Item 9 : The human rights situation in Chechnya

janvier 2003

[français] [français]

59th session of the Commission on Human Rights
17 March - 25 April 2003

Written statement by FIACAT Item 9 of the provisional agenda

The human rights situation in Chechnya

The International Federation of ACAT (Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture) wishes to express its acute concern about the extent and gravity of the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by the Russian armed forces on the Chechen civilian population.

Last August, ACAT France, a member of our Federation, sent a mission of inquiry to Chechnya. The report it published in December 2002 is extremely alarming.

The figures speak for themselves : it is estimated that, since the first war in 1994, between 100 000 and 200 000 Chechens have been killed, i.e. 10-20% of the population. Most of the victims are civilians.

About 170 000 persons have had to leave everything to seek refuge outside the country, mainly in Ingushetia. They are living in wretched conditions, as are the 260 000 or so displaced persons within Chechnya, who represent about three-quarters of the population.

We can only deplore the attitude of the Russian Federation, which has assigned the greater part of its budget to defence in order to carry this war through, showing total contempt for the international conventions it has ratified, especially the Geneva convention banning fragmentation bombs and chemical weapons.

The conventions for the protection of civilians in time of armed conflict are the first to be violated, with civilians subjected to widespread and systematic abuses : murders, summary executions, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, torture, rape, looting … it is a long list. Electrocution, needles inserted under the nails, quartering or mutilation of the genital organs are also common forms of torture. With no limit to the horror, there is also the practice of the "human kindling", which consists of rounding up a "mass" of Chechens, tying them up and then setting fire to them with grenades.

Since the events of 11 September 2001, the international community seems very much inclined not to condemn such practices, taking the view that this is merely an internal matter and that Russia is free to conduct its anti-terrorist campaign as it sees fit. And we have every reason to think that the reality of the war is being suppressed, to judge from the muzzling and censorship of the media, the great difficulties encountered by humanitarian organisations in gaining access to Chechen territory, or the systematic refusal of requests for international observers to be sent.

The decisions not to renew the OSCE mandate in December 2002 and to close the camps in Ingushetia demonstrate the denial of the very existence of this war, the atrocities committed in the filtration camps and the knife-edge existence of nearly three-quarters of the Chechen population.

Closure of the camps in Ingushetia means the forced return of thousands of refugees, many suffering from malnutrition, injured, sick or greatly weakened, to a country devastated by war. For example, Grozny, the capital with a mixed Russian and Caucasian population of 400 000, is in ruins ; the bloody "mopping-up operations" are dragging on, with a disgraceful trade in the return of victims’ bodies.

In preparation for the referendum on a draft new constitution planned for March 2003, the Russian government had a census carried out at the end of the year. This is very disquieting, since the "disappeared" will also be counted, although they are probably already dead. Their names can be used to inflate the electoral rolls and thus skew the results of the referendum, in which the signatures of Russian soldiers will also count.

This situation testifies to the collapse of the democratic institutions. The failure of the judicial system is a further example. Most complaints lead nowhere. The cases are dropped or the files closed on grounds of amnesty or on the pretext that no crime has been committed or that those responsible cannot be identified.

Strict demarcation of the powers of the civilian and military courts often leads to a denial of justice, since those involved in mopping up often answer both to the Defence Ministry and the Ministry of the Interior. There are no more than ten courts in the whole of Chechnya, and they are not competent to judge offences punishable by more than five years’ imprisonment, with the result that most abuses by soldiers are excluded. Applying to a higher court poses major material problems for victims who are destitute.

The Russian authorities are thus clearly acting in bad faith in failing to establish an effective judicial system. This highlights the illegality of this war, conducted under cover of an anti-terrorist campaign and sanctioned by the Act of 3 July 1998, the vagueness of which inevitably leads to excessive and arbitrary implementation. Moreover, neither the chief public prosecutor’s order of 25 July 2001 to safeguard citizens’ rights during residence checks nor that of 24 August 2001 forbidding military personnel to commit abuses during such operations is respected.

It is in this climate of general impunity that the European Court of Human Rights declared admissible six petitions submitted by Russians from Chechnya with respect to Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of torture), 13 (right to effective remedy) of the European Convention on Human Rights, setting aside the prior requirement for internal legal remedies to have been exhausted, as being too closely linked with the substance of the complaints.. This is a first step towards recognising the flagrant and repeated breaches of the conventions ratified by the Russian Federation, which it has a duty to uphold as a signatory state.

The draft resolution submitted by the European Union countries was rejected on 22 April 2002 at the fifty-eighth session of the Commission on Human Rights, in disregard of the flagrant violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed against the civilian population in Chechnya. These large-scale violations are part of a policy pursued at the highest level, accompanied by widespread impunity. These crimes qualify as war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined by Articles 7 and 8 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force on 1 July 2002, but which Russia has not ratified.

FIACAT deplores the fact that the pretext of combating terrorism is allowed to prevail even within this Commission, whose remit it is to protect human rights and report on the human rights situation throughout the world. The Russian authorities have never applied the resolutions adopted by the Commission of Human Rights in 2000 and 2001 and United Nations experts have not been invited to visit the area to take stock of the situation.

The conclusions formulated on 16 May 2002 by the UN Committee against Torture are a damning indictment and denounce the "waking nightmare" of the Chechens, noting the many and persistent "severe violations of human rights and the Convention against Torture", "including arbitrary detention, torture and ill treatment, ... extrajudicial killings, and forced disappearances" while deploring the lack of an impartial and independent body to conduct inquiries.

In the light of all this information, FIACAT asks the Commission to adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in Chechnya.

- This resolution should contain a forthright condemnation of the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that are taking place in Chechnya, and the failure to apply its previous resolutions.
- It should urge the government of the Russian Federation to issue invitations without delay for visits to Chechnya by the competent United Nations machinery (Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Working Group on Forced Disappearances, Secretary General’s Special Representative on Internally Displaced Persons) and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
- Finally, it should demand that an independent and impartial international committee of inquiry be dispatched to investigate the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in Chechnya, and to report to the General Assembly of the United Nations at its next session.

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