Russia

Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly Fact-Finding Mission to Russia

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From "January 2000 - The Electronic Newsletter of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly"
A Parliamentary Assembly delegation visited the Russian Federation from 16 to 20 January 2000. The objective of the visit was to explain the position of the Assembly on the conflict in Chechnya in the light of Russia's obligations as a member of the Organisation and to discuss with the Russian authorities the prospects for a political solution. Report.

Chechnya: a peaceful settlement

The Parliamentary delegation was led by President Lord Russell-Johnston. Delegation members were Cevdet Akcali (Turkey, EDG), Rudolf Bindig (Germany, SOC), Andreas Gross (Switzerland, SOC), Tadeusz Iiwinski (Poland, SOC), Lord Judd (United Kingdom, SOC), Jaakko LAAKSO (Finland, UEL), Kristiina Ojuland (Estonia, LDR), Renate Wohlwend (Liechtenstein, EPP/CD) and Bruno HALLER, Clerk of the Assembly.

Several days before they arrived, on 14 January, the Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Irish Foreign Minister David Andrews, met with his Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov, at the Minister's invitation. Their talks focussed on the future Council of Europe contribution towards restoring the rule of law, respect for human rights and democracy in Chechnya.

The objective of the parliamentary delegation's visit was to explain the position of the Assembly on the conflict in Chechnya in the light of Russia's obligations as a member of the Organisation and to discuss with the Russian authorities the prospects for a political solution.

President Putin is "open to suggestions"

The delegation had a long and substantial meeting with acting President Putin. Foreign Minister Ivanov and the Minister for Emergencies Shoigu joined them. Instead of the scheduled 30 minutes, talks went on for three hours. President Putin said he was open to suggestions by the Council of Europe. He stressed that the Council of Europe was important for Russia and that he personally thought it had an important role to play.

The delegation also had talks with the Presidents of the two Chambers, MM Seleznyev and Stroev, and another private meeting with Foreign Minister Ivanov. The Minister of Interior, Mr Rushailo, accompanied them on their information visit to the North-Caucasus.

The Russian authorities tried to explain what they called a highly complex situation. They explained the reasons for the military intervention in Chechnya, in particular the wide-spread criminality, the collapse of social and economic structures, incursions in neighbouring Republics, culminating in the attack on Daghestan.

As far as refugees are concerned, they said that the situation was developing to the better and underlined that they were doing their best to create conditions for people to return.

No negotiation with Mr Maskhadov

The delegation was informed in detail of their efforts to normalize the situation in the area under control of the Federal authorities, especially as regards the re-establishment of health and school systems, gas, electricity and water infrastructures, but in talks with the local population they learnt that public declarations do not always end up in concrete steps. On the subject of negotiations, the Russian authorities said they were ready, under certain conditions, but excluded Mr Maskhadov as interlocutor because of his lack of authority and support for extremists.

The parliamentary delegation for its part reminded its interlocutors that the Assembly had adopted a declaration on 13 December, stressing that "persistence in violations could lead the Parliamentary Assembly to put in question Russian participation in the Assembly's work and in the Council of Europe."

Lord Russell-Johnston and delegation members stressed that the Council of Europe was a Human Rights organisation. "We came with our concerns about the human rights violations in Chechnya and the humanitarian situation," they stressed. When Russia acceded to the Council of Europe in 1996, it accepted the European Human Rights Convention. It committed itself to resolve all internal and international disputes by peaceful means and to respect international humanitarian law.

Fighting terrorism in accordance with international law

The Assembly has always recognized the right of Russia to fight terrorism and ensure equal rights to all of its citizens but it should do so in accordance with international law and that, they said, excludes the indiscriminate use of force.

The government must take action for a peaceful settlement. This problem cannot be solved by force, it needs a political solution, they stated.

They also asked for free access of humanitarian organisations and international media to the zone of conflict.

Their intention, they said, was to persuade Russia to change its approach because one cannot fight terrorism by using terrorist tactics. "We are not for or against a country, we express concern when human rights are transgressed. Russia needs to be in complete agreement with the commitments it made when it joined the Council of Europe."

Severe human rights violations

The delegation also visited Daghestan and Ingushetia, and two locations in Chechnya - Gudermes and Tolstoi-Yurt, accompanied by the Minister of the Interior Mr Rushailo. They had talks with Mr Aushev and Magomadov, Presidents of these two neighbouring Republics. The delegation also had an opportunity to meet with the local population in Chechnya and internally displaced persons in Ingushetia.

During the visit to the Karabulakh refugee camp in Ingushetia, the delegation heard several accounts of severe human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law by the Russian forces. "Even if we were unable to verify all these allegations, we have to seriously take into account the reports of international Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch," the delegation said.

The delegation condemned human rights abuses by the Chechen side and called for an immediate release of all hostages.

A Council of Europe presence

The Russian side took note of the delegation's concerns and agreed to seriously examine ways to improve the situation. This will include Council of Europe presence in the region, which was agreed to in the meeting with Putin. Lord Russell-Johnston qualified this as hope that Russia is willing to change the way it deals with the conflict.

"Our dialogue will continue next week during the session in Strasbourg when the report on the visit will be presented to the Assembly in the presence of Minister Ivanov," the Parliamentary delegation concluded.

At their final press conference, Lord Judd (United Kingdom, SOC), rapporteur on the conflict in Chechnya for the Political Affairs Committee, said he will be guided by what the Council of Europe can do to help to promote solutions to the situation.

Rudolf Bindig (Germany, SOC), rapporteur for the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, stressed that his task is to find out whether Russia sticks to the commitments it undertook in 1996: to settle disputes by peaceful means and to respect international humanitarian law.

Tadeusz Iwinski (Poland, SOC), rapporteur for the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography, stressed the need for an immediate improvement of the desperate situation of refugees and called for the release of hostages.

Andreas Gross (Switzerland, SOC), rapporteur for the same Committee underlined the need for the establishment of an international presence in the field that could monitor the situation. He concluded by saying that Russia has lost the heart of the people in Chechnya and that this could now lead to a long guerilla style war for autonomy.

Chronology

16.9.99 Terrorist attacks

Some 300 people are killed in a series of bomb attacks in Russia. The President of the Assembly says that he is "revolted" by these acts "which no cause can justify", at the same time reminding the Russian government that the fight against terrorism "must be conducted in full respect of the rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms".

22.10.99 Civilian casualties

After the rocket attack on Grozny which left over sixty civilians dead, Lord Russell-Johnston is "shocked to learn the news about the high number of civilian casualties".He calls on both sides to abstain from indiscriminate and disproportionate actions which are likely to harm innocent civilians.

4.11.99 Ceasefire

In a resolution adopted by the Standing Committee, the Assembly calls on the Russian authorities to avoid military raids against the civil population and to introduce a ceasefire. It recognises the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, while demanding that the country abstain from any human rights violations.

8.12.99 Joint declaration

Mary Robinson (United Nations), Walter Schwimmer (Council of Europe) and Max van der Stoel (OSCE) issue a joint declaration emphasising the obligations of the Russian Federation under international humanitarian law: "Whatever its motivation, any police or security action must conform to fundamental humanitarian principles".

13.12.99 Unacceptable threat

The Bureau of the Assembly condemns the "persistent violations that could lead the Assembly to put under question Russian participation in the Assembly's work and in the Council of Europe in general". It also condemns continued use of force affecting the civilian population in Chechnya and demands that it be stopped immediately.

15.12.99 Rule of law

Walter Schwimmer asks Russia for explanations "concerning the manner in which the Convention is currently being implemented in Chechnya, and the risks of violation which may result". It is the first time that a Secretary General of the Council of Europe has exercised this right with regard to an individual country.

The conflict was not the principal issue in the electoral campaign

Whilst the Chechnya conflict was not the principal issue in the electoral campaign, public support for the military action saved the government from criticism on other domestic issues in the electoral debate", said on 20 December Ernst Muehlemann (Switzerland, LDR), leader of the Assembly's delegation that observed the legislative elections on 19 December.

The Council of Europe delegation, composed of 25 Parliamentary Assembly members belonging to five different political groups, visited polling stations in Moscow, St Petersburg, Kursk, Krasnoyarsk, Cheboksary, Rostov and Vladivostok. The delegation, the largest ever to observe elections in Russia, participated in an international observation exercise together with OSCE/ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the European Parliament.

"The Russians have been given the political freedom to elect their representatives and they have shown their determination to use it. This shows that Russia maintains its democratic course", Mr Muehlemann added.

The delegation concluded that "these elections have also demonstrated that pluralism is now accepted in a country that for many years was ruled by a single party, even if the fight between the 26 political parties in this election was harsh. On the whole, this fight has been fair, except where commercial groupings and political circles have used their influence on certain media to mislead the voters. These allegations must be examined by the appropriate institutions and, where necessary, measures must be taken to prevent such abuses in the future - in particular during the Presidential election next year".

They found that that the organisation of the elections had progressed and commended the Central Election Commission on its determination to implement the amended Electoral Law.

The delegation expressed the hope that the new State Duma will contribute to political stability in Russia, in co-operation with the government and the president; that it will work towards the honouring of Russia's obligations and commitments to the Council of Europe, and that it will strive to solve the Chechnya conflict with political instruments rather than military means, in conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights.