Washington, 10 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's dismissal of Western criticism of its military actions against Chechnya and the West's unwillingness to impose sanctions against the Russian Federation together highlight the limited ability of the international community to affect the policies of great powers.
But this very combination undercuts claims by human rights advocates on this, the 51st anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights, that the defense of such rights is increasingly taking precedence over the claims of national sovereignty.
Instead, the exchanges between Russia and the West call attention to a continuing reality: small countries may be held accountable for their actions, but large countries almost never are. And that in turn not only may embolden some powers to act as they please but also may increase cynicism about the importance of human rights.
But more hopefully, this pattern also has the effect of raising anew the question of just what countries concerned about human rights can and should do when they see massive violations of human rights by a large and powerful state.
Yesterday, in anticipation of the UN Declaration anniversary, a variety of human rights activists and editorial writers were making the argument that the international community was ever more prepared to come to the aid of those whose human rights were being violated.
In support of this position, they pointed to Western intervention in Kosovo, East Timor, and various locations in Africa, to the arrest of former leaders -- like Chile's Augusto Pinochet --charged with crimes against humanity, and particularly to the indictment of a sitting president -- Yugoslavia's Slobodan Milosevic -- for war crimes.
Such actions do represent a remarkable advance on earlier practice. But the West's unwillingness to impose sanctions on Moscow for what German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer has characterized its "act of barbarism" in Chechnya show the limits of this advance when a large country is involved and force those making these claims to note that at least the West is criticizing Moscow.
But the back and forth between Russian and Western leaders this week shows just how limited the impact of such criticism is when a major country decides that it does not care what others say and that it does not fear that they will take any action.
On Wednesday, U.S. President Bill Clinton said that "Russia will pay a heavy price for those actions, with each passing day, sinking more deeply into a morass that will intensify extremism and diminish its own standing in the world." But he immediately added that it would be a mistake for Washington to cut off aid or impose any other sanctions on Russia.
As they assemble in Helsinki this week, the leaders of the European Union are taking much the same position and for many of the same reasons, sharply criticizing Russia but avoiding any discussion of sanctions, out of a concern that such sanctions would be either ineffective or push Russia into a still more radical position.
In response, Russian leaders have dismissed Western criticism clearly confident that they will still be able to extract the resources they seek from the West. Last week, the Russian foreign minister lashed out at the International Monetary Fund's Managing Director Michel Camdessus for suggesting that future loans might be affected by Russian actions in Chechnya.
And yesterday, while in Beijing, Russian President Boris Yeltsin went even further. Rejecting American criticism, he pointedly noted that "it seems Mr. Clinton has forgotten Russia is a great power that possesses a full nuclear arsenal," adding that "we aren't afraid at all of Clinton's anti-Russian position."
Given this standoff, ever more people are asking whether there is anything can be done to stop the Russian military offensive in Chechnya that has killed numerous civilians as well. So far, the answers they are suggesting -- which range from economic pressure to strengthening the security of Russia's neighbors -- appear unlikely to do much to help the Chechens.
But the longer Moscow continues its military campaign against Chechnya and the Chechens, the more people are likely to be willing to ask that question, and in asking it, they may ultimately decide to take actions which will affirm that the defense of human rights is more important than the claims of sovereignty -- in big countries as well as small ones.