Modern Russia has had a conscription army since 1918.3 In recent years, approximately 400,000 young men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven are drafted each year for two years of service in the regular army, the Ministry of Internal Affairs forces, border troops, or other branches of Russia’s vast armed forces.4 Violent hazing and other abuses of conscripts are endemic and have resulted in thousands of young men fleeing their units every year. Persistent reports of hazing, malnutrition, and poor medical care cause massive draft evasion, especially in the more affluent parts of Russia. As young men approach conscription age, they and their parents become anxious about the perils of military service, and begin looking for ways, both legal and illegal, to avoid it.5 Abuse in the military has also given rise to immense public antipathy toward conscription. Recent opinion polls show that most Russians support the abolishment of the conscription system and prefer a fully professional army.6 The Russian government’s plans for military reform envisage a reduction in the number of men to be drafted and in the length of service, but retain conscription for the foreseeable future.7
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a profound public health crisis has plagued Russia. General health in all parts of the population has deteriorated and life expectancy in Russia lags far behind that in Western Europe.8 A recent countrywide pediatric health study found that 67 percent of 31.6 million Russians eighteen years old and under suffer from health problems, with bronchial and respiratory illnesses being particularly common.9 Another study found that half the country's expectant mothers are undernourished and two-thirds of Russian babies are born with health problems.10
Violations of the rights to adequate nutrition and medical care in the Russian armed forces must be seen in this context. The privations many conscripts suffer may exacerbate the fragile health they were in when they entered the military. Commenting on the poor health of Russia’s conscripts and their social background, a top Russian general said at an April 2003 press conference, “the military contingent [the conscripts] that we have reflects the condition of our society.”11 In fact, the general’s grim statement may have been overly optimistic: the approximately 400,000 young men drafted into Russia’s armed forces each year generally come from the least affluent parts of society, as many young men from middle or upper class families successfully find ways to avoid the highly unpopular military service.12 Many of those drafted also have a history of alcohol and drug abuse.
Medical commissions that determine whether candidate conscripts are fit for military service typically declare more than 30 percent of those examined unfit.13 Yet, in a crunch to fulfill draft quotas, each year the commissions also declare many young men fit for service despite health problems that, under Russian law, should disqualify them. Human Rights Watch research in the archives of soldiers’ rights organizations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Volgograd and other Russian cities found numerous cases of young men who were discharged from the armed forces for health conditions that predated their draft order. In interviews, dozens of conscripts told Human Rights Watch that the medical examinations they underwent had been superficial and that physicians had failed to pay due attention to their health problems.
The violent hazing of first-year conscripts that is endemic in many units of Russia’s armed forces further ruins the health of conscript soldiers. Numerous conscripts described to Human Rights Watch how senior conscript soldiers, known as dedy, systematically bullied them in their first year of service, making them perform degrading chores and physical exercises, and demanding money, alcohol, food, and cigarettes from them.14 Refusal to comply led to beatings, which most said were routine throughout their first year of service. Many conscript soldiers also said that, at times, they faced far more serious ill-treatment or even torture, both in retribution and gratuitously, including beatings with heavy objects, beatings while they were suspended in painful positions, scorching of skin with lit cigarettes, and sexual abuse.
Under international law, everyone has a right to adequate food and to the highest attainable standard of health.15 The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the body that monitors states parties’ compliance with the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, has affirmed that a positive obligation for states exists with regard to certain groups that are “unable, for reasons beyond their control,” to enjoy the right to adequate food or medical care by the means at their disposal.16 Conscripts fit this criterion, as they live in custodial circumstances—they are not allowed to leave their base without prior permission from their commander and may be administratively or criminally punished should they do so—and generally do not have access to alternative sources of food or medical care.17
From the perspective of international human rights law, military conscripts are an exceptional group. The special mission of the armed forces may justify restrictions on their rights that far exceed those that may be placed on almost any other group. For example, ordering a prisoner to crawl through the mud for several hours would almost certainly constitute degrading treatment. Such an order from a military commander to conscripts during field training would be a legitimate part of a soldier’s preparation for battlefield conditions. Similarly, temporary deprivation of food can also be a legitimate part of a conscript soldier’s training.
International human rights law includes standards for minimum treatment of persons in state custody or otherwise deprived of their liberty, for example prisoners or people detained because of mental disabilities.18 These standards set limits on such restrictions, and impose on states positive obligations to provide for the well-being of those in state custody. No such standards exist for conscripts.19 However, in its case-law, the European Court of Human Rights has consistently held that, while certain restrictions placed on specific rights of military servicemen may be necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the army, these may not serve to altogether negate a basic right.20
From this principle, Human Rights Watch has derived three criteria for determining the lawfulness of restrictions on conscripts’ rights:
1. Restrictions of conscripts’ rights should have a legitimate purpose related to the specific mission of the armed forces;
2. They must be shown to have been planned, and may not be arbitrary;
3. They may not unjustifiably threaten the health or well being of the conscript.
Our research found that the denial of food and medical care to Russian conscripts did not meet these criteria. This treatment is driven not by military necessity but by arbitrary cruelty and negligence.
3 Conscript and professional soldiers make up rank-and-file soldiers and sergeants in the Russian armed forces; in peacetime, conscript soldiers far outnumber professional (contract) soldiers. Higher ranks are made up of professional soldiers.
4 Article 2 of the Law on the Conscription Obligation and Military Service of March 28, 1998 contains a full list of all branches where conscripts may serve:
Military service is a special kind of federal state service, which citizens perform in the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, as well as in the border troops of the Russian Federation, the interior troops of the Ministry of Interior of the Russian Federation, the railway troops of the Russian Federation, troops of the federal agency for government communication and information under the president of the Russian Federation, civil defense troops (hereinafter–other troops), engineering-technical and road construction military formations of federal executive organs (hereinafter–military formations), the foreign intelligence service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the organs of the Federal Border Service of the Russian Federation, the federal organs for government communication and information, the federal organs of state security (in Russian: gosudarstvennoi okhrany), the federal organ for ensuring mobilization preparedness of the organs of state power of the Russian Federation (hereinafter–the organs) and in special formations created for time of war.
5 Throughout Russia it is overwhelmingly the mothers of recruitment-age males who actively seek to prevent their conscription.
6 According to a report of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 60 percent of Russians support a transition to a professional army (See: Theodore P. Gerber and Sarah E. Mendelson, "Strong Public Support for Military Reform in Russia," PONARS Policy Memo 288, May 2003 at http://www.csis.org/ruseura/ponars/policymemos/pm_index.htm (accessed September 25, 2003)).
7 A government plan adopted in July 2003 envisages decreasing the number of young men drafted each year by about 50 percent and cutting the length of mandatory military service from two years to one year by 2008.
8 Between 1990-99, life expectancy for men and women was well below the average in Western European countries or the United States. In Russia, a man could expect to live to sixty-one (as compared to seventy-four in Germany and seventy-three in the United States) and a woman to seventy-three (as compared to eighty in Germany and the United States).
9 The report was cited in: “33% of Kids Healthy,” Associated Press, March 11, 2003.
10 The report was cited in: Steven Eke, “Survey: 60% of Russian children unhealthy,” British Broadcasting Corporation, December 16, 2002.
11 “Top general laments quality of conscripts,” Associated Press, April 9, 2003
12 Human Rights Watch, “Conscription through Detention in Russia’s Armed Forces,” A Human Rights Watch Short Report, Vol. 14, No. 8 (D), November 2002.
13 A Ministry of Defense official told a press conference in April 2002 that in 2001, doctors on draft boards found no less than 54 percent of the young men tested unfit for military service (see: www.utro.ru/articles/2002040216595170289.shtml (accessed on September 3, 2002). Another official said that for the 400,000 young men drafted some 600,000 young men are declared unfit each year (see: "More than half of Russians unfit to serve in army: general," Agence France-Presse, November 29, 2001). Russian law contains a long list of medical grounds that exempt an individual from performing military service temporarily or permanently. The law on military service establishes five categories of fitness of conscript candidates: A – fully fit for military service; B – fit for military service with minor restrictions; C – partially fit for military service; D – temporarily unfit for military service; and E – unfit for military service. Conscript candidates who are classified in category A and B are considered fit for military service, although category B excludes service in certain types of units. People classified in category C do not have to serve in peacetime but may be drafted in time of war. The fitness of conscript candidates in category D is re-examined within a year (Article 24 (1a) of the law on military service). Those placed in category E cannot be drafted even in time of war. An appendix to the Regulation on the Military Medical Examination (confirmed by Decision No. 390 of the government of the Russian Federation of April 20, 1995) contains a list of medical conditions and the relevant categories. The appendix can be found at: http://www.hro.org/docs/rlex/milexp/index.htm (accessed on August 23, 2002).
14 Hazing in the armed forces is popularly known in Russia as “dedovshina.” The term “ded,” a short form for “dedushka,” or grandfather, refers to senior conscripts.
15 See the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 49, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 993 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force Jan. 3, 1976.articles 11 &12. Russia, then the Soviet Union, ratified the covenant in 1973.
16 General Comment 12. The Right to Adequate Food, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 20th sess., 1999, para. 15. See: http://www.unhchr.ch/tbs/doc.nsf/(symbol)/E.C.12.1999.5,+CESCR+General+comment+12.En?OpenDocument (accessed on October 24, 2003). The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides authoritative interpretations of the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights though the periodic issuance of General Comments.
17 Conscripts depend almost entirely on the government to provide them with food. Conscripts are supposed to receive a small stipend for cigarettes each month. However, most conscripts Human Rights Watch interviewed said they never received the money or said senior soldiers immediately confiscated it. Many soldiers also told Human Rights Watch that senior soldiers also confiscated any food they received through parcels and from visiting relatives.
18 See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) , G.A. res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force Mar. 23, 1976, article 10 (“All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”). General Comment 21 of the Human Rights Committee states that article 10 “applies to any one deprived of liberty under the laws and authority of the State who is held in prisons, hospitals - particularly psychiatric hospitals – detention camps or correctional institutions or elsewhere. States parties should ensure that the principle stipulated therein is observed in all institutions and establishments within their jurisdiction where persons are being held. Human Rights Committee, General Comment 21, Article 10 (Forty-fourth session, 1992), para. 2,
The rights of prisoners are set out in various international instruments, including the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, approved by the Economic and Social Council by its resolutions 663 C (XXIV) of July 31, 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of May 13, 1977, and the European Prison Rules, adopted by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers in its recommendation No. R(87)3 of February 12, 1987. The rights of people in mental institutions are delineated in the UN Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and for the Improvement of Mental Health Care, adopted by the General Assembly Resolution number 46/119 of February 18, 1992, and by the Council of Europe’s Committee of Minister’s Recommendation No. R(83)2 “Concerning the Legal Protection of Persons Suffering from Mental Disorder Placed as Involuntary Patients.”
19 The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) has recognized the need for guidelines on the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to the special circumstances of conscripts in military service. In 1998, PACE recommended that the Committee of Ministers formulate such guidelines. See resolution 1166(1998), Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, adopted September 22, 1998.
20 In Engel and others v. the Netherlands case (Judgment of June 8, 1976), the European Court of Human Rights laid down a general rule on the applicability of the European Convention on Human Rights to military servicemen. It held that:
Applying this general rule to the concrete circumstances of the Engel case, in which the applicants alleged that the measures of military discipline they were subjected to violated their right to liberty, the Court held that “the bounds that Article 5 (art. 5) requires the State not to exceed are not identical for servicemen and civilians. A disciplinary penalty or measure which on analysis would unquestionably be deemed a deprivation of liberty were it to be applied to a civilian may not possess this character when imposed upon a serviceman. Nevertheless, such penalty or measure does not escape the terms of Article 5 (art. 5) when it takes the form of restrictions that clearly deviate from the normal conditions of life within the armed forces of the Contracting State” (para. 59).
The Court has also ruled that a state’s right to impose restrictions on the rights to respect for the private life and freedom of expression of servicemen due to the particular characteristics of military life is not unlimited. In the Lustig-Prean case (Judgment of September 27, 1999), the applicants complained that the authorities had investigated their sexual orientation and dismissed them from the armed forces on account of their homosexuality. They alleged that both the investigation and the dismissal violated their right to respect for their private lives. The Court held that “it is open to the State to impose restrictions on an individual’s right to respect for his private life where there is a real threat to the armed forces’ operational effectiveness, as the proper functioning of an army is hardly imaginable without legal rules designed to prevent service personnel from undermining it. However, the national authorities cannot rely on such rules to frustrate the exercise by individual members of the armed forces of their right to respect for their private lives, which right applies to service personnel as it does to others within the jurisdiction of the State” (para. 82)
In the Vereinigung Demokratischer Soldaten Österreichs und Gubi v Austria case (Judgment of December 19, 1994), the applicants alleged that the decision by the Austrian Ministry of Defense not to distribute a magazine about the armed forces to servicemen while distributing all other such magazines constituted a violation of freedom of expression. The government argued that the magazine presented a “threat to discipline and to the effectiveness of the army” and this justified its decision not to distribute it. The Court held that “none of the issues of der Igel [name of the publication] submitted in evidence recommend disobedience or violence, or even question the usefulness of the army. Admittedly, most of the issues set out complaints, put forward proposals for reforms or encourage readers to institute legal complaints or appeals proceedings. However, despite their often polemical tenor, it does not appear that they overstepped the bounds of what is permissible in the context of a mere discussion of ideas, which must be tolerated in the army of a democratic State just as it must be in the society that such an army serves” (para. 38).