Chechnya: Everyone Knows, No One Acts

As leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized nations assembled in Moscow a few weeks ago, an artillery strike in southern Lebanon killed 101 refugees in a United Nations compound. Seven of the world's most powerful heads of state were joined by Russian President Boris Yeltsin in condemning the targeting of civilians and the disproportionate use of force. But those same voices were virtually mute on the subject of Chechnya, where, after 17 months of fighting and an estimated 40,000 deaths, the war has taken an ominous new turn. The civilian population has been left defenseless at the hands of the Russian military, and international humanitarian agencies have been consistently prevented from offering civilians protection and assistance.

On April 7, a week after Mr. Yeltsin announced a cessation of hostilities and two days after he invited international observers to verify that "not one single shot" was being fired in Chechnya, I watched as Russian fighter-bombers executed an attack on Bamut, in the foothills of Chechnya's southwest. The next night, in Grozny, small-arms fire and explosions erupted from various parts of the city. For five days, Russian heavy artillery could be heard pummeling Chechen villages. In a tent camp in Ingushetia, I heard refugees recount a recent visit to the camp by the local Russian military commander, who told them to return to their destroyed homes or he would rip up their tents and have them taken back to their towns. Four days later Sernovodsk, one of the towns to which refugees were told to return, was again bombed and shelled.

Russia's bullying tactics

Since Chechen fighters seized the eastern town of Gudermes in January, Russian forces have dropped all pretensions of minimizing civilian casualties in their drive to root out armed separatists. In flagrant violation of international humanitarian law and the rules of war, their new strategy explicitly targets civilian areas; it seems destined to create more of the fighters they seek to eradicate. Local military commanders cordon off selected villages with a ring of armor, then present the elders with an ultimatum: Either sign a "peace protocol" or the village will be flattened. Sometimes both take place.

These protocols place nearly all obligations for the maintenance of order and nonbelligerency on the townspeople, with few corresponding controls on the behavior of federal forces. The accords are arbitrarily broken by the Russian military. Villages are bombed, shelled, and strafed with helicopter gunships before noncombatants are allowed to evacuate. In recent weeks, human rights workers and humanitarian agencies have documented cases where safe corridors lasting three or four hours have been bought from local commanders for the equivalent of $5,000. Russian forces use these corridors to screen evacuees, sending Chechen males between the ages of 15 and 55 to "filtration camps" in Assinovskoya, Grozny, or Piatagorsk.

Despite repeated efforts, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been denied access to these detainees in contravention of the Geneva Convention, to which the Russian Federation is a party. Humanitarian agencies have sat for weeks at Russian checkpoints, waiting in vain for permission to enter the stricken areas and render assistance. In the absence of the requisite international will to act on Chechnya's growing humanitarian crisis, their frustration is reaching a peak.

For humanitarian agencies with people working at the sharp end of war, the need to speak out against serious abuses of human rights must be weighed against two concerns: the potential harm that could come to their fieldworkers and, ultimately, expulsion from the area. Thus it is significant that a number of agencies are now willing to go public, something they have chosen not to do until now - although they have been plagued all along by bureaucratic obstructionism and a plethora of security problems including theft, kidnappings, random shootings, and murder. Using uncharacteristically strong language, the ICRC has declared "Enough is enough." And on April 18, the medical relief organization Doctors Without Borders took the unusual step of holding a press conference in Moscow, appealing to the G7 leaders to take action on what it called "the world's cruelest war."

At home and abroad, Yeltsin has successfully portrayed the war in Chechnya as a vanguard fight against terrorism, helping to explain why, in the words of a veteran humanitarian-aid worker, the war has been a forgotten conflict from the beginning. With the death of Chechen rebel leader Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, some Chechen fighters will likely again employ terrorism against Russian and perhaps international targets. Russia will undoubtedly use this to justify increased military activity in Chechnya, with dire consequences for civilians and humanitarian organizations in the area.

No humanitarian resolve

Strong objections to Russia's behavior in Chechnya are unlikely to emerge from the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a member. For its part, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is eager to bring Russia into the regional security fold. But those very leaders who wish to help Russia on the path to reform will be able to teach Russia little about the rule of law if they continue to turn a blind eye to Chechnya, which is a new and, in some ways, unique test of international resolve to safeguard humanitarian principles.

That resolve is showing signs of impending failure. Although Yeltsin has provided Western leaders with some convenient ways to avoid putting Chechnya on the agenda, those leaders cannot pretend that they are not aware of what is going on. Graphic media reports and a number of fact-finding visits by reputable human rights organizations augment a confidential report on the war available to UN member states from the UN secretary-general's special rapporteur. More recently, a confidential report from the OSCE Assistance Group in Grozny issued a damning indictment of Russia's prosecution of the war to member states in early March.

The G-7's recent performance in Moscow and Russia's continued military action show that the time for quiet diplomacy has passed. The silence on Chechnya must be broken.

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