Russia

UN should investigate violations in Chechnya

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(New York, December 21, 1999) -- Human Rights Watch today called on the United Nations Security Council to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of the laws of war by Russian forces operating in Chechnya.
"Truth and justice are essential for long-term peace in the region," said Holly Cartner, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "A U.N. commission of inquiry should get that process underway immediately."

In a letter to all fifteen members of the Security Council, the organization said such a commission could "deter at least some of the atrocities and thereby save the lives of innocent civilians," which the organization said were mounting. A commission of inquiry would also preserve an historical record that could facilitate the future prosecution of those who have already committed serious violations of international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch's research indicates that Russia has shown contempt for international humanitarian law in its military campaign in Chechnya. Attacks on dozens of towns and villages still inhabited by civilians have killed and maimed untold numbers of people. The organization further cited a systematic failure by Russia to respect the rights of displaced Chechens, and the extrajudicial execution of at least seventeen people in the town of Alkhan-Yurt in early December.

In a separate letter, Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to abstain from using its veto on any Security Council resolution to establish a commission of inquiry for Chechnya. The organization said that all permanent members of the Council have the duty to refrain from using their veto power for purely parochial interests, especially when doing so would undermine the ability of the Council effectively to respond to serious violations of human rights.

Human Rights Watch has had a team of researchers interviewing Chechen refugees in Ingushetia since early November.

The letter to the U.N. Security Council is attached.

For more Human Rights Watch coverage of Chechnya, visit
http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/russia/chechnya

OPEN LETTER

December 20, 1999

H.E. Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock
President of U.N. Security Council
Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the U.N.
885 Second Avenue
New York, NY 10017

Your Excellency Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock:

We call on the Security Council as a matter of urgency to appoint an independent commission of inquiry to investigate violations of the laws of war by Russian forces operating in Chechnya. In light of growing reports of indiscriminate and disproportionate fire endangering the lives of civilians, as well as reports of summary executions and other serious human rights violations, we believe that the United Nations has a duty to send a clear signal that those responsible for such violations will be brought to justice and must act to preserve a record of the violations for future prosecution. To do anything less is to condemn the Caucasus region to a perpetual cycle of violence as each new generation of victims seeks its own form of justice. Because we believe that investigations of this sort should examine the conduct of all waring parties, we urge you to include Chechen forces within the scope of the inquiry.

Human Rights Watch, a privately funded international non-governmental human rights organization, has been monitoring the human rights situation in Chechnya since before the 1994-1996 war. Since October 1999, Human Rights Watch researchers in the northern Caucasus have interviewed hundreds of civilians fleeing Chechnya. Our findings confirm that the conduct of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya continues to take a terrible toll on civilians. Russian forces have bombed and shelled dozens of towns and villages still inhabited by civilians, actions that have killed and maimed untold numbers of people and shown contempt for international humanitarian law. Civilians able to reach the Ingush border faced long waits=F9sometimes for days=F9in freezing weather while Russian border police "process." Currently, border closures at times appear entirely arbitrary, and some border police continue to extort bribes as a condition for permission to cross. Russian authorities are also denying food and shelter to displaced persons in Ingushetia to pressure them to return to certain Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya. Russian forces have consistently failed to provide civilians safe exit routes out of the conflict zones, despite their claims to the contrary, forcing them either to remain in villages under siege or risk getting shot as they flee.

Soldiers in Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya apparently have carte blanche to loot and pillage; many people have returned briefly to their homes to find them stripped bare of household goods and other valuables. Displaced persons also reported summary executions by Russian soliders after the capture of the town of Alkhan-Yurt. Our information indicates that at least seventeen persons, and possibly many more, were killed=F9many of them summarily executed=F9between December 1-9, 1999.

Human Rights Watch has urged a number of steps by the international community to bring pressure on the Russian government to comply with its international commitments in its conduct in Chechnya, including by calling on international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to withhold disbursement of upcoming loan tranches and to link future disbursement to the Russian government's conduct in Chechnya.

However, we believe that the United Nations has a distinctive role to play not only in bringing an end to the current violence but beginning the process of truth and justice that is a prerequisite for long-term peace in the region. To date, the international community has refused to insist on accountability for serious human rights violations committed in Chechnya. During the 1994-96 war, the international community, including the U.N., repeatedly condemned the atrocities committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, but remained silent when the Russian government refused to investigate or prosecute those responsible. This failure of international policy helped to perpetuate an environment of impunity that facilitates abuses in the current conflict.

We believe that the United Nations has a unique opportunity to end the pervading sense of impunity for war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law that exists among Russian forces operating in Chechnya. The United Nations has a duty at a minimum to send a clear message to the Russian government and armed forces that they are bound to comply with international humanitarian law and that the United Nation will respond with more than rhetorical condemnation of those who violate these obligations. The establishment of an international commission of inquiry to examine and analyse the evidence of violations of the laws of war is a particularly important step because it may deter at least some of the atrocities and thereby save the lives of innocent civilians, as well as preserve the historical record to facilitate the future prosecution of those who have already committed serious violations.

At the opening of the current session of the General Assembly, Secretary General Kofi Annan challenged the Security Council and the U.N. as a whole not to allow massive and systematic violations of human rights=F9regardless of where they occurr. We hope that the Council will now take on this challenge in Chechnya. We recognize that establishing a commission of inquiry by the Security Council would require the Russian government to abstain from voting on such a resolution, and we are calling on the Russian government to do so (see attached letter). We trust, however, that the other members of the Council will support this move and that no permanent member will use its veto power for parochial reasons. Should the Security Council be unable to fulfill the most basic of the U.N.'s founding principles=F9to save generations from the scourge of war, reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, and establish conditions under which justice can prevail=F9we will call on the General Assembly to create a commission of inquiry to examine and evaluate the evidence of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law during the conflict in Chechnya.

Thank you for you attention to this urgent matter.

Sincerely,

/s/ /s/
Joanna Weschler Holly Cartner
U.N. Representative Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia

cc: Members of General Assembly
Ambassador Sergey V. Lavrov

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