The Chechen Conflict

THE first glimmer of hope for a resolution to the crisis in Chechnya was shortlived. Neither Russian President Boris Yeltsin nor Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev appears willing at this point to make crucial compromises. Fighting in the breakaway republic has resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, including an American photographer.

Though we recognize this is an internal affair that Russia and the mostly Muslim republic of Chechnya will have to resolve, the bombing of civilians raises questions of human rights abuses that the international community should address.

For the first time since Russia sent 40,000 troops to Chechnya on Dec. 11, Mr. Yeltsin appeared in public this week to call for a cessation of airstrikes and the start of negotiations with Mr. Dudayev. Yesterday, when the Chechen leadership showed no sign of yielding, Russian warplanes renewed their bombing, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Yeltsin's speech was the first indication that intense criticism of the operation from within Russia and, to a lesser extent, from abroad, was having any effect at all on the Russian president.

Human rights groups have strongly denounced the bombing raids. Yeltsin's own human rights adviser, Sergei Kovalev, has called on him to stop ``this crazy massacre.''

In an angry response to Mr. Kovalev's accusations, Yeltsin yesterday said he would appoint a new watchdog commission to monitor human rights violations in the republic. An aide to Kovalev said that to appoint such a commission after the bombing of civilians ``is blasphemy''; it does, arguably, smack of hypocrisy. One member of the Russian parliamentary commission on human rights has resigned in protest.

So what can the international community do? Respect the sovereignty of a country, yes. But stay silent about human rights violations, no. The United Nations has little room to maneuver unless invited into a country to help mediate a dispute. But interestingly, the General Assembly Tuesday approved a resolution placing greater importance on human rights education and promoting democratization worldwide. One council delegate said the UN is looking at minority problems and secessionist movements as issues in which the UN could have more standing.

Both the Russian and Chechen leadership clearly need a greater incentive than there already is to seek political means to resolve this crisis. Yeltsin, for one, has shown signs of strain in the face of escalating criticism. At a time when the UN is trying to rebuild its own credibility, it should add its voice to the chorus of protest over Chechnya and continue to examine what role it can play, even in ``internal'' affairs.

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