Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 67

UN human rights chief Mary Robinson’s fact-finding mission to Russia drew to an acrimonious close yesterday as Robinson’s call for an international investigation into Russian abuses in Chechnya was met with denunciations and even personal insults from the Russian government. Moscow’s protestations were the result of both the form and the substance of Robinson’s weekend visit to Russia’s embattled north Caucasus region. Robinson’s delegation complained over several days that it had been prohibited by Russian authorities from visiting a number of key sites in Chechnya. These included several of the “filtration centers” at which Russian troops are alleged to have tortured or killed Chechen civilians. Indeed, the trip, which included a visit to refugee camps in Ingushetia, apparently turned into a frustrating series of delays and obstructions, one in which, according to Robinson, she was shown only what the Russians wanted her to see. She observed yesterday how “ironic” it was that the one detention center she was allowed to visit in Chechnya contained only two inmates–both women who have been charged with looting.

Moscow, in turn, branded Robinson a “liar” for suggesting that she had not been given adequate access to Chechnya. Moscow’s human rights envoy to Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, who had accompanied Robinson to the Caucasus, described Robinson’s claim as a “common lie.” He also professed to be “profoundly outraged” by her criticism of Russian military actions in Chechnya. “We will allow no one to put the Russian army and government on the same level as bandits, and we will not tolerate this pseudo-inspection,” he was quoted as saying. Kalamanov also charged that Robinson had a “very biased view” of events in the Caucasus. That is a charge which Moscow has directed at a number of Western officials

Russian truculence was likewise evidenced yesterday by the announcement that President-elect Vladimir Putin would not meet with Robinson, as the UN human rights chief had earlier requested. Putin, it is worth noting, has in recent months held extensive talks with various Western leaders, during which he has made soothing sounds about his willingness to open the Caucasus region to foreign observers and aid groups. Those commitments have by and large not been met, and what can only be described as the boorish behavior of Russian authorities toward Robinson served to underscore once again Moscow’s determination to obstruct international access to the devastated Caucasus region. Robinson did manage during her visit to hold talks with Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Shoigu and Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo, among others. There were reports that she would meet today with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Justice Minister Yuri Chaika.

That Robinson’s visit has come to a such an apparently unsuccessful and acrimonious close is not a complete surprise. The UN human rights chief had previously subjected Russia’s brutal war in Chechnya to sharp criticism, and had urged Moscow to allow an international investigation into the atrocities that a host of human rights organizations say Russian troops have committed in Chechnya. Moscow, in turn, had denounced Robinson for her comments and had only grudgingly agreed to this week’s visit.

For all of that, however, Robinson appeared to go out of her way to be even-handed in her approach to the Chechen conflict. Upon her arrival in Moscow on March 31, the UN human rights chief had told reporters of her awareness “that violence has occurred on both sides,” that there “has also been Chechen violence,” and that the background to the current conflict “is a complex one.” But she also said that “it is very important that serious allegations of human rights violations are followed up, investigated and that there can be no impunity.”

Central to Robinson’s case appeared to be the argument that Russia, as a key international player, has a special obligation to act properly in Chechnya. She made that point several times during her visit, but expressed it most succinctly in a comment yesterday. “Russia is a member of the Council of Europe and, as a very important member of the United Nations, has assumed international obligations under its national human rights law and humanitarian law,” she said. In making this point Robinson appeared at least in part to be rebutting Moscow’s own claim that its devastation of Chechnya is justified because Chechen rebels have also violated human rights and perpetrated violent acts of their own (Reuters, AP, Russian agencies, March 31-April 3; AFP, April 2-3; The Guardian, April 3).

While there may be efforts this week to smooth relations between Moscow and the UN’s human rights commissioner, the apparent confrontation of the past few days could have significant consequences for Moscow. Robinson is scheduled to return to Geneva this week, where she will present a report on her visit to Russia to the annual UN Commission on Human Rights. An increasing number of international human rights groups have voiced criticism of Russia’s Chechen campaign in recent days, and pressure is building for the introduction in Geneva of a resolution condemning Moscow’s conduct of the war. In addition, some reports yesterday suggested that Robinson will travel first to Strasbourg this week, where she will apparently present her impressions to officials from the Council of Europe (UPI, Itar-Tass, April 3). Council President Lord Russell-Johnston said yesterday that a motion recommending Moscow’s suspension from the Council of Europe will be put to a vote on April 6, during a debate on Chechnya (AFP, April 3). If Robinson were to submit a negative report, it would heighten the chances that Moscow will face punitive actions in Strasbourg.