(Washington) - United States Helsinki Commission leaders today called for an “accurate assessment” of the situation in Chechnya following the decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to send a Technical Needs Assessment mission to the war-torn region. The mission is being prepared in cooperation with the Council of Europe “to assess the possibility of an international observer presence” during the constitutional referendum scheduled for March 23.
Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) said, “I am very concerned that the OSCE could be used as political cover for what appears to be a dubious and premature exercise. Are we supposed to believe that this referendum will stabilize Chechnya while armed conflict between the Russian military and Chechen fighters continues to produce death and destruction?” Smith asked. “The mission should prepare to give an accurate assessment of its findings especially given credible reports by non-governmental organizations that displaced persons are being forcibly returned to the war zone.”
Commission Ranking Member Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) asked, “ What kind of signal does it send when Russia closes the doors on the OSCE mission in Chechnya, but now wants to have the OSCE involved in the election process? There needs to be a viable process of monitoring the humanitarian situation in a region of such great challenge to the OSCE,” Hoyer added. “Ignoring reality is not an option.”
The agreement to send an OSCE assessment team to Chechnya was worked out in early February by OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, and Igor S. Ivanov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation. The OSCE Assistance Mission to Chechnya had been deployed since early 1995, but the Russian Government ousted the mission in December 2002.
Eleven Members of the Helsinki Commission wrote to President Vladimir Putin in September concerning the forcible return of refugees to the war zone. The conflict in Chechnya has also been the subject of numerous Commission hearings.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.