Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 82

In a sudden and unexpected diplomatic defeat for Moscow, the fifty-three-nation UN Human Rights Commission yesterday adopted a resolution accusing Russia of widespread abuses in Chechnya. The resolution, sponsored by the European Union and co-sponsored by Canada, passed by a 25-7 vote margin, with 19 abstentions. The text of the resolution was not as strong as many in the international human rights community would have wanted, but was nevertheless a more decisive signal from the UN body than expected. And that unhappy result for Moscow appears to have been the consequence of stonewalling by Russian diplomats at the Geneva meeting.

Indeed, reports suggested that the EU had been willing up until yesterday to negotiate a face-saving arrangement with Moscow. Under that proposal, Russia would have agreed to a consensual chairman’s statement–a weaker form of rebuke than a resolution–presumably containing a milder condemnation of Russian actions in the Caucasus. Moscow’s intransigence, however, apparently compelled the EU to push for an immediate vote on condemnation. “We did our utmost in several rounds of discussions with the Russian delegation and amended several times our draft in order to meet their agreement. But, unfortunately, the Russian Federation was not in a position to accept the minimum that this Commission must ask for when seriously addressing the human rights and international humanitarian law situation in Chechnya,” Portuguese ambassador Alvaro Mendonca e Moura said on behalf of the fifteen-member EU. The BBC remarked yesterday that the vote against Moscow marked the first time in a decade that Russia has been condemned at the UN Human Rights Commission.

Russian representatives to the Geneva meeting, meanwhile, held to form by denouncing the UN action. Russian ambassador Vasily Sidorov took the floor before the vote and condemned the resolution text as unbalanced, saying it ignored Chechen “terrorist” operations. He also repeated the now standard charge by Moscow that those NATO nations which participated in last year’s air war against Yugoslavia have no moral right to condemn Moscow for its actions in the Caucasus. And, while pledging that Moscow would look into alleged abuses in the region, he nevertheless warned that passage of the resolution would have “negative effects on Russia’s cooperation with the Commission’s special machinery.” That, presumably, means that Moscow may seek to do to the UN what it threatened to do to the Council of Europe after it also moved against Moscow over Chechnya: prohibit the participation of UN personnel in humanitarian operations that are launched in the Caucasus.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry reacted with even more truculence, saying that Russia would refuse to regard the UN resolution as binding because those backing the document had acted out of purely political motivations. An Itar-Tass report from Geneva reflected much the same mindset, intimating that the resolution had passed primarily due to support from Eastern European states anxious to win membership in NATO. It also contended that the UN vote proved that EU and NATO members would like to keep Russia “on the Chechen leash” for another year (AP, BBC, Reuters, Itar-Tass, April 25).

The EU-sponsored resolution stopped short of calling for an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses by Russian troops in Chechnya, but did urge Russia to establish a “national, broad-based and independent commission of inquiry to promptly investigate alleged violations of human rights” and to bring perpetrators to justice. In addition, it called for UN investigators on executions, torture and violence against women to undertake missions to Chechnya and to report to the UN general Assembly as well as to the human rights commission. The EU resolution deplored the reported mass killings, summary executions, violence against women, torture, arbitrary detention and pillage in Chechnya while also expressing deep concern over reports of flagrant violations in the so-called “filtration” camps (Reuters, April 25).

The New York-based Human Rights Watch criticized the resolution for not being even more toughly worded, but in a statement nevertheless hailed the fact that the UN had at least “sent a strong signal to Russia. The world has gone on record that Russia’s atrocities will not be ignored.”

In Washington, the Clinton administration also praised passage of the resolution. State Department spokesman James Rubin told reporters that the UN vote “indicates that the Russians are severely isolated on this issue.” A U.S. official in Geneva told Reuters that the vote “showed Russia is not exempt from the scrutiny of the UN system. They have to play by the rules of the Commission.” (Reuters, April 25). The United States was not a co-sponsor of the resolution, but did vote in its favor. Rubin’s statement yesterday came as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in Washington for talks with U.S. leaders, prepared to meet with President Bill Clinton. Chechnya will undoubtedly be on their discussion agenda, though the Clinton administration seems likely to focus attention, as it has until now, on other bilateral and international issues. Moscow, meanwhile, which has launched a new diplomatic offensive aimed at isolating the United States for its increasingly unpopular arms control policies, would for obvious reasons like to keep the focus on arms control rather than on events in the Caucasus.