Last 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 2001.1
Today, with the Commission in its 59th session, the human rights situation in Chechnya remains abysmal. The March 23, 2003 referendum-hailed by the Russian government as a major step toward peace and cautiously endorsed by the international community-cannot obscure Chechnya's harsh realities.2 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. This briefing paper summarizes these findings, and describes government efforts to compel internally displaced people living in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya, despite the life-threatening conditions civilians face there.
Unpublished government statistics confirm the high risk of abuse civilians face in Chechnya. According to an unpublished report on criminal activity in Chechnya, in 2002 1,132 civilians were killed, or between five and eight times the murder rate for Russia, and between ten and fifteen times the murder rate for Moscow.3 A second unpublished report, providing crime statistics for the first months of 2003, stated that for January and February there were seventy murders, 126 abductions, and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.
1 Leonid Skotnikov, Russia's permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva called the voting results last year "the moral and political victory" of the Russian side, saying that "in practical terms this means a recognition by the international community of the arguments Russia has made to close the Chechnya question at the human rights commission," see "U.N. human rights commission voted against the resolution on Chechnya introduced by the European Union," RIA Novosti, April 19, 2002, cited at http://www.infocentre.ru/win/user/index.cfm?page=3&date=2002-04-19&startrow=1&msg_id=44240 (accessed on April 4, 2003). The 2000 and 2001 resolutions expressed concern about the Chechnya conflict and called on the Russian government to, among other things, establish an independent national commission of inquiry to investigate human rights violations by both sides of the conflict, and to facilitate visits to the breakaway republic by five U.N. thematic mechanisms: the special rapporteur on torture, the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, the special rapporteur on violence against women, the special representative of the secretary general on internally displaced persons, and the special representative of the secretary general on children in armed conflict.
2 Official reports on the referendum described overcrowded polling stations, an unprecedentedly high turnout, and an enthusiastic and hopeful Chechen population demonstrating support for the initiative by dancing and singing in the streets. Reports by journalists and other observers who traveled to Chechnya independently contrasted sharply with this picture and cast doubt on the fairness of the electoral process. They reported only small numbers of voters at polling stations and noted that Grozny, the capital, was almost deserted (although some people in Grozny joined a demonstration against "disappearances"). For more information, see: Natalie Nougayrède, "La Russie organise un simulacre de référendum en Tchétchénie," Le Monde, March 25, 2003; "Referendum in Chechnya: Seven People came to the Polling Station in School # 7 in Grozny," Grani.ru, March 24, 2003, http://www.grani.ru/War/Chechnya/m.26977.html (accessed March 27, 2003); Memorial Human Rights Center, "Situation on the eve and on the day of referendum," March 25, 2003, http://www.memo.ru/hr/hotpoints/caucas1/index.htm (accessed March 27, 2003).
3 A government official made the reports available to Human Rights Watch. The population of Chechnya is estimated to be between 600,000 and one million. The total number of murders in Russia, whose population totals about 145,000,000 was about 34,000 in 2001. The total number of murders in Moscow, whose population totals about 10 million, was 1,275 in 2002. See: "There were 1,275 Murders in Moscow in 2002," available at: www.rosbalt.ru/2003/01/22/82079.html (accessed April 6, 2003).