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UN: Humanitarian Intervention Transcends Frontiers

  • Robert McMahon

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has again stressed in a major public forum that human rights must transcend borders. But the case for humanitarian intervention of any sort, which seemed to gain momentum from Kosovo and East Timor, is being stiffly tested in the Russian republic of Chechnya. RFE/RL's UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 5 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has once again made the appeal for states to consider human rights an international obligation to protect, regardless of frontiers.

Annan's speech at the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva Tuesday continued a theme he has pressed since his address at the UN General Assembly last September. The secretary-general told the commission that violations of human rights are no longer an internal matter for nations. He said national constitutional provisions cannot override international obligations in this matter.

"International human rights law is emphatic that when human rights are being violated the international community has a right and a duty to respond and to come to the assistance of the victims."

Annan did not mention specific countries or regions in his address. Two widely cited examples of justified intervention by the international community are Kosovo and East Timor. But another theater of increasing concern to human rights monitors -- Chechnya -- poses much bigger obstacles for Annan and the international community.

The UN Security Council, with Russia as a permanent member, is not likely to authorize any sort of intervention in Chechnya. But at the moment, it is not intervention but accountability that a growing number of international bodies are asking of the Russian government.

In Strasbourg, the Council of Europe's political committee Tuesday recommended that the assembly consider suspending Russia and taking it to court over alleged human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson finished a mission to Chechnya Tuesday by calling for an independent Russian commission to investigate the widespread allegations. The charges include mistreatment of prisoners, rape by Russian soldiers, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.

Annan told reporters after his address in Geneva Tuesday that he supported Robinson's recommendation.

"Her trip to the region I think was useful and I believe that the allegations have been so persistent and are so serious that investigation into them will be necessary and healthy and I would urge the Russian authorities to undertake that investigation."

The UN efforts were applauded by Cathy Fitzpatrick, executive director of the International League of Human Rights, a non-governmental organization devoted to strengthening international human rights institutions. Fitzpatrick's organization has been closely following the Chechen conflict and she expresses frustration at the inability of international groups to gain access to the republic.

Fitzpatrick says Annan and Robinson represent two very credible voices on human rights in Chechnya. But she says their efforts are undermined by powerful Western states -- the U.S. and EU -- that have so far not indicated their willingness to press Russia on human rights matters in Chechnya.

Fitzpatrick also says Chechnya represents just one area that Annan's goal of internationally protected human rights has met stiff resistance. The concept of humanitarian intervention, she says, has yet to meet universal approval from some major powers.

"Russia and China do not share this doctrine. They vehemently oppose the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. It is not part of their world view or their belief system. They do not believe it is supported in international humanitarian law."

While the bigger questions about international law remain unanswered, aid groups are looking for small progress. A memo of understanding was reached by Russian officials and a UN envoy recently that would provide operating conditions for agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to operate in Chechnya. But it is not known when this memorandum will be formally approved by Russia.