Crosslines: Russians keep UN agencies out ot Chechnya

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Russians keep United Nations agencies out of Chechnya

By late-February Russia was still allowing only three international organizations - the International Committee of the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) - to operate inside Chechnya. Despite repeated requests in some quarters, United Nations agencies such as UNICEF, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have been prevented crossborder access to help civilians in the besieged territory.
According to UN sources, the Russians have continued to cite various official reasons such as "administrative difficulties" or "logistical problems" for not allowing the UN agencies to even send in supplies for distribution by MSF or ICRC. For the moment, UNICEF, UNHCR, WFP and other agencies are only allowed to operate in the Republics bordering Chechnya.<p>

UN sources said the Russians have been exerting enormous pressure on UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali not to push the issue. "Basically, the last thing the Russians want is to have UN organizations witnessing what it is doing inside Chechnya. It is absolutely scandalous," said one UN official. "Neither UN relief workers nor their supplies are allowed in." The Russians, for example, have not permitted UNICEF convoys to cross the border. As Samir Bastia, the Geneva-based Director for UNICEF-Europe, complained: "If only we could help the children..."

The official line, according to UN sources, is that the UN agencies have been invited to "assist" but not to "enter" the country. "So we are still waiting for the green light from the Secretary-General," said one representative. As of 23 February, the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs, which is responsible for coordinating inter-agency operations in the region, said that there was no plan to deploy UN agencies inside Chechnya. However, it is possible, noted DHA representative Paul Hebert in Geneva, "that UNICEF may at some point be brought in to deal with health problems."

The UNHCR, on the other hand, will remain operational only in the frontier countries. Officially, the UNHCR's mandate is restricted to dealing with refugees. Observers note, however, that there have been an increasing number of crises -- Bosnia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan -- where the Geneva-based agency has been providing assistance to internal refugees or displaced persons regardless of the mandate.

Several UN sources believe that one of the reasons that Moscow refuses to have UNHCR present inside the "conflict zone" (i.e.. Chechnya) is because it does not want fleeing civilians to be labelled as refugees. So far as the Russians are concerned, added one observer at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, "Chechnya is an internal and not an international affair."

According to sources, the IOM, which is involved in evacuation and bread distribution operations in Grozny -- sometimes in the midst of the fighting zones -- was allowed to operate inside Chechnya mainly because of its experience in the former Soviet Union and past relations with the Russian Federal Migration Service. The IOM was heavily involved during the Soviet era in facilitating the departure of migrants, mainly to Europe, North America and elsewhere. The Russians, too, prefer to have displaced persons referred to as migrants rather than refugees.

At the same time, IOM may be developing a new role for itself in international emergencies. Given that the IOM's constitution includes assistance to "displaced persons," some relief analysts have suggested that IOM could cut itself a significant niche by assuming some of the humanitarian burden of the UNHCR. As it is, UNHCR is thoroughly overwhelmed by having to deal with growing numbers of refugees and displaced persons. In contrast to its normally low profile, IOM has been involved in recent operations, such as Mozambique and Rwanda, that have stood out far more than in the past. And given that more conflicts may arise in the former Soviet Union, IOM could soon find itself with its hands full dealing with displaced persons.

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