What is happening in Chechnya?

Lord Russell-Johnston, President of the Parliamentary Assembly

In the cellars of Grozny, thousands of civilians, women, children and elderly people, remain, in conditions much more horrible than those during the siege of Sarajevo, which shocked and revolted the world community.

The people in Grozny are Russian citizens. They are our fellow Europeans. They are entitled to enjoy the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. They can complain to the Court in Strasbourg for the violation of these rights which weeks and weeks of constant heavy shelling have brought upon them. In theory. If they survive.

During our stay in Chechnya we did not have a chance to speak to them. But, while speaking to the people in Gudermes and Tolstoi-Yurt, we could hear the detonations and see the smoke only a few kilometres away.

People I met in the territories now under the control of the Russian forces were largely in favour of the presence of the federal troops. Some said that their lives had improved. Local leaders and administrators assured us of the efforts being undertaken to rebuild the infrastructure, and get the social structures, the health system and schools, operating again.

Others, speaking to my colleagues on the streets of Gudermes and in the refugee camp in Karabulakh in Ingushetia, away from the intimidating presence of the heavily armed guards of the Minister of the Interior by whom I was surrounded, had another story to tell. They spoke of horrors they had lived and were living through, of the separation from their families from whom they had not heard since, of relatives being killed in the bombardments.

They said they were getting little food, if any at all, that official statements that pensions and salaries were being paid, of electricity and water systems running again and of hospitals offering free health care were rarely, if ever true.

What is happening in Chechnya is a war. A cruel, savage war, for which the civilians are paying the highest price.

It has been preceded by a situation that was intolerable. The social structures had collapsed, criminality was rampant, neighbouring republics have been constantly under attack from armed groups of extremists. President Maskhadov, either through real direct implication or lack of authority, there is no way of us knowing, is co-responsible for that.

But the situation could have been and should have been addressed differently.

You cannot defeat terrorism by behaving like a terrorist. You cannot justify the indiscriminate use of force by a sovereign state, a member of the Council of Europe, by comparing it to the acts, appalling as they were, committed by criminals.

The terrorist seeks to destroy the law but feeds on injustice.

Because the terrorist attacks the law and human rights, we have to defend them. They are the best protection for the innocent.

After our visit to Russia, we have somehow a better understanding of the Russian position. We were impressed by the emotional testimonies of the people of Boutlikh, in Dagestan, of the terror inflicted by Basayev's extremists in August and September last year.

But, as we were before our visit, we remain seriously concerned, if not convinced that force is being used indiscriminately and disproportionately.

That the human rights of the civilian population and the rules of international humanitarian law are seriously threatened.

That Russia's compliance with its obligations as a member of the Council of Europe is not satisfactory.

That there is no military solution to the conflict and that an immediate cease-fire and political negotiations are necessary.

It is not to me to predict what action the Assembly is going to decide on when Lord Judd's report is presented to it, or whether sanctions be applied or not, but one thing is clear.

Whatever we do, we need to do it quickly. It is not only human rights that are being threatened. Human lives are being lost.