Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 8

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights–which this year is chaired by the delegation from Libya–on April 16 defeated a resolution criticizing the Russian government for its policies in Chechnya. The vote was 15 in favor, 21 opposed, and 17 abstentions.

The defeated resolution was sponsored by the European Union. It called upon Russia to take all necessary steps, as a matter of urgency, to end and forestall violations of human rights in Chechnya, to ensure that all alleged violations be investigated promptly and systematically, and to punish violators. The U.S. delegation conspicuously declined to cosponsor the resolution, or even to announce its support in advance of the Geneva meeting, but eventually voted in favor.

The UN commission has become increasingly inhospitable to human rights in recent years, as some of the world’s most notorious violators of human rights have sought and won membership in it. Current members include Cuba, China, India and Syria–all of which vigorously criticized the proposed resolution on Chechnya, as did the current chair, Libya.

Nevertheless, the roll-call vote suggests that if the United States had announced its position earlier and had actively lobbied for it, the outcome might have been different. For example, eleven of the current members of the Human Rights Commission are Latin American countries. Of these, only Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico supported the EU resolution. Argentina, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay all abstained. Brazil, Venezuela and (of course) Cuba voted against. Also abstaining were Japan, Pakistan, South Korea and Thailand.

Explaining the U.S. delegation’s vote, Ambassador E. Michael Southwick devoted more detailed attention to the human rights violations committed by the Chechen separatists than to those committed by the Russians. He did not mention the pro-Moscow troops’ “zachistki” (security sweeps against civilians), use of torture against Chechen prisoners, or the forced return of refugees from Ingushetia. But he did specifically condemn terrorist acts and assassinations committed by rebel groups. “We have also demanded that the leadership of the Chechen separatist movement repudiate, in word and in deed, all ties to Chechen and international terrorists,” Southwick said. “But as far as we are able determine, the Chechen separatist leadership has not done so.”

Southwick also stated that the U.S. government “finds encouragement in several promises made publicly by senior Russian government officials to alleviate the situation in Chechnya, including the promise of an amnesty, enforcement of observance of human rights, reduction in number of checkpoints, an agreement delimiting competencies between local authorities and Moscow, an increased flow of reconstruction funds into Chechnya, compensation for destruction of dwellings, and efforts to facilitate the voluntary return of Internally Displaced Persons to Chechnya.”

Commenting on the day’s events, Joanna Weschler of the independent group Human Rights Watch said that “Today’s voting shows that many commission members are more concerned with protecting each other than protecting the victims of human rights abuse. It also highlights how Western governments have lost the political will to take action against abusive governments, particularly their newfound friends in the fight against terrorism.”