By John Finerty
CSCE Staff Advisor
The United States Helsinki Commission held a hearing September 16, 2003 on the current human rights situation in, and future of, Chechnya.
Testifying before the Commission were Ambassador Steven Pifer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs; Anna Politkovskaya, Moscow journalist and author; Dr. Robert Ware, Associate Professor at Southern Illinois University; and Lord Frank Judd, Member of the British House of Lords and former Co-Chairman of the Council of Europe-Duma Parliamentary Working Group on Chechnya.
In his opening statement, Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ), called the situation in Chechnya “the most egregious challenge to international humanitarian law in the OSCE region.”
“The Russian Government declares that the situation in Chechnya is normalizing, and that the ‘counter-terrorism operation’ is over,” Smith said, ” but it appears to be a tenuous claim, if that.”
Commission Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) noted the efforts of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly to raise human rights issues in Chechnya through resolutions and bilateral meetings with Russian counterparts urging them to “take a position responsible for the human rights issues in Chechnya.”
In prepared remarks, Commission Co-Chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell observed, “The picture the Kremlin does not want us to see is a wasteland dotted with mass graves, villages depopulated of men–young and old, and unspeakable crimes committed against civilians. Each side should and must be held accountable for its acts of lawlessness and brutality. Extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and abuse of the non-combatants by elements of the Russian military continue.”
Deputy Assistant Secretary Pifer reported that since his appearance before the Commission on Chechnya in May 2002, “The daily reality for the people of Chechnya has been bleak and deteriorating” and that “[t]he toll of casualties, both Chechen and Russian…continues to mount.” He noted that the majority of Chechens, whether those inside Chechnya or displaced to other regions of the Russian Federation, are living in dire conditions. “Deplorable violations of human rights persist,” Pifer continued, and “terrorist attacks by Chechen extremists have increased.”
After the 1994-96 Chechen war, according to Pifer, the resulting chaos and lack of rule of law drew international terrorists to Chechnya. Additionally, treatment by Russian security forces of the civilian population during the current war has contributed to growing extremism and further sharpened the conflict. “Moscow’s black and white treatment of the conflict,” he said, “makes cooperation in the war on terrorism more difficult as its conduct of counter-terrorist operations in Chechnya fuels sympathy for the extremists’ cause and undermines Russia’s international credibility.”
Pifer outlined the three pillars of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Chechnya: an end to all human rights violations; cessation of all fighting and a process that will produce a sustainable political settlement, and; continued humanitarian assistance for those affected by the conflict.
In response, Chairman Smith urged the Administration to make Chechnya a leading topic at the late September Camp David meeting between Presidents Bush and Putin. Ambassador Pifer stated his expectation that “these concerns will be among the most troubling that the two leaders will find on the U.S.-Russian agenda.” In a subsequent Moscow press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed considerable displeasure with Pifer’s forthright remarks at the Helsinki Commission hearing.
Anna Politkovskaya focused on the October 5th presidential election in Chechnya and the legitimacy of the new [March 23, 2003] constitution. The vote on the constitution, she testified, “basically gave the people of Chechnya a choice of being good ‘Chechens’ and therefore have the right to live, or being bad ‘Chechens’ and therefore opening themselves to the possibility of being exterminated.”
Regarding the presidential elections, Politkovskaya noted the advantages given to the Moscow-supported incumbent, Akhmed Kadyrov. He has been given the ability to “create huge armed units,” she continued. “What this amounts to is…a sponsorship of an all-out Chechen against Chechen war.”
Dr. Robert Ware testified about the lack of acknowledgment of the Chechen invasion of Dagestan and the resulting 32,000 IDPs, and multiple human rights violations that occurred during Chechnya’s de facto independence. “Russia had a moral obligation to protect its citizens in the region,” Dr. Ware stressed.
Ware stressed the importance of making sure that both sides of the story were taken into consideration. “There is no peace and reconciliation without truth,” Ware warned. “And there is no truth when you look at only one side of the problem.”
Lord Judd, who quit his position as Co-Chairman of the Council of Europe-Duma Parliamentary Working Group on Chechnya over Moscow’s insistence on conducting the March constitutional referendum, called the constitution issue “deeply disturbing.”
“There should have been debate and evaluation, pluralist and independent media, freedom of association, and freedom for political parties were needed [as well as] sufficient non-menacing security for people to feel freely able to participate,” Judd continued.
Commenting on the West’s relationship with Russia, Lord Judd exclaimed, “In the case of the Chechen Republic, it is inexplicable folly to hold back on criticism when by their policies and methods of implementing them, the Russians are perversely recruiting for the global terrorists.”
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.
United States Helsinki Commission Intern Jason Ekk contributed to this article.