The Helsinki region encompasses fifty-three dramatically diverse countries, from developed democracies with comprehensive human rights protections, to countries making the transition from severely repressive governments to fragile new democracies, as well as a number of governments that have never faltered in the severity of repression and governmental control. Genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws of war_the worst abuses in the region_remained systematic in the former Yugoslavia, and a new conflict erupted in Chechnya, with massive violations by Russian forces, as well as by Chechen fighters. In other areas where armed conflict finally subsided, there was no corresponding effort to establish the foundations for a lasting peace. Accountability for war crimes was strikingly absent throughout the region, with the notable exception of the important work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which issued fifty-one indictments during the year.
One of the most devastating and long-term consequences of these conflicts was the massive dislocation of vulnerable populations. There were an estimated seven million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region in 1995, including over two million displaced by the war in the former Yugoslavia. Hundreds of thousands of IDPs and refugees were unable to return to their homes long after the cessation of hostilities in other areas because of the absence of a secure peace with guarantees for their safety, as well as for the prosecution of abusive government agents. In addition, hundreds of thousands of refugees from non-European countries sought refuge in the Helsinki region during the year.
This phenomenon of massive dislocation produced social and political instability in some areas, as well as an enormous economic burden on host countries and international organizations, that are likely to reverberate for years to come. One of the most pervasive repercussions was the escalation in xenophobia throughout the region, manifesting itself in state-sponsored abuses as well as both private and state-sponsored acts of violence. Refugees and IDPs, as well as immigrants and migrant workers, continued to be the most vulnerable populations and were often made scapegoats for a host of economic and social ills. Moreover, government officials often exacerbated xenophobic sentiment for their own political purposes.
Human rights featured prominently in foreign policy debates throughout the region during the year, reflecting the extent to which most governments now recognize that their human rights records are a legitimate concern in bilateral and multilateral relations. International organizations and governments were reluctant, however, to insist on concrete human rights improvement when faced with competing political and economic interests, unwilling to recognize the inextricable link between these goals. The tendency to opt for short-term political gains could be seen in numerous examples in the region, most notable of which was Bosnia. At the end of 1995, Europe faced an important challenge: to exploit immediate opportunities to resolve the region's worst conflicts without neglecting the prerequisites for long-term political stability and fundamental principles of tolerance and respect for individual liberties.
Human Rights Developments
There was also a decided deterioration in human rights in several countries that had only recently emerged from repressive communist systems and begun the transition to democracy. During 1995, a number of Helsinki countries backtracked in their commitments to human rights and democratic reform, ending the year with significantly poorer human rights records than in the recent past, among them Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia.
Russia's brutal war in Chechnya contributed to, and was the most glaring example of, the general deterioration in human rights in the Russian Federation during 1995. Throughout much of the war's first six months, government forces committed massive violations of humanitarian law, resulting in thousands of needless civilian casualties and hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. Chechen fighters also committed serious violations of humanitarian law. Despite a cease-fire agreement reached in July, little progress was made toward the withdrawal of Russian troops or the disarmament of Chechen fighters, and in early October, low-level hostilities resumed.
The Russian government too, in the area of individual rights, retreated from its human rights commitments, as it failed to continue needed legal reforms or to hold government agents accountable for a wide range of abuses. Instead, it introduced legislation, such as the Law on the Federal Security Services (FSB, formerly the KGB), which jeopardized individual rights and increased the unrestricted power of the state.
The government of Azerbaijan's President Heydar Aliyev, in its second year of crackdown against the political opposition, attempted to exclude parties from its parliamentary election and, when that failed due to international pressure, resorted to the arrest and criminal prosecution of political opponents. The Armenian government presided over a crackdown on religious minorities and suspended the largest and most popular opposition party. Similarly, Kazakstan's president dissolved parliament and in a popular referendum, reportedly riddled with irregularities, the 1996 presidential elections were canceled, allowing the president to remain uncontested in office until the year 2000.
Political dissent continued to be suppressed in Turkmenistan. In December 1994 elections, all candidates were nominated by the president and ran uncontested. In Uzbekistan, political opponents were arrested on fabricated charges of drug and arms possession; others were arrested and prosecuted for their nonviolent criticism.
The independent press, always a threat to abusive governments, came under systematic attack in several countries in the region. In Azerbaijan, the government arrested and prosecuted several journalists for critical speech perceived as insulting to the honor and dignity of the president. Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian closed twelve newspapers and news agencies allegedly associated with the suspended Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). Similar restrictions were reported in numerous other countries. In Turkey, journalists reporting on sensitive topics were systematically harassed, imprisoned, tortured and, in several cases, murdered.
Torture and other inhumane treatment in detention continued. Russian forces systematically beat and tortured Chechen men suspected of being rebel fighters in detention centers known as filtration camps. Two women in Uzbekistan were forced to undergo abortions while being held in detention by the National Security Service (former KGB). Peaceful Turkmen protesters were detained and some were reportedly severely beaten in Ashgabat. Death squad-style executions and deaths in detention continued in Turkey, although not at the record levels reported in 1993 and 1994. Torture continued to be systematic and disappearances while in police custody or after being detained by persons claiming to be police were widespread. Abusive authorities were rarely held accountable.
Police brutality was a chronic problem throughout the region, not only in the countries of eastern and central Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States, but also in western Europe, especially against ethnic and racial minorities and foreigners. Institutional and legal mechanisms to ensure accountability for such abuse and redress for the victims remained weak in many of the former communist countries.
The fighting in the former Yugoslavia came full circle during 1995. In July, Bosnian Serb forces summarily executed hundreds and possibly thousands of men and boys following the fall of the U.N.-declared "safe area" of Srebrenica. By November, 8,000 remained missing, many of them feared killed, from the fighting in northeastern Bosnia. Croatian forces also committed atrocities during and immediately following the recapture of the Krajina region. Property belonging to Serbs was looted, Serbian villages were burned, and elderly Serbs were summarily executed following the Croatian army's recapture of the area.
There was little or no effort to hold perpetrators accountable for gross violations in areas of former conflict. While cease-fires continued to hold in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Georgia), Nagorno-Karabakh, Moldova, and Tajikistan, the absence of accountability and justice for victims to varying degrees jeopardized human rights protection and hampered the return of some refugees and IDPs.
Those perceived as "different," whether minority citizens or foreigners, were made the scapegoats for a variety of social, economic and political ills. State-sponsored or -tolerated discrimination and violence against people of color was pervasive. Spurred by the war in Chechnya, the Russian government's campaign against dark-skinned people grew more brutal during 1995.
Xenophobic violence was rampant throughout eastern Europe, especially against the Roma minority, and in western Europe, hostility toward foreigners, immigrant workers, and national minorities also continued to be widespread. In Romania and Bulgaria, in a pattern consistent with recent years, law enforcement officials not only tolerated frequent attacks on Roma but often perpetrated them. "Skinhead" violence against Roma increased in the Czech and Slovak Republics and Hungary. Throughout the region, ethnic and racial tensions were often exacerbated by government officials for their own political gains. The lack of a concerted government response to such violence was routine in all of these countries. Victims of xenophobic violence rarely had adequate legal redress.
The Right to Monitor
Although human rights groups monitored the conflict in Chechnya, Russian authorities blocked access to several areas in the republic and Russian soldiers harassed some monitors. In Uzbekistan, in what appeared to be a bid for international support and approval, the government became more open to the presence of international governmental and nongovernmental organizations, but it remained hostile to domestic groups.
Human rights monitoring was severely restricted in Bosnian Serb-held territory throughout the year. Bosnian Croat forces and Bosnian government troops also obstructed access to territory they recaptured in western Bosnia in August and September. And Croatia denied access to both international governmental organizations and NGOs during and immediately after the Croatian Army offensive in western Slavonia in May and in the Krajina region in August. Serbia continued to impede access by international organizations to monitor abuses in Kosovo, Sandzak and Vojvodina.
The Turkish government systematically interfered with the efforts of both domestic and international human rights monitors. Many domestic human rights monitors, especially those working in or reporting on the southeast, were arrested, tortured and otherwise mistreated in custody. Others faced prosecution, primarily for their nonviolent expression.
The Role of the International Community
The international community's passivity in the face of massive human rights violations, including genocide, was the most appalling development during 1995, and had the most devastating implications for the future of international human rights protection. It became increasingly clear during the year that, despite international treaty obligations, there was insufficient political will to stop or prevent genocide. In a chilling show of indifference, the international community allowed the U.N.-declared "safe area" of Srebrenica to fall and its inhabitants to be slaughtered. As the U.S.-led peace negotiations between the warring parties convened in Dayton, Ohio in November, Human Rights Watch was deeply concerned that peace be negotiated, not at any cost but on the basis essential for a lasting peace: protection for endangered populations, the right to repatriation, and accountability for the perpetrators of atrocities.
By contrast, in the CIS, the international community was able to make a valuable contribution, helping to mitigate abuses. European institutions, in particular, forcefully condemned human rights violations in the region and linked economic and diplomatic assistance to concrete human rights improvements.
The United Nations
The United Nations remained impotent in the former Yugoslavia, particularly in Bosnia. The U.N.'s insistence on neutrality translated into yet another year of inaction on preventing war crimes and crimes against humanity and protecting civilian victims of such abuses. Arguably the U.N.'s largest failure in the former Yugoslavia came in July, when the U.N. refused to protect the so-called "safe area" of Srebrenica and its residents from massacre. Action against abusive Bosnian Serb troops was taken only after NATO assumed control of the decision-making process governing the use of force in Bosnia. By mid-1995, NATO had eclipsed the U.N. mission and the first sustained bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb military targets took place. Such strong action eventually forced the Bosnian Serbs to lift their siege of Sarajevo, allow humanitarian aid to reach the besieged enclave of Gorazde, and come to the negotiating table.
After three and a half years of watching rebel Serb forces expel non-Serbs from the so-called Krajina area of Croatia, U.N. personnel finally launched a serious effort to protect human rights in the region, mostly of Serbs who remained in the western Slavonia and Krajina regions after the Croatian Army recapture of these areas. The U.N. maintained a presence in Macedonia, successfully working to prevent the outbreak of war in that country. In Abkhazia and Tajikistan, United Nations personnel played an important peacekeeping role, preventing the renewal of widespread hostilities and facilitating peace talks among the parties.
The European Institutions
From the outset, the European Union, the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) strongly condemned humanitarian law violations in Chechnya and linked economic and diplomatic agreements with Russia to the cessation of violations and of military activities. Having played such a crucial role at the beginning of the conflict, however, the European institutions eased pressure on the Russian government before there had been any significant progress on accountability, and just as low-level hostilities again erupted in Chechnya.
The E.U. and the OSCE took a strong stand on human rights abuses in a number of other countries in the region, including: issuing démarches concerning a case of forced abortions in detention in Uzbekistan; adopting a resolution calling for commutation of the death sentences of two defendants who had been tortured in Georgia; adopting a resolution condemning Armenia for banning the Armenian Revolutionary Front and criticizing the government's closure of twelve newspapers.
In an important expansion of its work, the OSCE made a contribution to resolving the conflict in Chechnya by establishing the OSCE Assistance Group, headquartered in Grozny, to facilitate peace negotiations and monitor human rights. Unfortunately, its role in the peace negotiations took precedence over monitoring efforts, exhausting its resources and overwhelming its small staff. A similar mission in Tajikistan, despite expanding its mandate in July 1995 to include protection work for refugees and IDPs, as of this writing had not committed the necessary resources to allow it to successfully implement its mandate.
The European Union and its member states used their leverage to bring pressure to bear on the Turkish government's human rights record. Although the E.U. signed a "customs union agreement" with Turkey on March 6, it insisted that Turkey improve its human rights record as a condition for ratification. Similarly, while welcoming positive steps in legislative reform during the year, the E.U. insisted on additional progress on democratization and reduction in human rights abuses.
Confusion and inconsistency were prominent features of the U.S. response to serious human rights violations in the Helsinki region during 1995. The administration failed to exploit key opportunities throughout the year to further respect for human rights. There were some notable exceptions, such as Uzbekistan, and especially after mid-year, the former Yugoslavia, but in general the administration was slow to respond and erratic.
The Clinton administration's initial response to massive violations of humanitarian law by Russian forces in Chechnya was to dismiss the conflict as an "internal matter." The administration altered its position after its European partners condemned the slaughter by Russian forces. To its credit, the Clinton administration supported and actively lobbied for the establishment of the OSCE mission and addressed issues of accountability during high-level meetings with Russian officials.
Inconsistency emerged as the U.S. ambassador to Kazakstan hailed the dissolution of that nation's parliament as a "move to strengthen the rule of law", while Defense Secretary Perry criticized the move. The Clinton administration's criticism of human rights abuses in Turkey, notably strong public criticism by Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck, was rendered less effective by frequent and clear government statements that human rights would not interfere with relations between the two countries. The administration's human rights policy in the former Yugoslavia was similarly confused throughout the first half of the year, with numerous policy shifts.
By mid-year, however, the Clinton administration had finally assumed a leadership role in resolving the former Yugoslavia conflict, supporting NATO's use of force against Bosnian Serb forces in July and intensifying its own peace efforts. A U.S.-brokered cease-fire went into effect in Bosnia on October 12, and peace negotiations got underway in early November. Although the administration remained committed to accountability in the former Yugoslavia throughout much of the year, the U.S. opposition to an amnesty for war criminals became less clear once peace negotiations began.
The U.S. was the only country known to have placed human rights on its bilateral agenda with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It played an active role in monitoring violations and was willing to raise human rights concerns publicly in neighboring Uzbekistan, but shied away from public criticism in Turkmenistan.
The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki
One of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki's top priorities was to focus the attention of international and regional organizations on the human rights records of the region's most abusive governments, especially those that were seeking diplomatic and economic concessions, and to insist that all available leverage be used to obtain specific human rights commitments. We provided influential governments and international and regional organizations with regular, up-to-date documentation and analysis of human rights developments and recommended specific actions to address these concerns.
Having exposed clear and systematic violations of humanitarian law by Russia forces during three missions to Chechnya, we successfully urged the European Union to freeze its interim agreement with Russia, and the Council of Europe to suspend Russia's membership application. Our research staff, just back from documenting massive violations in the region, briefed the OSCE Permanent Council in February and called on that body to establish a semi-permanent presence in Chechnya. Again in July, we briefed the OSCE in Vienna, as well as the U.N. Human Rights Committee in Geneva, pressing for criminal accountability and urging that a special envoy be appointed to monitor and assist Russia in holding violators accountable.
In Bosnia, we concentrated on bringing pressure on the international community, and especially the U.S. government, to take action to protect the civilians in the U.N.-declared "safe areas" and insisting that international negotiators include comprehensive and specific human rights guarantees in any overall peace settlement.
We remained committed to documenting war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Our research staff documented the slaughter of men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces, as well as the U.N.'s mismanagement, during and immediately after the fall of Srebrenica in July, and investigated reports of large-scale disappearances in the Banja Luka area thereafter. Relying on our documentation of systematic violations in these regions, as well as on violations during and immediately after the Croatian offensives in western Slavonia and the Krajina region, we emphasized that accountability for the victims of abuses would have to be a critical component of any legitimate and stable peace agreement. We continued to supply evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia to the Tribunal and issued numerous appeals to ensure the tribunal's funding.
For Turkey and Georgia we found extensive evidence of torture and disappearances, and in Turkey's case death squad-style killings. Given abuses so serious, we insisted that the U.S. government and the European Union use their influence to elicit human rights progress. With regard to Turkey, we recommended that its approval as a member of the European customs union be delayed until human rights conditions improved and the government permitted international human rights investigators, including U.N. representatives, to carry out missions unimpeded.
Our staff investigated, among other things, the government's efforts to intimidate Turkish citizens who, having suffered serious human rights violations, had applied to the European Commission on Human Rights for redress. We also reported on violations of humanitarian law by the PKK guerrillas in Turkey and called on its leaders to abide by their December 1994 assertion that they would respect the Geneva Conventions.
As part of an ongoing campaign against xenophobia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki documented not only government-tolerated or -perpetrated violence but the ways in which governments often foster and manipulate xenophobic tensions for their own political gains. During 1995, we focused on manifestations of xenophobia in England, France, Hungary and Russia.
Our Moscow office devoted significant effort throughout the year to raising concerns about Russia's deteriorating human rights record, including critiquing numerous laws that limit individual liberties. Our office in Dushanbe monitored human rights abuses in post-war Tajikistan, focusing primarily on the treatment of those who had been displaced by the civil war and who were now trying to return to their homes. We initiated a dialogue with the OSCE regarding its missions to Tajikistan, Georgia and Chechnya.