Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Hon. Gordon H. Smith
Commissioner - Helsinki Commission

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Considering the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) that have fled the ongoing hostilities in Chechnya, I want to express my deep concern about the level of human suffering that continues in that region. I want to also urge the Russian Federation to preclude additional forcible returns of IDPs to an area of the country where they would feel unsafe and insecure. The unstable security situation in Chechnya is well known, and there are continuing reports of attacks and kidnappings of civilians resulting from military operations and raids. The recent explosion in Znamenskoe, Chechnya demonstrates that rebels continue to indiscriminately target civilians and Russian armed forces. In view of this destruction and disorder, it is troubling that government authorities appear bent on closing tent camps and returning nearly 20,000 IDPs to a dangerous and volatile Chechnya. Accordingly, I urge the Government of Russia to discontinue efforts to forcibly return IDPs to Chechnya and to allow non-government organizations to provide aid and shelter to IDPs in and around Chechnya.

Last summer, as part of a broader effort to demonstrate the normalizing of Chechnya, Russian officials began pressuring IDPs to return. When such pressure did not result in the desired numbers of returns, authorities began dismantling camps and facilities. In June 2002, two camps, housing some 2,200 refugees, were closed in the village of Znamenskoye in northern Chechnya. Later, in December 2002, authorities closed the Aki-Yurt camp in nearby Ingushetia, which housed some 1,700 displaced Chechens, leaving its residents with no other viable alternative other than to return to Chechnya. While some resisted and found other places to stay in Ingushetia, several thousands did relocate into Temporary Accommodation Centers in Grozny. However, most reports indicated that government promises of adequate housing and better support did not come through. The now defunct OSCE Assistant Group reported that the Centers were characterized by “overcrowding, not enough beds, no sewers working, no medicine and inadequate medical services.” Perhaps such honest assessments explain why Moscow terminated the Assistance Group’s presence in Chechnya at the end of 2002.

I would mention also that ten Members of the Helsinki Commission wrote to President Putin last September urging him to insure that internally displaced persons seeking refuge in Ingushetia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation, not be forcibly returned to any location. Unfortunately, we have yet to receive a response.

With another summer approaching, it is my fear that the unhappy fate of Aki-Yurt camp IDPs awaits thousands of others in Ingushetia and other neighboring provinces. In December 2002, the chair of Russia’s human rights commission cited President Vladimir Putin’s pledge that Chechen refugees would not be forced to return to the region against their will. Accordingly, Russia should end all plans to return individuals to Chechnya against their wishes and allow the further construction and use of shelters in Ingushetia by such groups as Doctors without Borders.

I hope that we will soon be hearing back from President Putin, and to learn that the forcible returns will be altogether discontinued henceforth.