itself and to a lesser degree in Ingushetia. Several incidents have involved expatriate staff being kidnapped and held hostage. Aid agency vehicles have been fired upon by Russian troops at checkpoints, and there is poor recognition of the customary humanitarian markings and logos.

A number of agencies have withdrawn to Ingushetia or North Ossetia due to security conditions that worsened considerably in late 1995, although all of these agencies have indicated a readiness to resume programs in Chechnya once conditions have stabilized. Those that have opted to maintain a presence in Grozny currently operate with a reduced logistics capacity through local staff and skeleton or transient expatriate personnel and have drastically curtailed their movements. The ICRC has gone from a high of 30 expatriates in Grozny to a current strength of eight.

On April 15, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an advisory to representatives of diplomatic missions and international organizations suggesting that they limit visits to Russia?s "trouble spots" to cases of "dire need." Some aid workers regarded this advisory as a veiled threat. Agencies also spoke of an explicit threat made by rebel leader Djokar Dudaev in a recent televised broadcast, warning expatriate aid workers that they would henceforth risk consequences if they could not produce rebel-issued identification when it was demanded of them. Where or how this identification would be issued was not known.

Humanitarian Action - Misunderstood

Humanitarian action and the presence of humanitarian agencies is poorly understood-or misunderstood-by combatants, authorities, the bureaucracy, and even the beneficiaries of humanitarian assistance. There is a generalized lack of awareness of the humanitarian ethos which complicates all aspects of humanitarian action. A senior official with the ICRC stated that this "...lack of awareness informs everything." The team heard from one agency that at one point it was suspected by Chechens of transporting chemical weapons.

Such was the measure of distrust and paranoia under the Soviet system that outsiders who visited the country were almost always assumed to be in the pay of some foreign government or government-related organization. The notion of civil society with individuals making free choices was simply not known. The result is that humanitarian activities are routinely prone to being met with dismissive attitudes at best and suspicion at worst. Many NGO representatives have said that both Russians and Chechens believe them to be little more than semi-official spies in the pay of foreign organizations. During an assessment visit to a Chechen town, one agency was told that the day after humanitarian organizations make an appearance, the town is bombed. This inability to comprehend the role of NGOs and humanitarian action in general is so deep-seated that only the organic spread of notions of civil society is likely to have any impact in the medium term.

The forced transience of many humanitarian agencies in Chechnya also weighs against building an awareness and sense of trust among their constituencies. One small NGO is beginning consultations with other agencies aimed at exploring ways to increase the awareness of humanitarian activity in the short-term but has expressed doubts whether the expenses for media campaigns or similar activities could be justifiable to donors.

The Russian bureaucracy constitutes a further serious obstacle to prompt and effective humanitarian action. In operational areas, the most common complaint concerns the mandatory "propiska" or travel document required for movement inside Chechnya. These documents are routinely checked at Russian military checkpoints and are effectively used to place limits on where and when humanitarian activity can take place. The documents have a validity of only two weeks and often are not issued until less than a few days prior to their expiration. Often they are not issued at all.

It is exceedingly difficult for agencies to process shipments of essential equipment and materialÑparticularly drugsÑthrough Russian customs and other formalities. One NGO has prepared a ?Five-Minute Guide to Russian Bureaucracy? detailing the lengthy procedure of gaining accreditation and various permissions. Another NGO fought for five months to have its specially-equipped vehicles released from customs lock-up in Moscow. Agencies reported reasonably good co-operation with local authorities in Ingushetia and with EMERCOM, the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry.

Some government departments, notably the Ministry of Health and EMERCOM, may well be predisposed to the idea of closer links with NGOs and international organizations in general. But whatever progress could be made in capacity-building among sympathetic agencies would, for the foreseeable future, have to take into account the threat of being swept aside by forces higher up on the political chain.

The death of Dudaev which occurred just after the team's departure does not bode well for humanitarian action, and there are diminished prospects that meaningful peace negotiations will soon get underway. The unraveling of the political situation may usher in an even more virulent period of Chechen and Russian military activity, leading to a deepening of the current humanitarian crisis and a worsening of the problems already facing humanitarian agencies on the ground.

V. Preliminary Conclusions/Recommendations

There is now a vacuum of protection for the civilian population remaining in Chechnya. Humanitarian agencies in Chechnya have exercised every available option for dealing with access difficulties as an operational question. Access and protection is now fundamentally a political question which can only be dealt with through pressure brought to bear on Russia by the international community. The need is urgent for Russian forces to be held accountable to international standards of conduct in war and to its commitments to international agreements and conventions.

The OSCE Assistance Group is at present unable to fulfill the terms of its mandate. Although it is unlikely that the Russian Federation would be amenable to a politically more assertive OSCE presence in Chechnya, the possibility of an incremental approach to increasing the OSCE's numbers on the ground, combined with vigorous diplomatic measures aimed at securing unhindered freedom-of-movement for the mission, should be pursued.

Advocacy of humanitarian principles is closely tied to the visibility of a conflict. The OSCE should make public its reports on the human rights situation in Chechnya as a matter of course. The UN Commission for Human Rights should bolster its efforts to provide close monitoring of the situation in Chechnya and should issue timely public reports on its findings.

UN specialized agencies that have operated successfully in other highly politicized humanitarian contexts have been effectively dealt out of potential roles inside Chechnya by political concerns related to Russia's place on the UN Security Council. Russia has preferred to maintain the lowest possible visibility in the Chechnya conflict and has resisted the involvement of UN organizations there. But the integrity of the UN humanitarian apparatus is on the line if such political obstacles remain unchallenged.

Notwithstanding the opportunities that have already been missed and the operational difficulties in establishing a presence at this late stage, there may be politically acceptable forms of involvement which would employ, to good effect, the comparative advantages of some of these agencies. UNHCR?s programs in the frontier regions in aid of the displaced would benefit from a presence inside Chechnya to perform an early-warning role of further population movements. UNICEF should investigate the feasibility of a presence, primarily in an advocacy role through work on behalf of Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances.

In consultation with operational humanitarian agencies, the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in the Russian Federation should consider adopting a lead role in capacity-building among the various government ministries and departments. The objective should be building an awareness of the humanitarian ethos and the removal of bureaucratic obstacles to effective and timely humanitarian action.

There are strong parallels between the Prigorodny conflict and related population displacement, on the one hand, and similar challenges in Georgia to the south, on the other. Agencies involved with community-based reconciliation activities and those working with potential returnees in both of these areas should be encouraged to adopt a more regional focus to share lessons learned, encourage the cross-fertilization of approaches, and investigate the benefits of regional programs. With an interest and presence in both situations, UNHCR has the capacity to serve as a constructive linking force.