Doc. 8631

25 January 2000

The conflict in Chechnya

Opinion1

Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

Rapporteur: Mr Rudolf Bindig, Germany, Socialist Group

I.       Conclusions of the committee

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights concludes that:

1.       The scale of Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya cannot be justified in terms of a pure anti-terrorist operation. The committee, while unreservedly condemning terrorist acts and violations of human rights and international humanitarian law perpetrated by Chechen fighters, condemns the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by the Russian Federal forces in the strongest possible terms.

2.       As a result of this indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, innocent non-combatants in Chechnya are suffering most serious violations of such fundamental human rights as the right to life, the right to liberty and to security.

3.       Russia is thus found to be violating some of her most important obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights and international humanitarian law, as well as the commitments she entered into upon accession to the Council of Europe, “to settle international as well as internal disputes by peaceful means” and “to respect strictly the provisions of international humanitarian law, including in cases of armed conflict on its territory”.

4.       The committee considers that these violations are so severe in their nature that a concrete reaction by the Assembly is needed now, and that the Assembly cannot content itself with appeals for the violations to cease, with demands for the institution of an immediate cease-fire and the start of negotiations without pre-conditions - demands which the Assembly already made in November and December 1999, and which were not followed by the Russian authorities.

5.        In reaction to these violations the Assembly must act in a way which takes account, on the one hand, of the Council of Europe’s duty to defend its principles and standards, as embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Statute, but which also, on the other hand, makes it possible for the Assembly, together with the Russian parliamentary delegation, to search for ways to solve the conflict in Chechnya in a manner which is consistent with the Council of Europe’s principles and standards.

6.        The committee thus recommends that the Assembly make use of the possibility offered by Rule 8.5.c. of the new Rules of Procedure, that the credentials of the Russian parliamentary delegation be ratified, but that their voting rights – either in the Assembly as a whole, or in its committees and the Bureau - be withdrawn until there is substantial progress in respect of the situation in Chechnya.

7.       The committee accordingly proposes the following amendments to the draft recommendation submitted by the Political Affairs Committee:

Amendment A:

In paragraph 7, add at the end the following text:

“As a result of this indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, innocent non-combatants in Chechnya are suffering most serious violations of such fundamental human rights as the right to life, the right to liberty and to security.”

Amendment B:

After paragraph 7, add the following new paragraph:

“Russia is thus found to be violating some of her most important obligations under both the European Convention on Human Rights and international humanitarian law, as well as the commitments she entered into upon accession to the Council of Europe.”

Amendment C:

After paragraph 7, add a second new paragraph as follows:

“The Assembly considers that the military operations of the Russian Federal forces in Chechnya violate the rule of law, since the scale of these operations is not covered by the law on the fight against organised crime, but no emergency situation was declared, so that the operations are arbitrary and not regulated by law.”

Amendment D:

In paragraph 10, add, at the end of the paragraph, the following text:

“as long as they are in accordance with internationally accepted norms and standards”.

Amendment E:

In paragraph 14, add at the beginning of the first sub-paragraph:

“to introduce an immediate and complete cease-fire and, in particular,”.

Amendment F:

In paragraph 14, fourth sub-paragraph, replace the word “avoid” with:

“refrain from”.

Amendment G:

In paragraph 14, sixth sub-paragraph, to replace the words “to create conditions allowing” with:

“to allow”.

Amendment H:

In paragraph 15, fourth sub-paragraph, add after the word “provides” the words:

“after the cessation of hostilities”

and add after the word “policies” the words:

“in conformity with the norms and principles of the Council of Europe”.

Amendment I:

Add, at the end of paragraph 16, the following text:

“In the meantime, and until there is substantial progress in respect of the situation in Chechnya as outlined in paragraph 14, the voting rights of the Russian parliamentary delegation in the Assembly shall be suspended in accordance with Rule 8.5.c. of the Rules of Procedure.”

II. Explanatory memorandum by Mr Bindig

A. Introduction

1.       The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights appointed me its Rapporteur on the conflict in Chechnya at its meeting in Paris on 10 January 2000. In this capacity I took part in the visit of the ad hoc committee of the Bureau to Moscow, Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia from 16 to 20 January 2000. This opinion is thus based on information gathered during this visit, both in official meetings in Moscow2, Dagestan3 and Ingushetia4, and in informal discussions with local residents and internally displaced persons in the Dagestani town of Botlikh, the Chechen town of Gudermes, the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt and the camp for internally displaced persons in Karabulak (Ingushetia).

2.        However, due to the fact that the ad hoc committee was unable to visit some of the places it had expressed the desire to see (in particular, the Chechen villages of Assinovskaya and Sernovodsk, and a checkpoint/filtration point on the Chechen-Ingush border), and, of course, unable to hear the opinion of the Chechen side, I will also rely on written reports from international and non-governmental organisations. Furthermore, I will take into account the written reply provided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation to the request by the Secretary General under Article 52 of the European Convention on Human Rights5.

3.        The political situation in Chechnya will be assessed by Lord Judd, Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee; Mr Iwinski, Rapporteur of the Committee on Migration, Refugees and Demography, will deal with the issues of humanitarian aid and the situation of internally displaced persons. In this opinion, I will thus concentrate on a legal analysis of the (non)fulfilment of Russia’s obligations and commitments as a member state of the Council of Europe and as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Second Protocol.

B. Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Russian side

i.       Russia’s commitments and obligations

4.       Upon accession to the Council of Europe, Russia entered into certain commitments, which were laid down in Opinion No. 193 (1996) on Russia’s request for membership of the Council of Europe and agreed to (in writing) by the then Heads of State, Government and both Chambers of Parliament. Paragraph 10 vii. of this Opinion obliges the Russian Federation “to settle international as well as internal disputes by peaceful means”. In paragraph xxiv., Russia furthermore committed itself “to respect strictly the provisions of international humanitarian law, including in cases of armed conflict on its territory”.

5.        Russia, as a member state of the Council of Europe, is also obliged to respect the organisation’s statute, Article 3 of which reads: “Every Member of the Council of Europe must accept the principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within its jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms […].”. Furthermore, Russia has ratified the European Convention on Human Rights and most of its Protocols, which, inter alia, guarantee the right to life, the right to liberty and security, protect private property and prohibit torture and inhuman and degrading punishment and treatment.

6.        Furthermore, Russia, as the legal successor to the Soviet Union, is bound by a number of other international legal instruments, most notably the 1949 Geneva Conventions for the Protection of Victims of War and their 1977 Second Optional Protocol. These texts unconditionally prohibit murder, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, including in the course of internal armed conflicts. The civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attacks (Article 13 of the Second Protocol), nor shall starvation of civilians be used as a method of combat. The basic principles for the protection of civilian populations in armed conflict have also been affirmed by Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly. In view of its relative conciseness, I would like to cite extracts of UN Assembly resolution 2675 (XXV) of 9 December 1970:

      “2. In       the conduct of military operations during armed conflicts, a distinction must be made at all times between persons actively taking part in the hostilities and civilian populations.3.

      3.       In the conduct of military operations, every effort should be made to spare civilian populations from the ravages of war, and all necessary precautions should be taken to avoid injury, loss or damage to civilian populations.

4. Civilian populations as such should not be the object of military operations.

5. Dwellings and other installations that are used only by civilian populations should not be the object of military operations.

6. Places or areas designated for the sole protection of civilians, such as hospital zones or similar refuges, should not be the object of military operations.”

ii.       Indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force, alleged use of outlawed weapons

7.       The representatives of the Russian Federal government we met in Moscow all affirmed that Russia was not fighting a war in Chechnya, but only conducting a military anti-terrorist operation. Acting President V. Putin and Minister of the Interior V. Rushailo furthermore asserted several times that the utmost was being done to protect the civilian population in Chechnya. Minister of Foreign Affairs I. Ivanov even stated that Russia had not violated any of its obligations and commitments through its military intervention in Chechnya, but was, on the contrary, trying to protect human rights by restoring law and order in the republic.

8.        The representatives of the Russian Federal government described Chechnya as a “hotbed of international terrorism”, and highlighted the wide-spread criminality in the republic, in particular, the hostage-taking. They also claimed that, in 1996-99, the economy and infrastructure of Chechnya, as well as its health and education systems, broke down totally. Acting President V. Putin said that Chechnya had become a lawless region, driven by a criminal economy, which was affecting and destabilising the whole region of the North Caucasus.

9.        The situation became intolerable, according to the Russian authorities, when Chechen “illegal armed groups” made incursions into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan in August 1999, where they proclaimed an Islamic regime and terrorised the local population (which was, in many instances, forced to flee), thus forcing the Russian Federal forces to intervene. The Russian authorities further claim that Chechen terrorists were responsible for the explosions of apartment houses in the autumn of 1999 in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, in which hundreds of innocent people were killed.

10.       I agree with the Russian authorities that they have the right and even the duty to protect the state order and the civil rights of the peoples of the Russian Federation, i.e. that the attack by Chechen fighters on peaceful villages in Dagestan was totally unacceptable. As to the claim that the apartment houses were bombed by Chechen terrorists, I am afraid that no convincing evidence of this has so far been presented. And, even if the claim could be proven, still the means employed by the Russian authorities in retaliation – the whole-scale attack on Chechnya – were disproportionate.

11.       This leads me to my main argument: However lawless the Chechen republic had become in 1996-99, however dreadful the acts allegedly perpetrated by Chechen terrorists were, Russia was and is bound by international obligations which require it to settle internal conflicts by peaceful means, and to strictly respect the provisions of international humanitarian law. Even in cases of terrorist attacks, a state has to use means which are proportionate to the threat, and which do not unduly endanger innocent lives. The scale of Russia’s military intervention in Chechnya was and is of such magnitude that it cannot be justified in terms of an anti-terrorist operation.

12.        The scale of these operations - in my opinion - is not covered by the law on the fight against organised crime. Regrettably, however, no emergency situation was declared. In consequence, the military operations of the Russian Federal forces in Chechnya must be considered arbitrary and not regulated by law. Thus, in addition to violating international humanitarian law, they are in contradiction to domestic law.

13.        Russia’s military operation in Chechnya has so far produced hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian casualties, and has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee the conflict zone (estimates of the number of internally displaced persons vary between 150,000 to 280,000). The Russian authorities’ claim that they are doing their utmost to protect the civilian population cannot be upheld. Many towns and villages in Chechnya suffered (and some still suffer) aerial bombardments and long-range artillery shelling; in fact, we could ourselves hear the shelling of Grozny in Tolstoi-Yurt on 19 January 2000, 15 km away.

14.       The situation of the up to 40.000 civilians trapped in Grozny is of particular concern. On 6 December 1999 the Russian authorities issued an ultimatum to the civilians of Grozny, in gross violation of international humanitarian law: Leaflets dropped by Russian warplanes warned the inhabitants that all those remaining in Grozny on 11 December 1999 would be considered bandits and terrorists and would be exterminated by artillery and aviation. Although the Russian authorities, after an international outcry, later backed off from threats to launch an all-out assault on Grozny, the city is still being shelled and bombarded, and heavy house-to-house fighting continues to this day.

15.       We were able to gather testimonies from internally displaced persons who had left Grozny one or two days before our visit to the camp in Karabulak (Ingushetia), mostly through one of the two humanitarian corridors leading out of Grozny. Their stories were gruesome: Neighbours and family members killed or wounded in their kitchens or cellars when their houses were hit by Russian artillery fire or bombs; the inability to bury the dead due to the incessant bombardment and the shelling; the lack of anything to eat and drink in the bombed-out town. The kind of military action being taken against Grozny can only be qualified as indiscriminate fire and disproportionate use of force, and is in direct violation of the rules of international humanitarian law cited above.

16.       Non-governmental organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have, in addition, documented many instances of direct attacks on civilian targets by the Russian Federal forces, in serious violation of international humanitarian law. In particular, a number of incidents have been reported in which civilian convoys, carrying people fleeing from the conflict, have been subjected to bombing from the air or artillery shelling, specifically those travelling on the main road out of Chechnya towards Ingushetia, the “Rostov-Baku highway”. Another particularly gruelling incident was the attack on the central market in Grozny on 21 October 1999, which reportedly left 137 civilians dead and about 400 wounded. According to Amnesty International6, the dead included 13 mothers and 15 newborn babies at the nearby only working hospital in the city. The same organisation also reported attacks on hospitals or surrounding areas in Urus-Martan and Zakhan-Yurt in October and November 19997.

17.        There have been isolated allegations that the Russian Federal forces have been using outlawed weapons in this conflict; mention was made of vacuum bombs, cluster bombs, concealed bombs and chemical weapons. No convincing evidence to support these allegations was presented. Acting President V. Putin specifically rejected them, assuring us that the Russian Federal forces had not and would not use such weapons.

iii.       Behaviour of Federal troops and police

18.       The Russian authorities maintain that, in the areas controlled by their forces, life is slowly returning to normal for the inhabitants. Institutions of local administration were being set up, schools and hospitals started operating again, electricity, gas and water supplies were reconnected, and pensions and salaries paid.

19.        I do not want to deride the efforts of the Russian authorities to normalise the situation in the areas under their control; I do believe that the Russian authorities are trying very hard in many instances. However, the people I spoke to in the streets of the Chechen town of Gudermes, for example, had a rather different story to tell than the head of the local administration. Hospitals and polyclinics had re-opened, we were told – the snag was that everything had to be paid for (e.g. an injection for a child cost 30 Russian rubles, instead of being free of charge, as the administration had claimed). Schools were indeed working again since 1 December 1999 – but the children we spoke to told us that they had never really stopped working (e.g. the children claimed they had been at school when the Russians bombarded the town on 22 September 1999). Pensions and salaries were not being paid, we were told by the people in the streets.

20.        However, the main complaint that we heard when we spoke to the local inhabitants in Gudermes was the lack of freedom of movement. According to the people we spoke to, it was practically impossible for people (especially men) to leave the town of Gudermes, for example to find or join relatives in other parts of Chechnya, because of their lack of valid passports or residence permits (“propuski”). Incidents of police harassment were also reported to us.

21.       Human rights organisations have documented many incidents of harassment by Federal forces, especially by Ministry of the Interior troops. Bribe-taking and extortion is described as wide-spread, looting as systematic8. Isolated incidents of arson, rape and murder have also been alleged. Human Rights Watch has reported that “in the village of Alkhan-Yurt, soldiers who occupied the town went on a rampage, not only looting but also summarily executing at least fourteen residents who tried to stop them”9.

22.       As in the previous war, there is a problem of accountability. I was repeatedly told by local Chechen inhabitants that they did not feel safe. Indeed, as the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Mr Gil-Robles, has pointed out, there is no-one ordinary local residents feel they can turn to when their rights are violated by the Russian Federal forces. The Russian military prosecutor’s office seems reluctant even to investigate such serious incidents as the alleged summary executions in Alkhan-Yurt. Local commanders seem to be turning a blind eye to incidents of harassment, abuse of power, bribery and looting – indeed, I was told that looting was often systematic, with the looted goods being loaded onto military vehicles.

23.        Another problem is the treatment of captured Chechen fighters. Since the Russian authorities do not admit to fighting a war, they also do not recognise these fighters as prisoners of war. According to the Minister of the Interior, V. Rushailo, fighters are not detained for longer than three days, even if they bear the marks of carrying a machine-gun, unless they can prove that specific crimes were committed by the person. According to the Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committee and other human rights organisations, however, it seems that the Russian authorities might have revived the practice of “filtration” (detaining men of fighting age, in order to establish whether they are fighters or not – sometimes by means of beatings and torture), although the practice does not seem to be as widespread as in the first war.

C. Violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Chechen side

i.       Hostage-taking, terrorist acts and incursions into neighbouring republics and regions

24.        As referred to in paragraphs 7 and 8, the Russian authorities justify their intervention on the basis of human rights violations committed on the Chechen side in 1996-99. Indeed, it is a fact that human rights violations were widespread in Chechnya during that time, although they do not justify – in my view - the kind of intervention the Russian authorities undertook.

25.        It seems that law and order practically broke down completely in the Chechen republic between 1996-99. The economy was in ruins after the first Chechen war, leading to widespread unemployment. According to the Russian authorities, the education and health systems stopped working, and salaries and pensions were not paid. The elected President Maskhadov did not seem to be in control of the situation; hostage-taking became a prevalent feature. Hostages were treated very brutally, some were mutilated, some apparently even killed. Sharia law was introduced, and public executions took place. The Assembly condemned these developments repeatedly.

26.        The situation took a turn for the worse in August 1999 with the incursion of Chechen fighters into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan (apparently, there had been border skirmishes and incursions into other neighbouring republics and regions before, but not in such strength). The fighters declared the villages which they took by force part of an independent Islamic regime, and could not be persuaded to leave, forcing the Dagestani authorities to resort to military force.

ii. War-related violations

27.       Chechen fighters have also committed violations of international humanitarian law10. In particular, Chechen fighters have endangered the lives of civilians by provoking Russian counter-attacks on civilian neighbourhoods. For example, Chechen fighters apparently often take up positions in areas heavily populated by civilians, or on top of schools and hospitals, fire at Russian aircraft from these positions, and abandon them. The subsequent bombardment thus provoked then hits only civilian targets. There are also reports that Chechen fighters have repeatedly beaten and threatened civilians who attempted to spare their villages from Russian bombardment by either keeping the fighters out altogether or by asking them to leave.

28.       It is also not clear how the Chechen fighters are treating captured Russian soldiers. There has been one report of a Russian soldier having had his throat cut by Chechen fighters11, but it is impossible to verify whether this is only an isolated incident or part of a pattern. Prisoners of war are protected by the Geneva Conventions, so their maltreatment is a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

D. Conclusions

29.       Both warring parties have repeatedly and seriously violated human rights and international humanitarian law in this conflict. They should immediately cease these violations, implement a cease-fire, and start negotiations without preconditions.

30.       I do not want to repeat here the specific recommendations already formulated by the Political Affairs Committee, nor the conclusions of the committee set out in Part I of this opinion. But I would, in conclusion, like to underline once more that I feel that the violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by the Russian side are of an extremely serious nature, especially considering that Russia is bound by obligations and commitments she freely entered into.

31.        In reaction to these violations the Assembly must act in a way which takes account, on the one hand, of the Council of Europe’s duty to defend its principles and standards, as embodied in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Statute, but which also, on the other hand, makes it possible for the Assembly, together with the Russian parliamentary delegation, to search for ways to solve the conflict in Chechnya in a manner which is consistent with the Council of Europe’s principles and standards.             

32.        I thus recommend, in accordance with Rule 8.5.c. of the new Rules of Procedure, that the credentials of the Russian parliamentary delegation be ratified, but that their voting rights – either in the Assembly as a whole, or in its committees and the Bureau - be withdrawn until there is substantial progress in respect of the situation in Chechnya.

*

* *

Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee

Committee for opinion: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights

Reference to committee: Reference No 2470 of 24 January 2000 (request for an urgent procedure debate)

Opinion approved by the committee on 25 January 2000

Secretaries to the committee: Mr Plate, Ms Coin and Ms Kleinsorge


1 See Doc. 8630

2 Including meetings with Acting President V. Putin, Minister of the Interior V. Rushailo, and Minister of Foreign Affairs I. Ivanov, Speakers of Parliament G. Seleznev and Y. Stroyev, and representatives of international and of non-governmental organisations.

3 Meeting with Chairman of the Dagestan Republic, Magomadov.

4 Meeting with the President of the Republic of Ingushetia, R. Aushev.

5 Doc 8613.

6 Amnesty International, Russian Federation – Chechnya, “For the Motherland”, December 1999, pp. 4-7.

7 Ibid, pp. 8-9.

8 Human Rights Watch, Background Memorandum on Abuses in the Chechnya Conflict, 20 January 2000, pp. 8-11.

9 Human Rights Watch, Open letter to members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, 21 January 2000.

10 Human Watch Rights, Background Memorandum on Abuses in the Chechnya Conflict, 20 January 2000, pp. 14-16.

11 Ibid, p. 14.