In a letter sent to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu, Human Rights Watch protested the forced deportation of displaced Chechens to Russian-controlled areas of the Chechen Republic.

A copy of the letter is below.

OPEN LETTER

December 22, 1999

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Government Offices
Krasnopresnenskaya
Moscow, Russia

Minister of Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu
Ministry for Emergency Situations
Teatralny Proyezd 3
Moscow, Russia

Dear Sirs,

I am writing to urge an immediate end to the forcible repatriation of internally displaced persons to Chechnya. Federal authorities are clearly pressuring displaced persons in Ingushetia to return to certain areas of Chechnya by denying them shelter and food. This is a serious abrogation of Russia's obligations under international law to protect civilians displaced by internal armed conflict.

Human Rights Watch, a privately funded international non-governmental human rights organization, has been monitoring the human rights situation in Chechnya since before the 1994-1996 war. Since October 1999, Human Rights Watch researchers in the northern Caucasus have interviewed hundreds of civilians fleeing Chechnya.

As you are no doubt aware, Russia's Northern Caucasus military command has compiled a list of twenty-four towns and villages that are under Russian control and "safe" areas for the return of displaced persons. The list, undated, was signed by General V. Kazantsev, commander of the United Group of Forces for the Northern Caucasus, three other military commanders (Generals Babichev, Chaikalin, and Pankov) and Minister of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation (EMERCOM-RF) Gen. Bayramov. The events of the past week clearly demonstrate, however, that the armed conflict in Chechnya continues. Until it ends conclusively, any district could feasibly become the site of military engagement and thus endanger the lives of civilians. Civilians also face real threats to their security posed by the undisciplined and criminal conduct of some Russian troops in areas under federal control. For example, we have documented fourteen cases of summary executions of civilians by Russian soldiers in Alkhan-Yurt, and numerous cases of looting and threats of physical violence in Alkhan-Yurt and other villages in Russian-controlled Chechnya.

Disregarding a principal tenet of international law governing the protection of displaced persons, beginning last week EMERCOM-RF authorities began pressuring displaced persons to return to their homes in Sernovodsk, Assinovskaya, and Achkoi-Martan. In the past few days, they began coercing displaced persons living in the Sleptsovsk-North railway car camp to relocate to the Sernovodsk displaced persons facility. Ten displaced persons in the Sletptsovsk-North railway car camp reported to Human Rights Watch researchers that on December 17, with no advance warning, the train was split into three sections and sent in three separate directions. Khamza Bekov, an EMERCOM-RF, told those living in the train who had been sent to the Sleptovsk railway station that their train would depart that day to transport them to Sernovodsk. People objected vigorously to being relocated to a war zone and removed their belongings, intending to remain in Ingushetia. In response to their protests (several women physically lay on the railroad tracks), OMON troops called by Mr. Bekov fired several shots in the air and Mr. Bekov threatened to call in Russian troops to force the civilians back on the train. On December 18, thirty-six railway cars, many of them empty, left from the Sleptovsk train station for Sernovodsk. Some of the displaced persons evicted from these wagons because they did not want to be sent to Sernovodsk were forced to sleep outside, as they have no other lodgings. Many displaced persons living in other trains in Ingushetia have told Human Rights Watch that they continue to receive notice from Russian authorities that all the trains will soon be moved to Chechnya.

Also, beginning last week, many people from the towns of Sernovodsk, Assinovskaya, Achkoi Martan, and Samashki who are currently living in the Sputnik camp were told to prepare to return to Chechnya and were removed from ration lists. Human Rights Watch interviewed more than two dozen internally displaced persons in the camp whose rations had already been discontinued or would be discontinued imminently. Most of them were heads of families with children who were surviving only because of the generosity of their neighbors and camp leaders, who gave them food informally.

The actions depicted above can be described only as attempts forcibly to repatriate individuals displaced by the Chechen conflict, in egregious contempt for international standards and for the dignity of displaced persons. The U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the principle standards governing the protection and treatment of internally displaced persons, expressly forbid forced repatriation. Principle 15 states that internally displaced persons have:

(a) The right to seek safety in another part of the country;
(b) the right to leave their country;
(c) The right to seek asylum in another country; and
(d) The right to be protected against forcible return to or resettlement in any place where their life, safety, liberty and/or health would be at risk.

The Guiding Principles also guarantee those displaced by the Chechen conflict the right to an adequate standard of living, including access to essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, essential medical services and sanitation (principle 18); and the right to access to national and international humanitarian assistance and protection (principles 24-27). In addition, articles 11 and 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural, to which Russia is a party, guarantee the rights to adequate food, clothing, housing, and medical care. And, Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, to which Russia is a party, provides for the humane treatment of all persons who do not, or no longer take an active part in the hostilities, which includes internally displaced persons.

Human Rights Watch calls on your government to cease forcible returns to Chechnya and to cease using the denial of food and housing as a means to pressure displaced persons to return. No organized return of any kind should take place while the conflict is on-going inside Chechnya. We further respectfully remind your government of its international commitments to allow people safe passage to flee Chechnya, and to provide adequate humanitarian assistance in Ingushetia and neighboring republics. In the event that the Russian government is unable to provide sufficient assistance, it must accept international offers of help. It should allow international humanitarian agencies immediate, full, and unimpeded access to persons displaced from the Chechen conflict, with full security guarantees.

I thank you for your attention to these concerns and welcome your response.

Sincerely,

Holly Cartner
Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia division
Human Rights Watch

cc: Members of General Assembly Ambassador Sergey V. Lavrov