Rights Activists Want EU to Pressure Moscow over Chechnya Abuses

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 9 Issue: 14

On April 7, a coalition of leading human rights groups called on the European Union to press Russia to end human rights abuses in Chechnya and other parts of the North Caucasus and ensure perpetrators are brought to justice. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), La Fédération Internationale des Droits de l’Homme (FIDH), Human Rights Watch, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and Pax Christi Flanders called on the EU to implement “a robust foreign policy toward Russia that prioritizes ending impunity for human rights abuses in Chechnya as key to preventing further abuses in the region,” Human Rights Watch said in a press release.

Inter Press Service (IPS) reported on April 8 that human rights activists want Chechnya to be considered as paramount in the EU’s dealings with Dmitry Medvedev, who will succeed Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president on May 7. According to IPS, while relations between Putin and several EU governments have been “frosty” on issues ranging from food safety to alleged espionage, the EU has indicated it wishes to be on better terms with Medvedev. Following a recent telephone conference with Medvedev, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, current holder of the Union’s rotating presidency, stated that he wished to see the bloc’s ties with Moscow being deepened.

“The EU can play a crucial role in pressuring the Russian government,” IPS quoted Tanya Lokshina of Human Rights Watch as saying in a seminar held in the European Parliament. “Russia finds its relationship with the EU to be very important. So the European Union has a lot of leverage.”

In its April 7 press release, Human Rights Watch quoted Annemarie Gielen of Pax Christi Flanders as saying: “The EU must resist any inclination to relax its engagement with Russia. The EU really has the credibility and the mechanisms to insist that Russia make concrete improvements in the human rights situation in Chechnya.” The press release noted that in the last three years, the European Court of Human Rights has found Russia responsible for grave human rights abuses in Chechnya, including executions, disappearances, and torture in 25 cases. In every case adjudicated to date, the court has found that Russia failed to conduct an effective investigation into the alleged abuses.

“The European Court rulings on Chechnya provide the EU with a unique platform for calling on Russia to end ongoing abuses in Chechnya and the North Caucasus and ensure accountability for past violations,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The EU has a responsibility to make Russia’s full compliance with the European Court’s judgments a high priority in all dialogues with Moscow.”

The Human Rights Watch press release also quoted Souhayr Belhassen, president of FIDH, as saying: “Reconstruction of parts of Grozny must not mislead the EU. To ensure an end to ongoing human rights abuses, the EU should urge Russia to end impunity in Chechnya and Northern Caucasus by bringing to justice the perpetrators of all crimes committed today and in the past.”

According to Human Rights Watch, authorities are stifling civil society, independent media, and free expression across the North Caucasus. “Only a handful of nongovernmental organizations are allowed to function in Chechnya and face frequent government harassment,” the group said in its press release. “Independent media have been banned. In neighboring Ingushetia, police and other government forces have arbitrarily detained and ill-treated journalists, human rights activists, and peaceful demonstrators in recent months.”

The Human Rights Watch press release quoted Svetlana Gannushkina, chair of the Russian Civic Assistance Committee, as saying that while the number of disappearances and executions in Chechnya have decreased in recent years, the EU should not “turn a blind eye to continuing abuses,” including “very serious pressure” on human rights activists and journalists in the North Caucasus. “There can be no real discussion of progress in Chechnya so long as independent voices have no chance of making themselves heard,” she said.

Human Rights Watch also noted that thousands of residents of Chechnya displaced during the conflict continue to live without permanent housing, and many have been pressured to leave temporary accommodation centers in Chechnya and in other locations. Many of these internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled to other regions of Russia have been pressured to return to Chechnya. “Local authorities throughout Russia are pressuring IDPs from Chechnya to return to Chechnya, even just to obtain a passport, which under Russian law any citizen should be able to obtain at his or her current place of residence,” the Human Rights Watch press release quoted Christophe Beau, acting head of the NRC’s Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, as saying. “Given the ongoing human rights abuses, forcing anyone to return to Chechnya at this time places them at serious risk of physical harm.”

The Memorial human rights group said in a statement that Chechen authorities have grossly violated the rights of IDPs by shutting down temporary accommodation centers for IDPs located inside Chechnya, Kavkazky Uzel reported on April 8. Efforts to close down the temporary accommodation centers in Chechnya have been ongoing since April 2006, when Ramzan Kadyrov, who was then Chechnya’s prime minister, demanded that they be closed, reportedly calling them “a nest of criminality, drug addiction and prostitution.” According to Memorial, the Chechen administration’s main argument for closing them has been that the “refugee milieu” is having “a degrading effect on Chechen culture.”

According to Human Rights Watch, many IDPs choosing to leave the region and settle elsewhere in the Russian Federation regularly face serious discrimination and hostility, including physical violence. “IDPs from Chechnya still struggle to lead a normal life in Chechnya and anywhere else they have tried to settle,” it quoted Bjarte Vandvik, secretary-general of ECRE, as saying. “It is time for the EU to insist that Russia do its utmost to protect this very vulnerable population.”

On April 7, the European Commission approved a grant of 11 million euros ($17.3 million) to aid victims of the war in Chechnya, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported. “Chechnya finally seems to be recovering after a long period of devastation, darkness and despair,” said EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel. “The commission wants to show its solidarity with those people who are still in need of humanitarian assistance.” The EU’s executive body said in a statement that the aid money will chiefly be used to provide shelter, protection and support to refugees and health treatment to mothers and children.

DPA, citing “commission sources,” reported that some 22,100 Chechens are still living “under dire conditions” as refugees in Ingushetia and Dagestan as well as Georgia and Azerbaijan.