Chechnya: The World Looks Away

Tuesday, January 1, 2002
Crimes of War

On March 23, the people of Chechnya were given the chance to vote for a new constitution sponsored by the republic's Moscow-backed authorities. According to official reports, a high percentage of voters turned out and gave overwhelming support to the plan, which affirms Chechnya's place within the Russian Federation. But some journalists and human rights activists have painted a very different picture. The view of Oleg Orlov of the human rights group Memorial is that the vote was conducted in an atmosphere of terror and cannot be considered as “a genuine referendum.”

The referendum was part of a Russian campaign to make out the situation in Chechnya is settling down – that the war is essentially over, and that the Chechens themselves can vote for their own leaders under Russian authority. But reports from the region indicate that the fighting has reached more of a stalemate than a solution. And in the meantime, there is evidence that atrocities and war crimes are continuing unchecked in this brutal and vicious conflict.

Statistics compiled by the Chechen authorities and leaked to journalists show that disappearances, killings and beatings are rife. Eyewitness accounts and independent investigations suggest that the Russian army is responsible for most of these crimes. Demoralized and corrupt, with no indication that abuses will be punished, the army appears to have been given a virtual free hand to abduct, rob and kill. There is no official recourse for people whose relatives disappear. No credible investigations into these abductions ever seem to take place.

At the same time, the separatist fighters – or at least some among their ranks – are also responsible for kidnappings and other crimes. Some are resistant to any compromise settlement, and their hard-line stance is dragging the people of Chechnya further into an intractable conflict that, it appears, most of them would like to be done with.

The continuing abuses in Chechnya belie any claim that the situation is returning to “normal.” Yet the outside world – which has never consistently pressured the Russian authorities over its responsibility for war crimes in Chechnya – now appears to be looking away. Geo-political concerns – the U.S. war on terror, the expansion of Europe –take precedence over the illegal abuses of this dirty war. At the recent UN Human Rights Commission meeting, the United States declined to sponsor a resolution condemning Russian actions in Chechnya (it has sponsored such motions in previous years). The U.S. did vote for a European motion on Chechnya, but it was defeated.

As a non-international armed conflict, the war in Chechnya falls under Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which forbids the killing, ill-treatment, and torture of those not taking part in hostilities. In addition, it is covered by Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1977, to which Russia is a party. This forbids violence against those not taking part in hostilities, collective punishments, taking of hostages, acts of terrorism, outrages against personal dignity and pillage. It also makes it a crime to direct any attack against the civilian population.

Beyond these conventions, any campaign of violence and forced disappearances directed against the civilian population, conducted in a widespread and systematic way, would constitute a crime against humanity under customary international law.

For further discussion of the law that applies to the Chechen conflict, see this earlier feature on our website.

Murder, torture, rape and enforced disappearance, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population, are listed as crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Russia has signed the Statute but not ratified it, so the ICC cannot exercise jurisdiction over any crimes committed in Chechnya.

In this magazine, we look at the war in Chechnya and the abuses that are taking place under its cover. Anne Nivat gives an on-the-ground report that emphasizes the entrenched nature of the conflict. Pavel Felgenhauer explores the culture and conditions of the Russian army and explains the factors that shape its conduct. Thomas de Waal looks at the links between this civil war and the outside world – the role of Islamic fundamentalism and the failure of the West to take a stand. Oleg Orlov gives a powerful and informed summary of the way the war is changing and the crimes that are still taking place. Andre Kamenshikov gives a first-hand report of one initiative that is attempting to reduce ethnic tensions throughout the region and prevent the spread of conflict. And Thomas Dworzak's photo essay gives the human dimension of the crime of forced disappearance.

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