European Union leaders should use their summit with Russia next week to voice concerns about recent developments in Chechnya and neighboring Ingushetia, Human Rights Watch said today.

The biannual summit, hosted in Rome on November 6 by the Italian Presidency of the European Union, marks the highest-level bilateral encounter that takes place between the European Union and Russia.

In a letter to EU heads of state and government, Human Rights Watch called on the European Union to engage in sincere and frank discussions of ongoing abuses in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and to seek concrete commitments from Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding protection for displaced persons, accountability for abuses, and access for international monitors to the conflict zone.

“We know the European Union has long been concerned about human rights abuses in Chechnya,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia division. “But what’s really troubling is that it has consistently failed to impress upon its Russian counterparts the seriousness of these concerns.”

Human Rights Watch also noted that the human rights situation in the northern Caucasus was but one of a number of issues that mar Russia’s record on human rights. Others include the treatment of conscripts in the Russian military, threats to freedom of expression, and rising xenophobia.

But what dominated Human Rights Watch’s concerns were the continued abuses perpetrated against Chechen civilians in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and the blatant disregard demonstrated by the Russian government for its obligations under international and national law.

In the weeks leading up to the summit, Russian authorities have continued their relentless efforts to compel internally displaced persons in Ingushetia to return to Chechnya, most recently targeting the Bella and Satsita camps. They have failed to remedy the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Ingushetia, where Human Rights Watch has recently found that Russian forces perpetrate the same abuses as they do in Chechnya, as the conflict spills over the border. This has made Ingushetia an increasingly unsafe place for displaced Chechens and Ingush civilians alike. The Russian government has also persisted in its failure to facilitate access to the region by international monitors, and to hold accountable perpetrators of abuses committed during the conflict.

“EU leaders cannot continue to shy away from what may be an uncomfortable topic to raise,” said Denber. “They owe it to the hundreds of thousands of Chechens who suffer the consequences of this silence, and to the values the Union purports to stand for.”

Human Rights Watch urged EU leaders to seek President Putin’s commitment to heed the following specific calls during the summit meeting:

  • Implement the recommendations by the U.N. Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons following his recent visit to the region, including “reaffirming” the Russian government’s commitment to “voluntary return[s],” and providing “dignified circumstances” to people in areas of displacement;
  • Cease the closing of tent camps without providing alternative shelter that is reasonable and humane, and the policy of compelling displaced people to return to Chechnya under current circumstances;
  • Ensure full access to camps for humanitarian organizations;
  • Take measures to address the deteriorating security situation in Ingushetia and ensure that any law enforcement operations conducted in Ingushetia conform to Russian and international law;
  • Respond positively to outstanding requests for invitations made by U.N. thematic mechanisms, in particular the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions;
  • Set a firm date for the long overdue visit by the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women;
  • Cooperate fully with the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.