War Crimes In Chechnya - the Response of the West
War Crimes In Chechnya and the Response of the West
Testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign
by Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch Emergencies Researcher
Members of the Committee,
It is a pleasure to be here today, and I appreciate the attention the committee is devoting to the deepening crisis in Chechnya.
My name is Peter Bouckaert, and I am the Emergencies Researcher at Human Rights Watch. I have just returned from three months in Ingushetia, the Republic neighboring Chechnya, where I have been documenting war crimes and other abuses committed in the Chechnya conflict.
Human Rights Watch researchers have had a permanent research presence in Ingushetia since the beginning of November, and we have conducted detailed interviews with more than 500 witnesses to violations in Chechnya. Because of our permanent presence in the region, we are able to collaborate eyewitness accounts through independent and consistent testimonies.
Our research findings on Chechnya are publicly available in the form of some forty press releases and two reports, and provide detailed information about the abuses summarized in my testimony. The press releases and short reports are available on our website, www.hrw.org, and I have brought copies with me today.
The evidence we have gathered in Chechnya is disturbing: Russian forces have committed grave abuses, including war crimes, in their campaign in Chechnya. In Grozny, the graffiti on the walls reads "Welcome to Hell: Part Two," about as good a summary as any of what Chechen civilians have been living through in the past five months. Russia talks about fighting a war against terrorism in Chechnya, but it is Chechen civilians who have borne the brunt of the Russian offensive in this war, as in the first Chechen conflict. Most abuses we have documented have been committed by Russian forces; we have also documented serious abuses by Chechen fighters.
Atrocities in Chechnya
Since the beginning of the conflict, Russian forces have indiscriminately and disproportionately bombed and shelled civilian objects, causing heavy civilian casualties. The Russian forces have ignored their Geneva convention obligations to focus their attacks on combatants, and appear to take few safeguards to protect civilians: It is this carpet-bombing campaign which has been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the conflict in Chechnya. The Russian forces have used powerful surface-to surface rockets on numerous occasions, causing death tolls in the hundreds in the Central Market bombing in Grozny and in many smaller towns and villages. Lately, Russian commanders have threatened to use even more powerful explosives, including fuel air explosives which could have a disastrous casualty count if used against civilian targets. The bombing campaign has turned many parts of Chechnya to a wasteland: even the most experienced war reporters I have spoken to told me they have never seen anything in their careers like the destruction of the capital Grozny.
Russian forces have often refused to create safe corridors to allow civilians to leave areas of active fighting, trapping civilians behind front lines for months. The haggard men and women who came out of Grozny after a perilous journey told me of living for months in dark, cold cellars with no water, gas or electricity and limited food: their little children were often in shock, whimpering in the corners of their tents in Ingushetia and screaming in fright whenever Russian war planes flew over, reminding them of the terror in Grozny.
Men especially face grave difficulties when attempting to flee areas of fighting: they are subjected to verbal taunting, extortion, theft, beatings, and arbitrary arrest. On several occasions, refugee convoys have come under intense bombardment by Russian forces, causing heavy casualties. Currently, tens of thousands of civilians remain trapped in the Argun river gorge in Southern Chechnya, stuck behind Russian lines without a way out from the constant bombardment and rapidly running out of food supplies.
For many Chechens, the constant bombardment was only the beginning of the horror. Once they came into contact with Russian forces, they faced even greater dangers. Human Rights Watch has now documented three large-scale massacres by Russian forces in Chechnya. In December, Russian troops killed seventeen civilians in the village of Alkhan-Yurt while going on a looting spree, burning many of the remaining homes and raping several women. We have documented at least fifty murders, mostly of older men and women, by Russian soldiers in the Staropromyslovski district of Grozny since Russian forces took control of that district: innocent civilians shot to death in their homes and their yards. In one case, three generations of the Zubayev family were shot to death in the yard of their home.
On February 5, a few days after Secretary of State Albright met with President Putin in Moscow, Russian forces went on a killing spree in the Aldi district of Grozny, shooting at least sixty-two and possibly many more civilians who were waiting in the street and their yards for soldiers to check their documents. These were entirely preventable deaths, not unavoidable casualties of war. They were acts of murder, plain and simple. Refugees are returning to Grozny to find their relatives or neighbors shot to death in their homes. And most disturbing of all, there is no evidence that the killing spree has stopped.
In the past month, the Russian authorities have begun arresting large numbers of civilian men throughout Chechnya. These men, numbering well over a thousand, and some women, have been taken to undisclosed detention facilities, and their relatives are desperately trying to locate them. I have spoken to men who have been able to pay their way out of these detention facilities, and they have given me consistent testimony about constant beatings, severe torture, and even cases of rape of both men and women. One of the men suffered from a back injury after being hit with a heavy metal hammer; a second man had several broken ribs and suffered from kidney problems from the severe beatings.
The Refugee Crisis
The constant attacks by Russian forces against the civilian population have caused more than two hundred thousand Chechens to flee into neighboring Ingushetia, overwhelming the local population, which numbers only some 300,000. Many more internally displaced persons are trapped inside Chechnya, especially in the southern Argun river gorge, unable to seek safety because of the refusal of Russian forces to create safe corridors.
The conditions in the refugee camps are dire, with inadequate shelter, food, clean water, heating, and other essentials. Only a minority of refugees are housed in crowded tent camps or railway cars: the majority live in makeshift shelter in abandoned farms, empty trucking containers, or similar substandard shelter; many are forced to pay large sums for private housing. Because refugees are forced to rely on their own limited resources for survival, they are often forced to return to what is still a very active war zone when they run out of money, putting their lives at renewed risk. Russia is not allowing humanitarian organizations to operate freely in Ingushetia, and is virtually blocking any direct assistance to needy persons inside Chechnya. Refugee children in Ingushetia are not attending school, and medical needs often go unmet. The contrast with the international response to last year's Kosovo crisis is striking, although the security concerns and Russian obstruction are certainly relevant factors.
Russian authorities have repeatedly attempted to force refugees to return to Chechnya by denying them food in the camps or by rolling their train compartments back to Chechnya. Russia is attempting to relocate refugee populations to areas of northern Chechnya under Russian control, which would place them beyond the reach of international humanitarian agencies and under more direct Russian control. The border between Chechnya and Ingushetia is regularly closed, preventing refugees from fleeing to safety and often splitting up families stranded on different sides of the border. Following the destruction of the capital, Grozny, and many other towns and villages in Chechnya, and the widespread looting and burning of homes, many refugees simply no longer have a home to return to: everything they owned in this world has been destroyed.
Abuses by Chechen Fighters
As in all conflicts where we work, Human Rights Watch documents violations by all sides to the conflict in Chechnya. We have uncovered evidence of serious abuses by the Chechen fighters in the conflict. Chechen fighters, particularly those among them who consider themselves Islamic fighters, have shown little regard for the safety of the civilian population, often placing their military positions in densely populated areas and refusing to leave civilian areas even when asked to do so by the local population. Village elders who tried to stop Chechen fighters from entering their villages have been shot, or severely beaten, on several occasions. In short, the Chechen fighters have added to the civilian casualty count in Chechnya by not taking the necessary precautions to protect civilian lives.
Some Chechen fighters were also responsible for brutal abuses in the interwar years, including widespread kidnappings and hostage taking, and there is convincing evidence that Chechen fighters have executed captured Russian soldiers in this conflict. Without minimizing the seriousness of abuses carried out by Chechen fighters, it is important to state that the primary reason for civilian suffering in Chechnya today is abuses committed against the civilian population by Russian forces. Also, Chechen fighters, in particular the Islamic fighters, are deeply disliked by the civilian population, who see them as responsible for bringing renewed war to Chechnya. The vast majority of Chechens feel trapped between Chechen fighters who have imposed this war on them, and the Russian forces who continuously and often brutally attack them.
Russia's Failure to Stop Abuses
One of the most troubling aspects of the war is that the Russian authorities have failed to act to stop abuses perpetrated by their troops in Chechnya. There is simply no indication that the Russian authorities have taken any steps to prevent these abuses, to investigate them when they do happen, and to punish those responsible. As a result, a climate of impunity is rapidly growing in Chechnya: Russian soldiers know that they can treat Chechen civilians however they like, and will not face any consequences.
Nowhere is the failure of the military authorities to stop abuses in Chechnya more obvious than in the widespread looting which has taken place in Chechnya since the beginning of the war. Soldiers are systematically looting civilian homes, carting away the stolen goods on their military trucks, and storing them at their barracks in plain daylight. The looting is visible to everyone, and is occurring right under the noses of their commanders. Yet nothing is being done to stop this and other abuses. The absolute failure of the Russian military command to stop war crimes, particularly summary executions, in Chechnya makes them highly complicit. Instead of acting to prevent abuses, the Russian military has continued to issue blanket denials about abuses. In the face of the overwhelming mountain of evidence about abuses in Chechnya, these blanket denials are unacceptable.
The Response from the West
Equally worrying is the lack of a strong Western response to the abuses in Chechnya. Instead of using its relationship with Russia to bring an end to the abuses in Chechnya, the Clinton administration has focused on cementing its relationship with Acting President Putin, the prime architect of the abusive campaign in Chechnya. Secretary of State Madeline Albright traveled to Moscow while bombs were raining down on Grozny, and chose to focus her remarks on Acting President Putin's qualities as the new leader of Russia, rather than on the brutal war in Chechnya. U.S. officials continue to understate the level of atrocities in Chechnya, talking about "abuses" in the war rather than calling those abuses by their proper name, war crimes. The administration is understating the amount of influence and power it has over Moscow, because the administration wants to continue with business as usual, and mend its ties with Moscow in the wake of the NATO bombing campaign in the former Yugoslavia. To date, the international community has given the Russian government no reason to fear any repercussions for its actions in Chechnya.
The United States and its Western allies could be doing a lot more to stop the brutal abuses in Chechnya. Starting tomorrow at the trilateral EU-US-Russia meeting in Lisbon, they must call the abuses in Chechnya by their proper name, war crimes, and must insist that there will be no "business as usual" with Russia while these violations continue. The West must insist on accountability for the crimes committed in Chechnya, and an end to the rapidly growing climate of impunity rapidly developing in Chechnya. An immediate international monitoring presence should be established to document war crimes and other abuses in Chechnya, and to provide the international community with accurate and reliable information about abuses in the Chechen conflict.
The U.S. should push the World Bank and the IMF to explicitly suspend pending loan payments until the Russian Federation takes steps to reign in its troops, begins a meaningful process of accountability for abuses, and fully cooperates with the deployment of an international monitoring presence in the north Caucasus. The IMF and the World Bank should not be financing a government bent on a policy that is so destructive and contrary to their institutional mandates as the Russian military operation in Chechnya.
The U.S. should encourage its European allies to bring a case to the European Court of Human Rights, charging Russia with the blatant violations of its international treaty obligations in the conduct of the Chechen war. The conduct of the Chechen war and the creation of a Commission of Inquiry should be a prominent item for discussion at the upcoming U.N. Human Rights Commission meeting, and the U.S. must insist on a discussion of the Chechen conflict at the U.N. Security Council, because the conflict in Chechnya has major implications for international peace and security.
Please allow me to end my testimony with an expression of thanks and a plea. I will be returning to Ingushetia soon, and I want to bring a message of hope to the victims of this war, the Chechen civilians who had nothing to do with why this war started yet who have suffered the greatest. I want to be able to tell them that the west cares about their suffering, and that they have not been forgotten. I will take copies of the Senate resolution adopted last week--Thank you for that expression of concern. But my plea is that your engagement not begin and end there--that you exercise sustained leadership towards establishing US policy towards Russia that insists on accountability and an end to violations.