Title

Helsinki Commission Members Urge Chechnya Dialogue in Bush-Putin Meeting

Friday, September 26, 2003

September 12, 2003

The President
The White House
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

As you prepare to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Camp David later this month, we urge you to raise several issues regarding the ongoing humanitarian tragedy in Chechnya. Today, the most egregious violations of international humanitarian law in the OSCE region are occurring in that region of Russia.

We wholeheartedly support the U.S. efforts to work with the Government of the Russian Federation on the host of important issues facing our two nations, and we welcome the increased cooperation with Russia to confront the challenges of terrorism. Nevertheless, the charge of terrorism must never be used as a blanket rationalization for flagrant and massive abuse of Chechnya's civilian population. Indeed, a fundamental tenet of humanitarian law is that the means of warfare are not unlimited.

In their drive to suppress Chechen separatism, elements of the Russian military, security organs and police forces have employed brutal means and virtually guaranteed to drive a despairing civilian population into the arms of a radicalized resistance. The Moscow-supported authorities in Chechnya have themselves confirmed that there are 49 known mass graves in Chechnya containing about three thousand bodies. According to the respected human rights organization "Memorial," in the first three months of this year representatives of Russian federal forces abducted 119 persons; last year in the same time period this figure amounted to 82 persons. We urge you to encourage President Putin to invite the International Commission on Missing Persons to assist in resolving the thousands of missing persons cases.

Numerous military and paramilitary units have been particularly distinguished by brutality toward the civilian population. Such units should be withdrawn from Chechnya and those responsible for egregious human rights violations should face criminal charges. To date, the Russian military and judicial system has yet to demonstrate its commitment to seriously address this problem.

Despite the precarious security environment in Chechnya, the Russian Government is implementing a policy of forced repatriation of thousands of internally displaced persons who have fled to neighboring Ingushetia. This summer displaced Chechens, including those in the Askanovskie Garazhi temporary settlement and the Bella Camp, have reportedly been subjected to intense pressure by government officials to immediately return to Chechnya or face a loss of humanitarian aid, or worse. UNHCR reports that more than 1,500 people have left under questionable circumstances since January. In keeping with the 1999 OSCE Charter for European Security, under which the Russian Federation agreed to "facilitate the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons in dignity and safety," we urge you to seek President Putin's assurance that coercive repatriation will cease, IDPs will be permitted to remain in the relative secure environs of the Ingush IDP camps, and humanitarian relief groups will be allowed to provide aid to IDPs in the region.

One of the characteristics of Russia's policy in Chechnya has been to cut off the region from outside observers such as press, human rights organizations and representatives of many international organizations. Visits that are allowed to occur are infrequent and heavily monitored by government officials. To paraphrase President Reagan, Mr. Putin should "tear down the wall" and allow reasonable access to Chechnya by interested observers.

Finally, we would call attention to the continued disappearance of Arjan Erkel, a Dutch national and employee of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders. Mr. Erkel was kidnaped over a year ago in Dagestan, and there is reliable evidence that he is still alive. We hope you will join the many voices of the international community calling upon President Putin to see that every appropriate measure is taken by Russian authorities to locate and free Mr. Erkel.

Mr. President, we have no illusions about certain elements of the Chechen resistance who have murdered hostages, kidnaped civilians for ransom and used them as shields during combat operations, and embarked on a campaign of assassination against innocent citizens of Russia as well as fellow Chechens who work for the Russian civil government in Chechnya. We know that some individuals or factions of the resistance have been linked to international terrorist organizations. They should be brought to justice, wherever they are and whomever they serve.

In conclusion, Mr. President, we strongly urge you to raise these important issues in your upcoming talks with President Putin given the gravity of the situation in Chechnya.

Sincerely,


Ben Nighthorse Campbell, U.S.S.
Co-Chairman


Christopher H. Smith M.C.
Chairman


Russell D. Feingold, U.S.S.
Commissioner


Benjamin L. Cardin, M.C.
Ranking Member

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  • Officials Detail Russian War Crimes, but Still Weighing ‘Genocide’ Label

    Experts and officials from the U.S. and Ukraine detailed the war crimes being committed by Russia amid its assault on Ukraine at a hearing of the U.S. Helsinki Commission on May 4, but were less certain about whether those actions constitute genocide. “The State Department has assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes across Ukraine based on a careful review of available evidence and information including open source information, but also classified sources,” said U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Beth Van Schaack. “We saw credible reports of individuals killed execution style with their hands bound, as you mentioned. We saw bodies showing signs of torture, and we heard horrific accounts of sexual violence against women and girls,” she added.  Van Schaack did not weigh in on whether Russia was committing genecide, despite President Biden applying that label during a speech last month. The U.S. has not made an official determination regarding genocide yet. The State Department has funded and deployed a team of prosecutors, investigators and other professionals to help Ukraine investigate the ongoing crimes, Van Schaack added.  “This team is advising and supporting the office of the prosecutor general as they collect, preserve, and analyze evidence of atrocities with a view towards pursuing criminal accountability,” she said.    Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said her office has seen the most atrocities in the Kyiv region, which the Russian military withdrew from last month to focus on its attacks on the country’s eastern regions.  “We saw numerous civilians shot right on the street near and in their houses, corpses with clear signs of torture. We also discovered a torture chamber with bodies piled on the ground,” she said.  Venediktova noted that her office charged 10 Russian soldiers with war crimes, and was investigating whether the Russian atrocities are genocidal.  “This is just a drop in the ocean of cases that we have,” she said.    Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University who specializes in Central Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, said he believes Russia’s actions fit into the five categories established by the 1948 Genocide Convention.   “In my view all five of these actions have been carried out — now, just to be clear: In order for genocide to have taken place, we don’t need all five, we only need one. But I think it is the case, and terrifyingly so, that all five are in fact the case in Russian occupied Ukraine,”  Snyder said at the hearing.  The five genecidal acts in the 1948 convention are attempting to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, including killing members of the group; imposing measures to prevent births from the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm; creating conditions that could bring the destruction of the group; and transferring children by force to another group.  Snyder said Russia has been forcibly moving Ukrainian children to Russia.  “This one is often overlooked, but I think it is quite important. More than 1 million people, according to Russian data, have been deported from Ukraine to Russia and among that million we’re talking about well over 100,000 children and those children in Russia are being deprived of their nationality,” Snyder said.  Russian President Vladimir Putin’s belief that Ukraine does not exist is “pre-genocidal”, Synder argued.  “When Mr. Putin says, as he had said repeatedly, that there is no Ukranian state or no Ukranian nation, scholars of genocide would recognize that as pre-genocidal language. That is when you say a group doesn’t exist, what you’re doing is preparing for its destruction,” he said.

  • Jewish Democratic Lawmakers Unite in Condemnation of Lavrov's Hitler Remark

     All 25 Jewish Democratic lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Tuesday issued a rare but sharp joint condemnation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov over his comments comparing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Adolf Hitler. "The blatant antisemitism in recent comments by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is appalling but sadly not surprising. Lavrov, Vladimir Putin, and the Russian regime are doing everything they can to divert attention from their unprovoked, unlawful invasion of Ukraine and the failings of their military in the face of a heroic Ukrainian response," 24 of the 25 Jewish lawmakers said in a joint statement after the Russian foreign minister said that Hitler also 'had Jewish blood', referring to Zelenskyy's Jewish origins, adding that "the wise Jewish people said that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews." "Defaulting to antisemitic tropes, including blaming the Jews for the Holocaust and using the Holocaust to cover their own war crimes, reflects the gutless depravity of the Russian regime," they continued, adding that "Lavrov’s remarks on Italian TV were an affront to the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, the survivors of the Holocaust, their families and the entire world Jewish community.” Rep. Steve Cohen, who co-chairs the U.S. Helsinki Commission that monitors human rights and international cooperation in the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, issued his own statement, where he decried Lavrov's "stooping to the basest antisemitism." The Tennessee Democrat charged that Lavrov and Russia are "clearly disconnected from reality, morality, humanity and sensitivity," adding that "this level of depravity is consistent with the reprehensible, repugnant and reptilian conduct of Putin's government." The statement is the second such rare showing of joint unity amongst the Jewish House Democrats, who rest across the political spectrum, in the past two months. Their comments follow senior Israeli officials, leading U.S. officials and Jewish leaders offering their own rejection of Lavrov's comments. Russia has since doubled down, with its foreign ministry accusing Israel of supporting neo-Nazis in Ukraine

  • Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

    Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.”  The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing discussed the findings of the OSCE report, examined evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyzed paths to bring perpetrators to justice.   Related Information Witness Biographies  

  • Co-Chairman Cohen Condemns Lavrov’s Antisemitic Comments

    WASHINGTON—In response to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent antisemitic comments regarding Ukraine’s president and the people of Ukraine more generally, Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09) issued the following statement: “In a despicable attempt to justify Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, including well-documented indiscriminate murders of civilians, including children; torture; and rape of women, children and also men, Lavrov stooped to the basest antisemitism by claiming that Hitler had Jewish heritage and President Zelensky, although Jewish, can still be a Nazi and Ukraine a Nazi state. “By outrageously restating the false and offensive tropes of Holocaust denial and claiming that Jews are the worst antisemites—all while Russian forces commit genocide against the Ukrainian people at the behest of Vladimir Putin—Lavrov and the state he represents show that they are clearly disconnected from reality, morality, humanity, and sensitivity, and that they have no problem embracing the very ideology they claim to rebuke so long as it serves their propaganda. “Comparing President Zelensky to Hitler should be shocking. Unfortunately, this level of depravity is consistent with the reprehensible, repugnant, and reptilian conduct of Putin’s government. Such comments are no longer surprising as we witness Putin’s bloody attempt to destroy the people of Ukraine.” Co-Chairman Cohen, in his capacity as Head of the U.S. Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA), along with other Helsinki Commission leaders, recently urged the OSCE PA to adopt a declaration by the parliament of Ukraine that recognizes Russia’s actions in Ukraine as genocide.

  • Helsinki Commission Regrets Closure of OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine

    WASHINGTON—On April 28, the OSCE announced that Russia had definitively forced the closure of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, following its veto of the mission’s mandated activities as of April 1. In light of this announcement, Helsinki Commission Chairman Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), Co-Chairman Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-09), Ranking Member Sen. Roger Wicker (MS), and Ranking Member Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following joint statement: “Moscow’s choice to force the closure of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine is only its latest offense against the rules-based international order. The brave monitors and staff who served the mission, in place since 2014, did exactly what they were supposed to do. Despite continual harassment and under constant threat, they reported objectively on ceasefire violations, informing the international community about the brutal reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine. The monitors’ clear and continuous reporting allowed the world to draw its own conclusions about the roots of Russia’s aggression. Moscow’s move to force the mission to close only underlines its desire to hide this ugly fact. “As we commend the service of these brave monitors and condemn Russia’s obstruction, we renew our call on Moscow to immediately release all Ukrainian SMM staff members who have been detained in occupied parts of Ukraine. “We also mourn the recent loss of Maryna Fenina, a Ukrainian national serving with the SMM who was killed by Russia’s shelling in Kharkiv on March 1, and we will never forget American paramedic Joseph Stone, who was killed while serving in support of the mission when his vehicle struck a landmine in Russian-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine on April 23, 2017.” The SMM was established in 2014 as an unarmed, civilian mission and served as the international community’s eyes and ears on the security and humanitarian situation in the conflict zone. It operated under a mandate adopted by consensus among the 57 OSCE participating States, including the United States, Russia, and Ukraine.

  • Helsinki Commission Digital Digest April 2022

  • Helsinki Commission Briefing to Examine Swiss Enabling of Russian Oligarchs

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following online briefing: RUSSIA’S SWISS ENABLERS Thursday, May 5, 2022 10:00 a.m. Register: https://ushr.webex.com/ushr/j.php?RGID=r72f85e0c40a09b609b328a9481f54063 Long known as a destination for war criminals and kleptocrats to stash their plunder, Switzerland is a leading enabler of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and his cronies. After looting Russia, Putin and his oligarchs use Swiss secrecy laws to hide and protect the proceeds of their crimes. Close relations between Swiss and Russian authorities have had a corrupting influence on law enforcement personnel in Switzerland and have led to the resignation of numerous officials, including the head prosecutor of Switzerland. A recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found that Credit Suisse catered to dozens of criminals, dictators, intelligence officials, sanctioned parties, and political actors, and identified problematic accounts holding more than $8 billion in assets. According to the Financial Times, Credit Suisse also asked investors to destroy documents linked to yacht loans made to oligarchs and tycoons. This briefing will examine the relationship between Switzerland and Russia in light of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Panelists will discuss how a compromised Switzerland affects U.S. national security and whether the United States should rethink its strategic bilateral relationship with Switzerland. The following panelists are scheduled to participate: Bill Browder, Head, Global Magnitsky Justice Campaign Miranda Patrucic, Deputy Editor in Chief, Regional and Central Asia, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project Mark Pieth, President of the Board, Basel Institute on Governance  

  • Russian War Crimes in Ukraine to Be Discussed at Helsinki Commission Hearing

    WASHINGTON—The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the Helsinki Commission, today announced the following hearing: RUSSIAN WAR CRIMES IN UKRAINE Wednesday, May 4, 2022 NEW TIME: 2:00 p.m. Dirksen Senate Office Building Room 562 Watch live: www.youtube.com/HelsinkiCommission Well-documented Russian bombings and missile strikes in Ukraine have decimated hospitals, schools, and apartment buildings, including a theater in Mariupol where hundreds of children were sheltering and the Kramatorsk rail station where thousands were waiting to escape the Russian onslaught. The withdrawal of Russian troops from towns like Bucha, Chernihiv, and Sumy has revealed horrific scenes of civilian carnage, mass graves, and reports of rape and torture. Several world leaders have accused Russia of committing genocide against the people of Ukraine. In March, 45 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) states began proceedings to “establish the facts and circumstances of possible cases of war crimes and crimes against humanity…and to collect, consolidate, and analyze this information with a view to presenting it to relevant accountability mechanisms.”  The resulting report, issued on April 14, found “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations by the Russian forces” and recommended further investigations to “establish individual criminal responsibility for war crimes.” The Government of Ukraine, Ukrainian NGOs, and the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence for use in future legal proceedings. Witnesses at the hearing will discuss the findings of the OSCE report, examine evidence being collected to document Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and analyze paths to bring perpetrators to justice.   The following witnesses are scheduled to testify: Panel 1: OSCE Experts Wolfgang Benedek, Professor of International Law (ret.), University of Graz Veronika Bílková, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Charles University in Prague Marco Sassoli, Professor of International Law, University of Geneva Panel 2 Beth Van Schaack, U.S. Ambassador at Large for Global Criminal Justice Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University; Permanent Fellow, the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna Iryna Venediktova, Prosecutor General, Ukraine

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