Thank you for this opportunity to address the Commission on the urgent matter of the fate of Chechen civilians.
Médecins Sans Frontières is an international medical humanitarian organization that delivers emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters in more than 75 countries. Founded in 1971, MSF believes that all people have the right to medical care regardless of race, religion, creed or political affiliation.
MSF first came to the former Soviet Union in December 1988 to carry out emergency relief work in the aftermath of an earthquake in Armenia. Today, MSF assists vulnerable populations in nine CIS countries, with programs ranging from emergency distributions of relief items in conflict zones to longer-term efforts to fight epidemics such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
Since the resumption of war in Chechnya in 1999, MSF has provided humanitarian assistance in Ingushetia, Chechnya, and Dagestan. In Ingushetia, MSF runs prenatal, gynecological, pediatric, and general health clinics in Nazran, Karabulak, Sleptsovskaya, and Malgobek, and provides medicines and medical supplies to government health structures throughout the Republic. MSF continues to work to improve the basic living conditions of displaced Chechens in Ingushetia through the provision and repair of shelters as well as essential non-food items, water and sanitation facilities.
In Chechnya, MSF provides medicines and medical equipment and supplies to 30 health structures and has carried out small rehabilitation projects in several health structures.
Since the kidnapping of MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel on August 12, 2002, by three unknown gunmen in Makhachkala, all activities have been suspended in Dagestan, and only emergency donations are carried out in Chechnya.
We want to underline here the fact that after ten months, Arjan Erkel is still missing. Russian and Dagestani officials have recently assured us that Arjan is alive, but they have failed to provide MSF and Arjan’s family with any verifiable information on where he is being kept, who abducted him, for what reason, guarantees for his current security, and on ways to move forward to secure his safe release. After ten months, the lack of significant progress in the investigation points to the obstruction of Arjan’s release, and raises concerns about the willingness of Russian authorities to solve the case.
As of today, our repeated requests for a meeting with the Presidential Administration to discuss the case have been denied. Since, in accordance with international humanitarian law, the responsibility for the safety and security of humanitarian personnel rests primarily with the authorities of the host country, MSF believes that strong political willingness from the highest authorities of the Russian Federation is crucial in the resolution of the case. We urge President Putin to take all necessary means in his power to assure Arjan Erkel’s rapid and safe release.
The Fate of Chechen Civilians
The war still rages in Chechnya. Civilians have been targeted by Russian armed forces who often suspect them of supporting the rebels. Witness statements and reports from human rights organizations provide detailed accounts regarding the indiscriminate use of force and widespread violations of human rights. These violations include torture, summary executions, arbitrary detention, disappearances, rape, and widespread destruction and looting of property.
Rebel fighters are also committing serious human rights violations towards civilians inside Chechnya. According to the US Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 2002, civilians have been used by the rebels as human shields and forced laborers, abducted for ransom, prevented from fleeing conflict zones, and killed for refusing to assist the rebels.
According to an assessment carried out by the Council of Europe in December 2002, the situation in Chechnya has worsened since the October 2002 hostage crisis in Moscow. Military activities and sweep-up operations within the Chechnya have increased.
Again, the US Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for the year 2002 describes in detail the current situation in Chechnya: “In addition to casualties attributable to indiscriminate use of force by the Federal armed forces, individual federal serviceman committed many abuses. According to Human Rights observers, government forces responding to Chechen attacks at times engaged in indiscriminate reprisals against combatants and non-combatants alike.” (page 10) On the fate of displaced Chechens, the report states: “Many IDPs reported that they were forced to provide payments to, or were otherwise subjected to harassment and pressure at checkpoints. There were some reports that Federal troops purposely targeted some infrastructures essential to the survival of the civilian population, such as water facilities or hospitals. The indiscriminate use of force by Federal troops resulted in a massive destruction of housing, gas and water supply facilities.” (page 10)
In a statement made on April 24 by the chief of the Chechen Security Council, Rudnik Dudayev, 215 people have been illegally detained or kidnapped in Chechnya since the beginning of the year. Forty-six of these cases were registered after the referendum of March 23. According to Dudayev, the overwhelming majority of these people are civilians who have no relation to the rebel groups. According to Human Rights Watch, two people disappear in the Republic every day, with an increased number for the first three months of 2003.
A Systematic Policy of Forcing the Return of Displaced Chechens
According to the UNHCR, as of December 31, 2002 there were 142,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Chechnya, 8,000 in Dagestan, and 40,000 in other regions of the Russian Federation. As of May 2003, 89,000 were living in deplorable conditions in Ingushetia. Fifty-five percent of these Chechen IDPs in Ingushetia are staying in host families, while 18% live in tent camps and 27% are squatting in farms, abandoned factories, hangars, and cellars.
Despite the deteriorating security situation in Chechnya, the forced return of IDPs in Ingushetia to Chechnya has already begun. The UN estimates that up to 38,000 IDPs living in Ingushetia and 2,000 living in Dagestan returned to Chechnya during the year 2002. According to the Danish Refugee Council, registration figures in the five main IDP camps in Ingushetia dropped from 22,254 in August 2002 to 14,594 in March 2003. Between January 1 and May 2003, the UNHCR has registered 5768 returns from all over Ingushetia. Yet in a report published in February 2003, the UNHCR stated that the conditions to assure a voluntary return of Chechen displaced – decent security and living conditions – have not been met.
Why are displaced Chechens leaving Ingushetia on a daily basis to return to Chechnya where continued insecurity and a lack of services make life unbearable? Simply because in the past several months, Russian, Ingush, and Chechen authorities have begun implementing a systematic policy to force displaced Chechens back to war-torn Chechnya. They have employed a number of means that make it near impossible for Chechen IDPs to refuse returning.
In May 2002, Russian, Ingush, and Chechen authorities adopted a 20-step Action Plan for the return of all displaced Chechens living in neighboring Republics. The plan includes suspension of governmental aid for the displaced; promised assistance, like compensation packages, that has yet to materialize; and the complete closure of all tented camps in Ingushetia. At present, the authorities state that all remaining tented camps will be closed in the coming months.
Following the adoption of the plan, authorities closed the two tented camps in Znamenskoye in Northern Chechnya in July 2002. The 5000 IDPs accommodated there were forced to relocate to temporary accommodation centers (TAC) in Grozny. According to a report published by the UNHCR in February 2003, the living conditions in the TACs in Chechnya remain very precarious, with sanitation facilities below acceptable standards.
In December 2002, the authorities also closed the camp in Aki Yurt, Ingushetia, which accommodated nearly 2,000 IDPs.
Following the election of Ingush President Ziazikov in April 2002, Russian Federal troops have been positioned in Ingushetia. Furthermore, after the hostage crisis in Moscow in October 2002, these troops have been also positioned in the direct vicinity of the camps for displaced Chechens. The presence of these troops has resulted in a dramatic increase in the psychological pressure on Chechen IDPs through aggressive control of identification papers, arrests of IDPs on false charges, disappearances, threats, intimidation, and deletion of names from the lists of beneficiaries for governmental assistance programs. In addition, Chechen authorities and FSB officials have increased visits to the tented camps, further pressuring displaced Chechens to sign off for repatriation. Officials have threatened to cut off assistance to those who refuse to leave, and tell IDPs that they will not get financial compensation to rebuild their lives or temporary accommodations in Chechnya if they do not return immediately. All of the IDPs have been told that the camps will be closed during the spring of 2003, with the closures of Aki Yurt and Znamenskoye cited as examples.
IDPs report these incidents in the camps to us on a daily basis, which only highlights the lack of proper assistance and inadequate protection they receive. Russian and Ingush authorities are abandoning displaced Chechens to the status of illegal and undesirable migrants. According to the 1995 Russian Federal Law on “Forced Migrants,” citizens of the Russian Federation who have been forcibly displaced are granted a formal residency status that allows them to move freely, to live, work, and go to school legally in their place of refuge. Between October 1999 and December 2002, however, only 89 IDPs living in Ingushetia were granted this status by the authorities. In April 2001, the Ingush division of the Ministry of Federal Affairs passed an order suspending registration of all newly arrived Chechen IDPs. Without registration by migration authorities through Form #7, IDPs do not have access to governmental assistance, including distribution of food and non-food items, accommodation in camps, and provision of much needed governmental allowances such as pensions.
In Ingushetia, provision of governmental assistance to the displaced Chechens such as food, non-food items, gas, electricity and water, has been drastically reduced since the signature of the 20 steps repatriation plan in May 2002. At the same time, Ingush authorities passed a number of orders directly limiting assistance programs from international humanitarian organizations. Authorities have banned the construction of new camps to accommodate displaced people currently squatting in unsuitable locations, and they have also requested non-governmental organizations to stop replacing torn tents in camps or to extend the capacity of the camps to improve the living conditions.
After the closure of the Aki Yurt camp, the need to build alternative shelters to accommodate displaced persons who might be evicted has become alarmingly relevant. MSF received verbal approval from President Ziazikov for the construction of alternative shelters for those Chechens who did not wish to return home. As of January 2003, 180 alternative shelters erected by MSF were ready for use.
However, on January 28, the government of Ingushetia passed an instruction declaring the alternative shelters illegal according to local construction codes. Despite having obtained all the required authorizations from all relevant Federal and Ingush services, MSF suddenly received an ultimatum to destroy the shelters. Our plans to build an additional 1,200 shelters, as well as plans by other humanitarian organizations to build 1,500 more, have been indefinitely suspended.
The claim by Ingush authorities that MSF has not conformed to administrative instructions is just the latest in a long series of political measures exercised against the Chechen displaced population which leaves them with no other choice but to return to Chechnya against their will.
Results of MSF Survey of IDPs in Ingushetia
From February 3-16, 2003, MSF carried out an extensive survey of Chechen displaced persons living in five official and three unofficial tented camps in Ingushetia. The main objective of this survey was to identify clearly which and how many families were in need of alternative shelters in Ingushetia and then to select the most vulnerable families to benefit first from our program of constructing alternative shelters.
A total of 3,209 families (16,499 people) were interviewed by MSF. Only 39 families were not interviewed, as they could not be found after repeated visits to the camps. The results of this survey are a clear indication that the basic rights of displaced persons – to seek safe refuge, to be protected and assisted properly during a time of conflict, and to only return home voluntarily, as guaranteed by international humanitarian law – are not respected. Russian, Ingush, and Chechen authorities are currently in open violation of international humanitarian law.
Only 58 families surveyed are planning to return home in the near future. More than 98% said they did not want to go back to Chechnya in the near future. This represents 3,151 families out of the total of 3,209. Among them, 93% expressed fears for their safety as the main reason for wishing to remain in Ingushetia.
The following comments from displaced people are typical:
“My husband went through a filtration camp, his shoulder was broken... he still has many scars from his detention.”
“Our son, born in 1984, disappeared after being arrested at a check point in Urus Martan.”
“During the day I am afraid of the Russian soldiers, at night I am afraid of the rebels.”
The vast majority of the families interviewed continue to live in unacceptable conditions. More than half, 54%, live in tents that leak, with no insulation and even no floors. 88% of the families did not consider humanitarian assistance when deciding whether to return to Chechnya or stay in Ingushetia.The very poor quality of aid in Ingushetia is definitely not an incentive for people to stay in Ingushetia. This contradicts statements made by Chechen, Ingush and Russian authorities who have argued that assistance in Ingushetia is preventing people from going back home.
This reflects the reality that in 2002 and 2003 authorities have significantly cut public assistance programs for the displaced in Ingushetia. At the same time, assistance provided by international humanitarian organizations has been limited by increased administrative constraints applied by the authorities as well as insecurity.
As one interviewee told us, “Living conditions are worse than in Grozny, but at least here we have less fear for the lives of our sons and husbands.”
Another terrible finding is that families are being forced to choose between living in deplorable conditions in Ingushetia or returning to Chechnya and risking the lives of their family members.
If the flow of refugees returning to Chechnya is growing, it is because people are left without a choice. What are they going to do if the camps are closed? Most people don’t know where to stay. “If the camps are closed,” one man said, “I will dig a pit in the ground and sit together with my children.”
“I think no reasonable man would go to Chechnya at the present moment,” said another man. “If you ask where do we expect to stay, you will hear only one answer: nowhere.”
Do these desperate displaced Chechens have a real choice to stay in their current place of refuge? According to the survey, out of the 98% of the families who do not plan to go back home in a near future, 90% did not know about any alternative place to stay in Ingushetia other than the camp where they are currently living. This represents 2,827 families with 14,433 people in immediate need of alternative shelter if the camps are closed.
The MSF survey clearly shows that displaced Chechens do not want to return to Chechnya, and that the authorities are not offering any real option to stay in Ingushetia. People do not return on a voluntary basis, but after several months of pressure by the authorities, they simply give up. They are forced to accept the unacceptable: the denial of their basic right of safe refuge.
Humanitarian Access to War-Torn Chechnya
We must emphasize that access by independent, impartial humanitarian organizations to populations in need has been seriously hampered by security constraints not only in Chechnya, but also in Ingushetia and Dagestan. In addition, the authorities have increased administrative restrictions on NGOs by failing to deliver clearances for those NGOs carrying out programs in Chechnya, blocking authorization to use radio frequencies, issuing warnings about the threat of kidnappings faced by aid workers, and recommending that NGOs use armed escorts while traveling to Chechnya – a serious breach of our principles of neutrality, independence of action, and impartiality.
The security and safety of humanitarian workers in the Northern Caucasus is an alarming problem. Since the beginning of the second conflict in 1999, dozens of aid workers have been taken hostage in the Northern Caucasus. In January 2001, MSF volunteer Kenny Gluck was abducted in Chechnya and released three weeks later. In 2002 alone, four aid workers were kidnapped. Nina Davidovitch of the NGO Druzhba was freed in January 2003 after more than six months in detention. In November 2002, two ICRC drivers were abducted in Chechnya and released three days later. And MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel was abducted in Dagestan in August 2002 and is still missing.
If present security conditions in Chechnya and the neighboring Republics are not adequate for humanitarian workers to carry out assistance activities, why would they be considered adequate for civilian Chechens to return and resume their normal lives?
Today, there is not a single international humanitarian worker permanently based in Chechnya. Despite the urgent need for humanitarian assistance in Chechnya and neighboring Republics, the authorities continue to actively block direct access to the Chechen population by impartial humanitarian organizations seeking to assist them in an independent fashion and to bear witness to their situation. The Russian Government did not extend the mandate of the OSCE’s Assistance Group in Chechnya, which expired at the end of 2002. In a statement on May 7, 2003, the Head of the Chechen Administration requested that international humanitarian organizations distribute aid through district authorities rather than directly to the populations in need. In January 2002, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe expressed serious concerns about the relief process in Chechnya by stating, “up to 70% of relief aid does not directly reach those to whom it is addressed.”
The International Community Abandons Chechen Civilians
What has the international community, including the United States, done to address the well-known, wide-scale human rights violations in Chechnya? What has been done to stop blatant violations of fundamental provisions of international humanitarian law by the Russian, Chechen and Ingush authorities? What has the international community done when confronted with the hard facts of violence committed against humanitarian personnel such as abductions in the Russian Federation?
With the exception of making obligatory statements at summit meetings, press conferences, and public forums, the international community, including the United States, has failed to alleviate the suffering of Chechen civilians.
Statements made during recent summits in St-Petersburg and Evian are striking proof that the United States, Europe and the United Nations, have abandoned the Chechen civilians to their unacceptable fate. The representatives of these governments, international and regional bodies, warmly met with an ally that continues to violate international humanitarian law and fundamental human rights with impunity.
For years, the United States has made general statements that there must be accountability for human rights abuses in Chechnya; that humanitarian organizations must have unlimited access to people in need; and that displaced Chechens should not be forcibly sent home until the security situation improves in Chechnya. The U.S. Administration has also stated that it raises these points with their Russian counterparts at every possible occasion.
Unfortunately, this strategy towards the Russian Government is not having any positive impact whatsoever on the lives of civilian Chechens.
On January 2, 2003, after the closure of Aki Yurt camp, the State Department spokesperson welcomed Russia’s repeated assurances that persons displaced from Chechnya would not be forced to return against their will. These so-called assurances did not prevent a continuation of the campaign of pressure on displaced Chechens to return. It seems clear that it is not enough for the United States and the international community to repeat the same empty diplomatic statements on their worries about the situation in the region.
The US-led “war against terror” should also not be used as a pretext for Russia to continue violating their fundamental rights. By linking incidents in Chechnya with the global “war against terror”, the Russian government has written itself a blank check to continue its repressive campaign with impunity. On March 14, 2003, Colonel Shabalkin, Head of the FSB security services in Chechnya, stated that all terrorist acts committed on Chechen territory are financed by international terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.
Despite reports by independent observers and journalists raising serious doubts about the fairness of the constitutional referendum in Chechnya on March 23, the international community, including the United States, has already used the results as a sign of a return to normalcy in the Republic. The referendum appears to be just an alibi that allows the international community to stop offending an important ally. This gives tacit consent to the continuation of widespread and serious violations of international humanitarian law.
At the annual session of the UN Human Rights Commission, the US delegation declined to sponsor a resolution against Russia on Chechnya. Explaining the vote in Geneva, Ambassador Southwick of the US Delegation said, “My government wishes to emphasize its hope that the March 23 referendum in Chechnya will enable a political process to take hold that produces a lasting solution in the area.” The Ambassador continued by saying, “My government finds encouragement in several promises made publicly by Russian officials to alleviate to situation in Chechnya.”
Quite simply, the international community, including the United States, has abandoned Chechens civilians.
We warmly welcome, though, the constant efforts of the members of the Helsinki Commission to raise the situation in Chechnya and neighboring republics to the US Administration and the Russian authorities. In particular, we appreciated the letters sent by the Helsinki Commission to Presidents Bush and Putin over the past year that raised the issues of forced repatriation and the humanitarian situation in the region. We are also grateful for the letter sent to Ambassador Ushakov regarding Arjan Erkel.
Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) urges the United States Government and the United States Congress to take all appropriate measures, whether political, diplomatic, or public, to:
Urgently press Russian, Ingush and Chechen authorities to immediately cease all official and unofficial measures currently forcing displaced Chechens to return to war-torn Chechnya, particularly from Ingushetia;
Press Russia to respect displaced peoples’ physical integrity and their basic right to be adequately assisted and protected in a safe refuge in Ingushetia and elsewhere in the Russian Federation;
Press Russia to respect its obligations according to international humanitarian law to allow impartial humanitarian organizations to fully exercise their right to assist war-affected Chechen civilians in the Northern Caucasus, especially by lifting the administrative measures blocking the provision of alternative shelters for displaced Chechens in Ingushetia;
Press Russia to take all necessary steps to bring an end to illegal detentions and other forms of violence affecting humanitarian aid workers in the Northern Caucasus, and to assume its basic responsibilities according to international humanitarian law to provide safety, security and freedom of movement to humanitarian personnel;
Urgently raise the case of kidnapped MSF volunteer Arjan Erkel to President Putin and other high-ranking Russian officials, particularly by asking them to give the highest political commitment and priority to assure the immediate, unconditional, and safe release of our colleague and by asking them to accept meeting with MSF representatives to discuss upon the investigation of the case.