Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 200

If an op-ed published in today’s Washington Post is any indication, then Moscow may soon be facing a new and unexpected critic of its effort to blunt international condemnation of Russia’s bloody military campaign in Chechnya. The op-ed quotes UN Secretary General Kofi Annan underlining his determination to forge an international consensus aimed at halting national governments from launching wars of repression against their own populations. Annan’s initiative, which was first laid out in a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 20 (see the Monitor, September 21), is the result of recent government-sponsored atrocities committed in Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor and elsewhere. At the heart of the new initiative is an emphasis on “humanitarian intervention” by the world community to halt such bloodlettings. Annan is now calling on states to respect “individual sovereignty–the human rights and fundamental freedoms of each and every individual as enshrined in the UN charter”–as well as state sovereignty. He is arguing, in other words, that the principle of sovereignty does not give states the right to massively abuse their own populations.

Annan reportedly indicated that this principle applies as much to Russia–a permanent UN Security Council member–as it does to other less influential states around the globe. In an effort to begin making Moscow accountable for its actions in the north Caucasus, Annan has reportedly dispatched an envoy to Moscow to push for a visit to Chechnya by a special UN team. It would examine the need for humanitarian aid and, in the UN secretary general’s words, “be the eyes and ears of the international community” (Washington Post, October 28).

For Moscow, the new emphasis being laid by Annan on the need to balance national sovereignty with the rights accorded individuals under the UN Charter is a surprising and potentially ominous development. Until recently, Moscow has managed to make common cause with the United Nations–to some extent at Washington’s expense–on several different issues. They include Iraq in particular, where the UN secretary general has appeared sympathetic to Russian calls for more lenient treatment of Baghdad. More broadly, Moscow and the UN leadership appear to have found common ground on Russia’s repeated calls for the UN to play a greater role mediating international disputes (displacing the United States), and in ensuring that international military interventions receive formal approval by the UN Security Council. Moscow complained most loudly about the NATO air war in Yugoslavia because it was launched without Security Council approval. In general, Moscow appeared to see the UN General Secretary as an ally in its effort to rein in U.S. diplomatic and military power.

Particularly with the advent of the crisis in Chechnya, however, Moscow now finds itself diametrically opposed to Annan on questions related to national sovereignty and humanitarian interventions. Indeed, during a three-week tour of European capitals this past week Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov specifically rejected the idea of humanitarian interventions while underscoring the importance of national sovereignty principles. Indeed, in the course of a speech delivered in Paris yesterday the Russian minister attribute the principles of “humanitarian intervention” and “limited sovereignty” to the United States alone, and suggested they were the cause of much of the world’s current upheavals. We Europeans, he told his French audience, better understand the “overriding importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Itar-Tass, October 27).