No end in sight to the war in Chechnya

At its winter session on January 23, 2002, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did not consider imposing sanctions on Russia for violating human rights in Chechnya. The Council thus heeded the recommendations put forward by the British rapporteur, Lord Judd, for whom "new sanctions against Russia would only bear testimony to our inability to reach an effective solution through cooperation and dialogue."

And what of the fate of the Chechen refugees in neighboring Ingushetia? The rapporteur of the special commission ignored the concerns and recommendations issued by Rudd Lubbers, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as well as the report ("Chechnya: non assistance to persons in danger" ) published by MSF.

Lord Judd described that, although the situation remains difficult, he had witnessed "tangible improvements" during his two-day visit in the field: apparently a few new tents seemed to do the trick. Close to 200,000 Chechens are living in increasingly precarious and dangerous conditions. Winter sees refugees crammed into tents, riddled with holes so they cannot even escape the cold and the snow; or else taking shelter in cellars and farms, squalid and unheated, where the refugees take it in turns sleeping in the limited space available.

One toilet for 200 people, one shower for 400 people; the hygiene is appalling. This unacceptable humanitarian situation is the direct result of Russia's non-assistance of displaced Chechens in Ingushetia, a strategy deployed for almost a year to pressure the refugees to return to Chechnya. And the problems refugees face upon their return, which have increased and worsened over recent months, are of major concern to Medecins Sans FrontiÃ?¨res (MSF); the border which separates Ingushetia and Chechnya separates a state of law from a lawless one, in which disorder, rape, summary executions and torture are rife.

This is why MSF is asking the UN agencies and donors to do their utmost to bring about concrete improvements in terms of assistance, notably by reinstating the registration of new refugees so that aid supplies match the number of recipients and taking into immediate account the most urgent needs: housing and heating. The Council of Europe is the only international body to have put Chechnya on its agenda. In April 2000, the Parliamentary Assembly had suspended the Russian delegation's right to vote on the Council of Europe, before reinstating it a few months later.

The Council of Europe's mission is to monitor the respect of Human Rights in the 43 member states. And yet the Council shirked its responsibility on January 23 when it failed to clearly state that the living conditions and security in Chechnya do not permit the civilian population to return.

It was also its responsibility to recall that the right to flee one's country when one is threatened is a fundamental Human Right. It abstained from doing so. The Council also had a responsibility to defend and uphold its identity and values. Again, it abstained.

The parliamentarians of the Russian delegation stated with overt satisfaction that "Chechnya is not, for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, a matter of priority." While the Council of Europe may not consider Chechnya a priority, representatives of humanitarian and human rights organizations do.

Since 1995, groups have been publishing reports and informing Council committees about the extent of the crimes committed against the Chechen civilian population. Likewise, we have described the restrictions imposed on the delivery of humanitarian aid, restrictions that affect both the population who have remained in Chechnya and those who have fled to neighboring Ingushetia.

Our various reports, like those of Human Rights' organizations like Memorial or Human Rights Watch, describe a disturbing and repeated pattern of violence committed against the Chechen population. This repetition reveals a policy aimed at destroying a people through bombing, sending them into exile, enslaving those who cannot flee and executions. We are witnessing another attempt to demolish a civilian population.

During the first period of conflict, from December 1994 to August 1996, 100,000 Chechens are estimated to have died - literally a decimation. After a brief period of calm, punctuated by the election of a Chechen president recognised by the international community, the war started again with a vengeance. Once again, civilians began falling by the thousands under bombs, arbitrary arrests, torture, and forced deportations.

They were even deprived of the minimum assistance to help them out of their misery. Tens of thousands have died since autumn 1999, while hundreds upon hundreds have been tortured or have disappeared . Are international bodies and Western governments going to continue accepting this line of thinking that has, in the past, allowed some of the worst atrocities to take place? When faced with such general political indifference, an end to the violence in Chechnya does not yet seem to be on the horizon.