Yelena Bonner's plea: Never subordinate human rights to 'practical' politics

MANY Russians have spoken out against the war in Chechnya, a war in which an estimated 24,000 civilians have lost their lives. Among the critics is Yelena Bonner, widow of the dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov. During her recent visit to Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Mrs. Bonner spoke with Monitor Radio's John Rudolph.

Does your recent resignation from President Boris Yeltsin's Human Rights Commission indicate that you don't have much hope that his government will meet human rights standards?

Today I feel the chance that Russia will live up to certain human rights standards has sharply decreased. This is so not only in the case of the violations of human rights of the population in Chechnya, but also along the lines of the relationship between the state and society. In particular, we are very much concerned by the fact that the now debated election law, if passed, will destabilize us in the sense that we will not any longer be able to influence our representatives.

You and your husband spent many years in exile because of your opposition to the policies of the Soviet government. Are you more, or less, optimistic about the Yeltsin government?

My concern has to do mainly with the fact that the government which has started a war against a particular part of its population, in this instance it's the Chechen people, can very easily switch its attention to other parts of the country and to other groups of the population in the very same manner.... I'm particularly concerned about the amount of pressure that's being brought on the mass media, which brings about the decrease in openness, in the amount of truthful information that the population can get from the media. In the official statements of various government officials a concern is voiced incessantly in the recent times that the mass media refuse to promote the governmental or the official point of view, and instead continue to present truthful information and independent opinions. I find this a cause for serious concern.

But do you worry that by resigning from the Human Rights Commission, by criticizing the government so strongly, you're simply giving comfort to the forces that you oppose, the forces of fascism?

First of all, I'm not too sure where the present president is trying to take Russia. But, above all, my position, my stand, cannot be dictated by the political concerns, ... this very moment's concerns of a political nature. It has to be a stand that is dictated by a higher principle.

So what in your view has to happen in Russia to bring the government and the people to a position where they value human rights more than you feel they do right now?

One of the things that is necessary is attention and pressure from the West. But I must say that today the West is unclear about where it stands on its own principles and ignores many things. In particular, I was extremely concerned and very much upset, and this is true not only for me but for a large part of the democratic community, by the stance of the Clinton administration in regard to the Russian-Chechen war. It is now a well-established opinion that gross violations of human rights cannot remain an internal affair of any one country. Unfortunately, the opinion of the Clinton administration was much the opposite.

Aren't there practical political considerations that have to be taken into account while attempting to achieve an improvement in the human rights situation?

I am deeply convinced that there are no such political issues or problems that take precedence over human rights, and that the issues between Russia and Chechnya do not warrant going to war. Today we have many examples of negotiations and political reconciliations with organizations that used to be considered terrorist in the past. For example, there are the negotiations and contacts with the Irish independence movement, the Palestinian organizations, Yasser Arafat. Yet at the same time, Russia claims that it can not have any -- or it refuses to have any -- negotiations with [Chechen President Dzhokhar] Dudayev, who is, after all, an elected president, elected in a free, democratic election in his country.

You talked about the need for the international community to be more involved in ending the war in Chechnya, but practically speaking, what kinds of pressure can be brought?

The very least that must be done is an announcement, or a demand, that the military actions be stopped .... Not even this much has been done by the world community. And I consider it absolutely deplorable that Russia is being given very substantial loans at the very same time that it is actively involved in this conflict. One of the most important conditions for these loans to be given to Russia should have been the condition that the war is immediately stopped.

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