Chechen displaced: MSF open letter to OCHA

To: Mr. Kenzo Oshima
Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian
Affairs & Emergency Relief Co-ordinator
United Nations
New York, N. Y.

From: Dr. Morten Rostrup,
President of MSF International.

Dear Mr. Oshima,

As a consequence of the latest outbreak of conflict in Chechnya, some 180,000 Chechens have sought refuge in areas of relative safety in Chechnya and the neighboring territories (Ingushetia, Dagestan and Georgia) since 1999.

The displaced Chechens are scattered over these territories in tent camps, "collective centres" (usually public and commercial buildings) and private accomodation. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been providing assistance to these people since 1999 and, through our direct contact with our patients, we strongly believe that the majority of displaced people do not consider it safe enough to return to Chechnya. Their viewpoint is supported by ongoing reports of indiscriminate violence against civilians being perpetrated inside Chechnya.

Following the forced relocation of displaced people from Znamenskoye, we are concerned to see the same patterns of intimidation being replicated in Ingushetia. Pressure is clearly being exerted on the displaced Chechens in Ingushetia to make their lives so difficult as to leave them with little real option but to return to Chechnya. It is being applied by the Russian federal authorities, the new Ingushetian authorities and the Chechen authorities.

A formal 20 point plan to repatriate all displaced Chechens in Ingushetia to their homeland by October 2002 was signed on the 29th May 2002 by Federal Minister Yelagin, Presidential Plenipotentiary Kazantsev, President Zyazikov of Ingushetia, and Head of Administration Kadyrov of Chechnya. These plans include the complete closure of the tent camps in Ingushetia without providing an alternative location for those who do not wish to return.

This measure was confirmed in a press conference on the 11th July 2002 by Stanislav Ilyasov, Head of the Chechen government, citing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s order to "liquidate" these camps before the autumn.

At the same time, military forces have recently been positioned in the immediate vicinity of the camps for displaced Chechens in Ingushetia (e.g., the newly installed military post of Troitskaya, which is about 5 km from the Sputnik and Alina tent camps in Sleptovskaya, eastern Ingushetia). This has coincided with an increased number of arrests of displaced people and the "disappearance" of others from these camps. These events heighten the climate of insecurity and fear, and further pressure the displaced Chechens to leave.

The original flight of the Chechen people to Ingushetia and Dagestan was prompted by both civil war and widespread abuse of human rights. Chechnya is effectively still in a state of civil war, and there are repeated reports of human rights abuses still taking place in the territory. In addition, due to the strategy of minimal assistance implemented by the Russian authorities, the Chechens displaced in Ingushetia have been living in appalling conditions since the second war started in 1999.

This low level of assistance, combined with the pressures described above, are intended to drive these people back to Chechnya by offering no other avenues of choice.

While we recognize that there have been serious attempts to investigate the conditions of return and that the United Nations has made public statements demonstrating these concerns, we are asking you, as we have previously done with your representative in Moscow, that the United Nations take appropriate action to address some facts that could be interpreted as UN complicity in the forced replacement of Chechen people.

Although you stated in a 23rd July press release that the "relocation [of Chechen IDPs from Znamenskoye] could not be regarded as entirely voluntary", you did not condemn the forced returns, even though they are prohibited by international humanitarian law.

Within the camps for displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Interior has been circulating leaflets containing information from Chechen Prime Minister Ilyasov on the facilities available to those wishing to repatriate to Chechnya. The leaflet claims that, for those wishing to return to Chechnya, food will be provided on a constant basis by the World Food Programme, and that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will provide non-food packages, monitor living conditions, and provide tents and contruction materials where conditions are inadequate.

Neither agency has made any commitment to provide these services. Nor has a public stand been taken by either the WFP or the UNHCR to refute the claims put forward.

Although the United Nations has been mandated to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced Chechen people in Ingushetia, Médecins Sans Frontières field personnel are concerned about the overall reduction in presence and assistance of UN personnel in the camps that we have seen over the past weeks. This situation is putting yet more pressure on the diplaced Chechen population to leave Ingushetia for Chechnya.

The United Nations must do significantly more to address the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Ingushetia and Chechnya, and take concrete action to ensure that the basic rights and needs of the Chechen people are being met, whether in Ingushetia or Chechnya. I therefore urge you, in your capacity as Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, to ensure that the United Nations:

  • Delivers adequate and continued assistance to the displaced Chechen people in Ingushetia in proportion to their needs;
  • Defends the fundamental right of Chechen people to seek refuge and to remain in Ingushetia;
  • Prevents any forced displacement of people to Chechnya, in conformity with international humanitarian law;
  • Reinforces the protection of displaced Chechen people through the provision of an adequate number of international protection officers in Ingushetia and Chechnya;
  • Provides accurate information directly to the displaced Chechen people about the actual conditions in Chechnya, their options and the position of the United Nations;
  • Corrects immediately all erroneous and/or misleading information on UN assistance to be provided to Chechnya that may be circulating in the camps for displaced Chechens.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Morten Rostrup,
President of MSF International.