Except for scoring a few mild protests for public consumption, the U.N and the U.S. haven't taken any worthwhile action to stop Russia's continued carnage in Chechnya. For three long wintry months, they have ignored the cries of humanity trapped and ravaged by Russian forces in the Chechen cities. Now they are turning a deaf ear even to credible calls for investigation of Russia's war crimes in Chechnya.
On December 21, 1999, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the United NationsSecurity Council to appoint an independent inquiry commission to investigate violations of the laws of war by Russian forces operating in Chechnya. In a letter to all 15 members of the Security Council, the organization said such a commission could deter some of the mounting atrocities and thereby save the lives of many innocent civilians. Citing the examples of Kosova and East Timor, the organization urged consistency in investigating atrocities and asked Russia not to use its veto against such a Security Council initiative.
Since the beginning of the Russian assault, HWR has released numerous research reports showing how Russian attacks on Chechen towns and villages inhabited by civilians have systematically killed and maimed untold numbers of people. HRW has also reported on how Russian forces have trampled the rights of displaced Chechens, and how they have massacred civilians without trial under their custody. After Russia's October 21 attack on the Grozny Central Market that killed 140 civilians and maimed several hundreds, a HRW release of civilian testimonies suggested that the assault was a serious violation of the laws of war. A December 11 release described how Russian troops went on a rampage, killing 41 civilians, looting and burning homes in the Chechen village of Alkhan-Yurt.
Consider some other headlines from the releases of HRW:
"Russian Forces Fire on Fleeing Civilians" (November 18, 1999).
"Russian Troops Attack Hospital Staff at Zakan-Iurt, Chechnya" (November 23, 1999).
"Looting Underway in Russian-Controlled Areas of Chechnya/Russian Soldiers Stripping Homes Bare" (November 24, 1999).
[Trapped] "Civilians in Grozny Facing Death, Possible Starvation" (December 6, 1999).
"Bribery and Abuse along New Escape Route out of Chechnya/ Russian Soldiers at Checkpoints Extorting and Beating Chechens" (December 14, 1999)
"Chechen Refugees Pressured to Return Camp Authorities Cut Rations for Some" (December 17, 1999).
Corroborated by Western correspondents covering the war from inside or around Chechnya, these reports speak volumes for the magnitude of war crimes the Russian forces are committing in Chechnya. According to The Concise Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, "three classes of offenses are recognized as war crimes: crimes against peace, e.g., planning or waging a war of aggression; conventional war crimes, or violations of the accepted laws or customs of warfare; and crimes against humanity, including extermination, enslavement, deportation and other inhumane acts. From Nov. 1945 to Oct. 1946 a tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, established by Britain, France, the USSR, and the U.S., tried Nazi leaders for war such crimes."
In written commentaries gathered by the Crimes of War Project, based at American University, Washington, D.C., the international legal experts have agreed that the laws of war apply to both Russian and Chechen forces. They have rejected the Russian claim that the conflict is a "police" or "anti-terrorist" action. The Geneva conventions of 1949 that Russia ratified on May 10, 1954 and other principles of international law that Russia agrees to, forbid attacks even at legitimate military targets if they are indiscriminate or disproportionately harmful to civilians.
Despite the mounting evidence and despite Russia's effective barring of international journalists from covering the scene, the international community is ignoring calls for investigation of Russian atrocities. The Russian government is reading this as an okay for its bloody campaign. They understand that the delay in the transfer of $500 million in loan guarantees to the Russian state-affiliated company Tyumen Oil, which Clinton ordered recently, is a token sanction for public consumption only. After all, the Clinton administration is not scaling back other assistance programs for Russia.
In a similar fashion, western governments rewarded Russia during and immediately after its 1994-1996 invasion of Chechnya. At that time, the Russia forces killed more than 100,000 people and turned the economic infrastructure of Chechnya to rubble. But western nations maintained business as usual, never asking Russia to account for the massive destruction of the Chechen lives and property. According to HRW, in the spring of 1995, when Russia overran Chechnya after months of bombardment, the IMF released $6.2 billion of a massive loan program and the European Union granted Russia its version of most favored nation trading status. In January 1996, when the Russians were leveling villages still held by the Chechen freedom-fighters, the Council of Europe, an intergovernmental organization for the promotion of democracy and human rights, voted to admit Russia, contradicting its own human rights policies.
Grozny is already rubble and may have already turned into another Srebrenica. There's little left undestroyed, though perhaps there are still chances for saving some of the estimated 40,000 civilians trapped by Russian gunfire in the cellars of the destroyed buildings.
The current international apathy in taking action is a shame for humanity and in itself is reprehensible. The U.N., the Muslim countries, Europe, and the U.S. must more strongly ask Russia to immediately stop the bloodbath in Chechnya. They must ask Russia to offer itself for war crimes inquiry and allow outside relief works and journalists unfettered entry to Chechnya. If Russians don't listen let excruciating sanctions cut of their lifeblood for waging the war.
Mohammad A. Auwal is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Los Angeles and is a regular columnist for iviews.com