Crosslines: Chechnya - war and human rights

The material that follows has been provided by CROSSLINES
The Red Army's Folly, Yeltsin's Afghanistan or Russia's Bosnia? The glib phrases disguise the fact that Chechnya's crisis has its own history, which calls up disturbing echoes beyond the horrors of the war. Once again the UN has, almost wilfully, shown itself unable to act to protect human rights. By Anthony Hyman

Humanitarian law is bound to reflect tension between what has been called loftily "the standard of civilization" and, on the other hand, the harsh necessities of war. Laws on warfare apply primarily to international armed conflicts between states, where humanitarian restrictions on violence according to the Geneva Conventions have been more commonly applied. As for internal conflicts within the boundaries of a state, governments have often been reluctant to accept any restrictions on how they choose to plan military operations against hostile elements usually branded as rebels, terrorists or armed criminals. The war in Chechnya is no exception to this rule.

An old man and child take a bus out of Grozny to safety but an uncertain future. Credit: Alyanak/IOM-95.
Reduced to its simplest, the war in Chechnya is about the right of a small Muslim nation in the north Caucasus to regain its independence. But ultimately it is also over the integrity of the Russian Federation. The Russian invasion was prompted by the failure of a coup attempt of 26 November last year, when infiltrated Russian forces taking part in a covert military operation were routed.

The basic issue of Chechen independence has been simmering since three years. Chechnya is the sole micro-state out of all the autonomous republics of the ex-USSR to have dared challenge Moscow's rule directly. It was no coincidence that it had large oil revenues at its disposal. Nationalist circles in Moscow fear that Chechnya's full independence could set a dangerous example to the many other non-Russian nations within the Russian Federation, notably in Tatarstan, and start the unravelling of the rump of the USSR.

Grozny lies in ruins, but instead of surrendering, it looks as if many Chechen fighters will attempt to continue the struggle in mountain regions of Chechnya. The Chechens' high morale and grim defiance against overwhelming Russian military weaponry has been strikingly apparent. However, guerrilla warfare in this small land will be very different from Afghanistan, with its wide-open international borders. With the rich oilfields in Russian control and the oil refinery in Grozny destroyed, there will be no revenues from Chechnya's oil industry to fund any future guerrilla war.<p>

The Caucasus contains the three independent states of Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, and -- in the north -- smaller autonomous republics within the Russian Federation. The one million Chechens are one of the largest of dozens of peoples, many with their own distinct languages, inhabiting this mountainous region bordering Russia, the Middle East and Europe.

Chechen self-determination raises the spectre of "Balkanization" of the Russian Federation into small states, many of them arguably unviable new mini-states. This unwelcome outcome cuts at the root of potential foreign support. Respect for existing state boundaries -- however flawed they may be -- seems ingrained in international circles. The United Nations -- like the League of Nations before it -- has repeatedly shied away from touching this controversial issue. Sovereignty has become almost sanctified.

In an ideal world, the principle of state sovereignty would never be confused with a state's immunity from committing crimes against its own citizens. In theory, this right of minorities to self-determination is guaranteed under international law. In practice, though, it usually depends on the result of an armed struggle.

In the UN framework, treatment of minorities within states is judged an internal matter for their respective governments, and almost never as a problem facing the peoples themselves, however brutally they have been dealt with. This explains the great rarity of UN-backed external interventions to bring down governments, even in cases of flagrant ill-treatment or justified claims of genocide (as in Cambodia). Recent examples of external military interventions in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have more often been due to unilateral decisions by neighbour states or by one of the superpowers.

Only very gradually (and very imperfectly) since the late 1970s has the UN been forced to address its attention to human rights issues. This was achieved by determined campaigning of NGOs and a few idealistic-minded officials, notably in the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Instead of the UN, it is the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) which has made humanitarian law and its application in warfare its exclusive area of concern.

In humanitarian laws of warfare, the distinction between combattants and civilians aims to exclude non-combattants from becoming targets for violence. The Geneve Conventions would apply in principle in Chechnya because of the extent of suffering and casualties through war.

Unknown thousands of civilian deaths and casualties were caused since December by mortar and artillery shelling and air raids on Grozny and other places in Chechnya, together with the heavy street fighting needed to gain control of the capital.

Ironically, many of the civilians wounded or killed in Grozny are ethnic Russians from a population of over 400,000 before the fighting started. In the first weeks of the war alone, some 60,000 Chechen refugees fled to safe areas outside the capital, often staying with family.

Russian tactics have been relentless bombing from the air and encirclement of the city to cut off Chechen forces based there. Bombing of villages to the south of Grozny was justified as prevention of regrouping of Chechen paramilitary forces.

Only very limited aid has been given so far by the ICRC, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to the refugees generated by the hostilities. Robberies and rapes by soldiers of various Russian units have been reported. The incompetence and general lack of professionalism of the Russian army would explain some of the robberies for food, though not, of course, other crimes by soldiers sent to Chechnya.

Dzhokar Dudayev, the 46-year-old onetime Major General of the USSR's Air Force, has been a controversial, rhetorical and often provocative leader of the Chechens. As early as the autumn of 1991 the response of Dudayev to the threat of Russian intervention or invasion was to order a general mobilization of Chechen men. The stated Chechen goal of achieving full independence from Russia made Dudayev a target of Russian conservatives around the then Vice-President Alexander Rutskoi.

A ruthless smear campaign led by the state broadcasting agencies branded the Chechen people as a whole as "a nation of gangsters." But to their great credit, Russia's leading liberal newspapers have kept a robust independence from the state since the fighting began.

In all this, the efforts of Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's Human Rights Commissioner and a deputy in the Duma (lower house of parliament), have been outstanding. Defiantly staying in Grozny during the heavy bombing from 15 December, this veteran campaigner publicly denounced the disinformation campaign, of which he bluntly declared on his return to Moscow (5 January, 1995): "We have surpassed the Communists and even Goebbels."

Kovalyov complained bitterly about the weakness of the US government position on the invasion of Chechnya (end of December 1994), declaring it was "absolutely inadequate"and that "massive and grave violation of human rights can never be an internal affair of any country."

Equally devastating criticisms have come from Boris Pankin, the last Soviet Foreign Minister and a distinguished ambassador to London: "Only when the situation began to turn into a bloodbath were appeals made not to spill too much blood. But what does this mean? And who would dare say that blood spilt in a domestic conflict is different from that in a foreign clash? Is it thinner? Or colder?"

Just like the UN, foreign governments regularly pay respect to the principle of territorial integrity. The excuse of the Chechen crisis being an "internal matter" for the Russian government to resolve will always inhibit protests by foreign states. However, as a gesture of protest at the actions taken in Chechnya, the European Commission decided to freeze the European Union's interim trade agreement with Russia, financial help which had been long and eagerly awaited in Moscow.

The USA, Britain, Germany, France and other Western governments made their protests at the brutal manner in which the war is being conducted. But none are willing to risk alienating Russia by making protests too vigorous. Future business with Russia far outweighs moral outrage over a few thousand deaths in remote Chechnya. The 19th-century ideal of a people's inalienable right to self-determination has become obscured -- and to some extent discredited -- by the tragic course of modern history, notably the rise of fascism in which nationalism played such a major distorting role. Yet the development of the Chechen crisis proves beyond any doubt that nationalism counts in the north Caucasus.

The ruins of Grozny may now be occupied by the Russian army, but the issue of Chechen independence will not simply fade away. Many Chechens will go on backing independence from Russia for their small nation. Some confidently look forward to an eventual confederation of mountain peoples of the north Caucasus as a whole.

The war is still undecided and the victory far from certain. It is noteworthy, however, that many of the shrewdest Russian commentators are predicting that the Chechen campaign will prove a tragedy for Russia, and could even lead on to the downfall of Boris Yeltsin as President.

Anthony Hyman is associate editor of Central Asian Survey (London) and currently member of the research committee of a programme for the Middle East Institute of Japan (Tokyo).

=A9Copyright: CROSSLINES Global Report 1995. Uploaded with permission.