Human Rights Situation in ChechnyaLast year, as Russian troops in Chechnya were committing hundreds of forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and widespread acts of torture and ill-treatment, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights rejected a resolution that would have expressed concern about the Chechnya conflict. The Russian government interpreted the resolution's failure as a signal that the international community now endorsed its actions in Chechnya, and refused to implement the key elements of the resolutions the Commission adopted in 2000 and 2001.
Today, the armed conflict in Chechnya continues and humanitarian law violations appear to be increasing. Human Rights Watch research conducted in the region in late March found that Russian troops had "disappeared" at least twenty-six people between late December and late February, or roughly three people per week. This is the highest rate of "disappearances" Human Rights Watch has documented since the beginning of the conflict. In more than fifty interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, we also documented new cases of extrajudicial execution, torture and ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention. The Russian government's long-standing failure to investigate diligently such abuses and prosecute their perpetrators remains unchanged.
Chechen rebels are believed to be responsible for a continuing pattern of assassinations of village administrators and other civil servants working for the pro-Moscow government in Chechnya. In 2002 Chechen rebel forces carried out two dramatic attacks on civilians, causing enormous loss of life. The October 2002 hostage taking in a Moscow theater perpetrated by about fifty armed Chechens resulted in the deaths of 129 civilians, mostly due to the effects of a debilitating gas that Russian special forces used in their rescue operation. On December 27, 2002, Chechen forces blew up the main government building in Grozny, killing at least seventy-two civilians and wounding 210. Human Rights Watch researchers have repeatedly attempted to collect information outside Chechnya on the assassination campaign but found Chechen civilians reluctant to speak about abuses by Chechen fighters. Many said they feared retaliation by the fighters if it became known they had given testimony to a human rights organization.
Unpublished government statistics confirm the high risk of abuse civilians face in Chechnya. According to an unpublished report on criminal activity in Chechnya, in 2002 1,132 civilians were killed, or between five and eight times the murder rate for Russia, and between ten and fifteen times the murder rate for Moscow. A second unpublished report, providing crime statistics for the first months of 2003, stated that for January and February there were seventy murders, 126 abductions, and twenty-five cases in which human corpses were found. Accompanying the statistics were detailed descriptions of more than 185 crimes in Chechnya committed in January and February 2003; in many, federal forces are implicated.
Throughout the past year, the Russian government sought to limit the flow of information from Chechnya. It barred outside scrutiny of the conflict by refusing to renew the mandate of the OSCE Assistance Group to Chechnya, forcing its closure, and by refusing to arrange visits to the region by several U.N. special mechanisms. The government also denied Human Rights Watch access to the region for the tenth time since the outbreak of the conflict in 1999. Finally, the government harassed several Chechen human rights advocates, one of whom subsequently "disappeared" after being taken into custody.
Human Rights Watch urges the Commission to adopt a resolution on the Chechnya conflict, calling on Russia to issue invitations to the relevant thematic mechanisms, to agree to renew the mandate of the OSCE Assistance Group, and to invigorate the domestic accountability process. A Commission resolution should deplore continued abuses, and should note in particular the failure by Russia to establish a national commission of inquiry, as required by previous resolutions, and an official public record of violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed in the conflict. It should also call on the Russian government to refrain from pressuring displaced people to return to Chechnya.
Excerpts from the Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper to the 59th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, April 7, 2003