Open letter to President Clinton and Secretary Albright: Humanitarian Law must be respected in Chechen conflict

The Honorable William J. Clinton
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
Washington, DC 20500

Madeleine K. Albright
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street, NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Mr. President and Secretary Albright,

For nearly four months the Russian armed forces have been indiscriminately bombing the city of Grozny and much of the entire Chechen Republic. Cities, villages, hospitals, marketplaces, and refugee convoys and corridors, have now become targets. These acts against civilians constitute war crimes.

After walking through snow and high mountains, and dodging bombs and bullets, more than 250,000 Chechen citizens have waited for hours, or even days, to find refuge in neighboring republics and states. In interviews with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) volunteers, Chechen refugees in Georgia speak of deliberate and gruesome attacks on civilians throughout the republic. They describe how those who could not flee to safety--the poor, the wounded, the sick, and the elderly--are prisoners in their own homes and villages. Almost 500,000 civilians remain in Chechen territory.

From 1994-1997, during and after the first war, Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders provided emergency aid to Chechen civilians. The heightened violence and extreme insecurity in the region are now preventing our medical personnel from working in Chechen territory. As doctors, nurses, and above all, humanitarians, we have sadly been forced to accept our powerlessness in bringing medical assistance to those still remaining in Chechnya.

Voices have already spoken out against this war and the toll it is taking on civilian lives, but to no avail. To stop the indiscriminate targeting of the population remaining in Chechen territory, the international community must do more and it must be done immediately.

During the conflict in Kosovo, your administration mounted an all-out public relations campaign aimed at rallying popular support for the humanitarian concerns of the besieged citizens of Kosovo. Where is the similar high-level, public discussion of the plight of civilians in Chechnya? As in Kosovo, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been forced from their homes. Tens of thousands are still trapped in their basements or hidden in the forests and mountains. Thousands have already been wounded or killed. Do they suffer any less than the people of Kosovo?

From a humanitarian perspective, there is no difference.

Mr. President, in a recent article in Time magazine, you stated, "We have a profound and open disagreement with the Russian government, not on its right to oppose violent Chechen rebels but on the treatment of refugees."

Mr. President and Secretary Albright, while such words against the violence in Chechnya are encouraging, they mean little unless they result in swift improvement of the situation of the Chechen people. You must prevail upon Russia to abide by its obligations under humanitarian law.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders is urgently appealing for:

  • an immediate halt to the indiscriminate bombings and attacks on Chechen civilians;
  • safe and unhindered passage for those wanting to leave Chechnya to seek refuge outside of the republic, including the opening of the Georgian border, which has been impassable due to daily bombing over the past month;
  • free and unimpeded humanitarian access to all populations and all areas inside Chechnya and the surrounding republics as guaranteed under international humanitarian law.

We sincerely urge you to give this matter your utmost attention.

James Orbinski, M.D.
President, Médecins Sans Frontières International Council

Joelle Tanguy
Executive Director, Médecins Sans Frontières USA