Sunday, March 26, 2006

End the Silence Over Chechnya (Democratiya)

The latest issue of Democratiya carries this important appeal signed by Andre Glucksmann, Vaclav Havel, Prince Hassan bin Talal, Frederik Willem de Klerk, Mary Robinson, Yohei Sasakawa, Karel Schwarzenberg, George Soros, and Desmond Tutu. (This rather cosmopolitan group includes several Nobel Peace Prize winners, former UN Human Rights Commissioner & Irish President Mary Robinson, former democratic activist and then Czech President Vaclav Havel, democracy-promoting philanthropist George Soros, and Prince Hassan of Jordan, the politically influential brother of the former King Hussein.) As they correctly argue, the "dreadful and endless war" in Chechnya, marked by enormous suffering and by horrifying brutality on all sides, has been all but ignored by the alleged international community. It deserves some serious attention. --Jeff Weintraub

End the Silence Over Chechnya

It is extremely difficult for an honest observer to break through the closed doors that separate Chechnya from the rest of the world. Indeed, no one even knows how many civilian casualties there have been in ten years of war.

According to estimates by non-governmental organizations, the figure is between 100,000 (that is, one civilian out of ten) and 300,000 (one out of four). How many voters participated in the November 2005 elections? Between 60 and 80%, according to Russian authorities; around 20%, reckon independent observers. The blackout imposed on Chechnya prevents any precise assessment of the devastating effects of a ruthless conflict.
But censorship cannot completely hide the horror. Under the world’s very eyes, a capital – Grozny, with 400,000 inhabitants – has been razed for the first time since Hitler’s 1944 punishment of Warsaw. Such inhumanity cannot plausibly be described as “anti-terrorism,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin insists. The Russian military leadership claims to be fighting against a party of 700 to 2,000 combatants. What would be said if the British government had bombed Belfast, or if the Spanish government bombed Bilbao, on the pretext of quelling the IRA or the ETA?
And yet the world remains silent in the face of the looting of Grozny and other Chechen towns and villages. Are Chechen women, children and all Chechen civilians less entitled to respect than the rest of mankind? Are they still considered human? Nothing can excuse the seeming indifference displayed by our worldwide silence.
In Chechnya, our basic morality is at stake. Must the world accept the rape of girls who were kidnapped by the occupying forces or their militias? Should we tolerate the murder of children and the abduction of boys to be tortured, broken, and sold back to their families, alive or dead? What about “filtration” camps, or “human firewood”? What about the villages exterminated to set an example? A few NGO’s and some brave Russian and Western reporters have witnessed countless crimes. So we cannot say “we did not know.”
Indeed, the fundamental principle of democracies and civilized states is at issue in Chechnya: civilians’ right to life, including the protection of innocents, widows, and orphans. International agreements and the United Nations Charter are as binding in Chechnya as anywhere else. The right of nations to self-determination does not imply the right of rulers to dispose of their people.
The fight against terrorism is also at stake. Who has not yet realized that the Russian army is actually behaving like a group of pyromaniac firefighters, fanning the fires of terrorism through its behavior? After ten years of a large-scale repression, the fire, far from going out, is spreading, crossing borders, setting Northern Caucasus ablaze and making combatants even more fierce.
How much longer can we ignore the fact that, in raising the bogeyman of “Chechen terrorism,” the Russian government is suppressing the liberties gained when the Soviet empire collapsed? The Chechen war both masks and motivates the reestablishment of a central power in Russia – bringing the media back under state control, passing laws against NGO’s, and reinforcing the “vertical line of power” – leaving no institutions and authorities able to challenge or limit the Kremlin. War, it seems, is hiding a return to autocracy.
Sadly, wars in Chechnya have been going on for 300 years. They were savage colonial conflicts under the Czar and almost genocidal under Stalin, who deported the whole Chechen population, a third of which perished during their transfer to the Gulag.
Because we reject colonial and exterminating ventures, because we love Russian culture and believe that Russia can bloom in a democratic future, and because we believe that terrorism – whether by stateless groups or state armies – should be condemned, we demand that the world’s blackout on the Chechen issue must end. We must help Russia’s authorities escape from the trap they set for themselves and into which they fell, putting not only Chechens and Russians, but the world at risk.
It would be tragic if, during the G8 summit scheduled for St. Petersburg, Russia, in June 2006, the Chechen issue were pushed to the side. This dreadful and endless war needs to be discussed openly if it is to end peacefully.


[P.S. It would be quite wrong to suggest that Russian troops are the only ones who have been committing atrocities in Chechnya, and I would be unhappy if anyone thought I was implying that. Let me repeat some comments I made at the time of the Beslan massacre in September 2004, when over 300 civilian hostages, including 186 children, were murdered by Chechen terrorists:
To avoid any possible misunderstanding, I want to emphasize some further points as clearly and forcefully as I can. None of this criticism of the Beslan atrocity, and of the kind of terrorism it exemplifies, in any way justifies or excuses the fact that Russia has been fighting an incredibly brutal, destructive, and often appalling war in Chechnya, marked by extensive atrocities (on both sides!), massive civilian deaths, and pervasive violations of the laws of war, including murder, rape and kidnapping of civilians by Russian troops and security services. However, the opposite is also true. Nothing about the Russian war in Chechnya in any way justifies or excuses this kind of terrorist massacre, which ought to be unreservedly condemned whatever one thinks about the Chechen war.
--Jeff Weintraub]