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Conscript soldiers in Russia performing their first year of compulsory military service are routinely denied adequate food and access to medical care, in violation of their human rights. As a result, many go hungry or develop serious health problems, including pneumonia and festering sores, as minor health concerns remain untreated. In several dramatic cases, this treatment has led to the death of conscripts or permanently damaged their health.

Human Rights Watch documented cases of denial of adequate food and medical care to first-year conscripts from more than fifty military units throughout Russia. Taken together with long-standing reports by Russian nongovernmental organizations devoted to conscripts’ rights, this research indicates that conscripts throughout Russia have endured these privations for years. Their diet falls short of the Russian military’s nutritional standard for soldiers, as it often lacks meat or green vegetables. The food conscripts do receive is often of poor quality, rotten, or bug-infested. The abusive and violent hazing of first-year conscripts that has made Russia’s military notorious extends to the mess hall: senior conscripts prevent junior conscripts from eating enough food, and forcibly confiscate younger conscripts’ most desirable food.

Internal army standards require careful monitoring of the health of conscripts and adequate access to medical care. But in practice, monitoring mechanisms are often simply ignored or are ineffective. The hazing system prevents many first-year conscripts from seeking medical care for minor health problems, as they fear repercussions from senior conscripts. In some cases senior soldiers harass and beat conscripts after they seek medical care. In others, conscripts’ commanding officers and even doctors deny conscripts’ requests for medical care. Conscripts who overcome these obstacles and seek medical treatment at on-base sick bays often complain the care they receive is substandard.1 Conscripts frequently fall ill with pneumonia repeatedly during their service. For many others, infected small cuts become festering sores. These major health problems are entirely preventable, if adequate and timely health care is provided.

In some cases we documented, the denial of adequate food and medical care had grave consequences. Viacheslav Turov, a nineteen-year-old conscript from the Siberian city of Novokuznetsk, died in 2001 from complications of double pneumonia after only three and a half months in the military. Early in his service, he had complained in a letter to his parents about losing seven kilograms in just a few weeks because of an inadequate diet. The post-mortem report identified malnutrition as having contributed to his death. Later, an officer received a two-year suspended prison sentence in relation to Turov’s death.

Violent hazing continues in many on-base sickbays and in some military hospitals, where senior soldiers beat or otherwise ill-treat first-years, or force them under threat of abuse to perform a variety of humiliating chores. In at least one case, the victim committed suicide after a night of particularly cruel treatment. The systematic nature of the hazing signifies a widespread dereliction of the obligation of officers to protect conscripts against ill-treatment. Violent hazing is a separate topic of Human Rights Watch research.

Although these problems have plagued Russia’s military for years, the government does not appear to have taken any measures to address them. The Russian Ministry of Defense and its Military Medical Commission refused to meet with Human Rights Watch to discuss our findings. In a written response to Human Rights Watch’s request for a meeting to gain information about soldiers’ diets, the Ministry of Defense flatly denied harassment and hazing in canteens, acknowledging only that occasionally food disappears as a result of a dereliction of duty by “individual officials.”

The Russian government’s failure to provide adequate food and medical care to conscripts violates its obligations under domestic regulations and under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The government should take real steps to stop these abuses. It should work to restore the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms set out in the Code of Military Conduct aimed at ensuring that soldiers receive an adequate diet, monitoring their health, and ensuring effective access to health services when necessary. These steps should include:

  • Investigations by the general staff of the armed forces and an independent outside body, such as Russia’s ombudsman, should examine the reasons why existing enforcement mechanisms are not effective. These investigations should draw up steps to change the shortcomings identified and suggest additional mechanisms that can effectively prevent violations of the rights of soldiers.

  • The armed forces and military procuracy (office of the prosecutor) should institute mechanisms to ensure the protection of soldiers’ rights; they should hold accountable all officers and lower ranking personnel who infringe upon any soldier’s right to adequate food or health care, or who interfere with state and military mechanisms to protect and enforce those rights.

  • The government should establish a permanent monitoring mechanism, possibly by creating an ombudsman for military servicemen, to ensure the existing standards are consistently and appropriately implemented.

  • The government should promptly ratify the European Social Charter.

In addition:

  • The Council of Europe should encourage Russia to ratify the Charter at the earliest possible date and should provide training on its provisions.

  • The U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights should carefully examine the violations of rights of Russian soldiers to adequate food and health care when it considers Russia’s fourth periodic report on the implementation of the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in November 2003.

  • The international community should help advance the recommendations put forward in this report by raising them during appropriate bilateral and multilateral dialogues with the Russian government.

  • The U.S. government, the European Union and its member states, and other donors should provide adequate assistance to the work of soldiers’ rights organizations in Russia, which are providing life-saving services in Russia.

This is the second in a series of Human Rights Watch reports on human rights abuses in the Russian military. To research it, Human Rights Watch conducted more than hundred interviews with conscripts, their parents, officials, lawyers, NGO experts, and former military servicemen in 2001 and 2002. The interviews were done in Cheliabinsk, Moscow, Novokuznetsk, Novosibirsk, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok, and Volgograd. The conscripts served on more than one fifty bases in more than twenty-five of Russia’s eighty-nine provinces.2 We also extensively studied the archive files of several soldiers’ rights groups.

The majority of the men interviewed for this report did not serve their full two-year term of military service. Many ran away from their units during their first year of service because of violent hazing; others were discharged in their first year for health or other reasons. This report therefore relates primarily to the right to adequate food and medical care for conscripts in their first year of service.

1 In the course of its research, Human Rights Watch received anecdotal evidence indicating that the quality of health care provided in on-base sickbays and military hospitals is generally poor. However, due to our lack of access to sickbays, military hospitals, military medical staff and medical files, we are not able to draw general conclusions on the quality of the health services provided in these institutions.

2 The conscripts interviewed for this report, many of whom served on more than one base, served on bases in, among others: the Republic of North Ossetia, the Republic of Dagestan, the Republic of Komi, Amur Province, Astrakhan Province, Cheliabinsk Province, Chita Province, Kemerovo Province, Leningrad Province, Moscow Province, Murmansk Province, Novosibirsk Province, Orenburg Province, Pskov Province, Rostov Province, Samara Province, Sverdlovsk Province, Tiumen Province, Volgograd Province, Khabarovsk Region, Krasnodar Region, Krasnoyarsk Region, Primorsk Region, Stavropol Region, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and others.

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November 2003