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Human Rights Watch: Open letter To EU Leaders

Human Rights Watch

Open letter To EU Heads of State and Government and Foreign Ministers

9 December 1999

Your Excellency,

We are writing to you in advance of the E.U. Helsinki summit, to relay to you Human Rights Watch's concerns in Northern Caucasus. As you know, Russian forces are now poised for a full assault on Grozny, Chechnya's capital, and have warned civilians to leave the city of face certain death. This ultimatum follows two months of war during which Russian forces have neglected their obligations to protect civilian immunity. The Russian government has justified its military action in the region in terms of eliminating terrorism and "Islamic fundamentalism." For some time the Russian government and the army appeared confident that because the E.U. has a shared interest in these goals, it would restrain criticisms about the conduct of the armed conflict and take no action when Russian forces violate international humanitarian law. We welcome the many strongly worded statements by the E.U. and its member states which represent a sincere challenge to this misplaced confidence. We believe that it is high time for the E.U. to move beyond rhetoric and set out tough conditions for Russia to secure better protection for civilians.

We urge the E.U. to consider the following measures:

- support a freeze on the release of future IMF funds to Russia until demonstrable proof, over a protracted period, that: Russian forces are desisting from attacks on heavily populated areas; that they are implementing well-publicized cease-fires along exit routes to allow civilians to flee; and that they are allowing unfettered access and necessary security for international observers and that of humanitarian organizations seeking to provide relief in Chechnya.

- press the World Bank to withhold its upcoming $100 million structural adjustment loan disbursement to Russia until same conditions are met;

- take immediate steps to suspend the E.U.'s Partnership and Cooperation Agreement with Russia until same conditions are met;

- support suspension of Russia's delegation to the Council of Europe until same conditions are met.

- respond generously to the U.N.'s $16.2 million Joint Appeal for humanitarian assistance for Northern Caucasus;

Human Rights Watch researchers in the northern Caucasus have interviewed hundreds of civilians fleeing Chechnya. Our findings confirm that the conduct of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya continues to take a terrible toll on civilians. Russian forces have bombed and shelled dozens of towns and villages still inhabited by civilians, actions that have killed and maimed untold numbers of people and shown contempt for international humanitarian law. They have consistently failed to provide civilians safe exit routes out of the conflict zones, forcing them either to remain in villages under siege or risk getting shot on the road. Civilians able to reach the Ingush border often face long waits -- sometimes up to days -- in freezing weather while Russian border police "process" them and extort bribes as a condition for permitting them to cross. Soldiers in Russian-controlled areas of Chechnya apparently have carte blanche to strip homes of household goods and valuables; many people have returned briefly to their homes to find them stripped bare. Displaced persons in Ingushetia face serious protection problems and acute -- sometimes life-threatening -- lack of basic humanitarian assistance.

Meanwhile, the Russian government has embarked on a vicious propaganda campaign to mislead the public and the international community about the tactics in the military campaign and to sanitize the civilian cost of the war. It has denied that the massive human suffering it has inflicted in the northern Caucasus and brands efforts to advocate on behalf of civilians as supporting terrorism.

The Russian government claims it is fighting this war to stop terrorism, in the wake of the September terrorist bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk. Any state has the right to protect its citizens from terrorism; but no state can do so through wanton disregard for civilian life. The E.U. has distinguished itself with its strong position against the civilian suffering the conflict has caused. Now that the war growing more intense, we firmly believe it is time to present the Russian government with serious consequences should it continue to so blatantly ignore the needs of innocent civilians.

We thank you for your attention to our urgent concerns.

Holly Cartner
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch

Lotte Leicht
Brussels Office Director
Human Rights Watch

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