The European Union has sharply increased the pressure on Russia to mount an investigation of human rights abuses by its forces in Chechnya. A draft resolution from the EU at the UN Commission on Human Rights urges a probe of rights violations by Russia. But Russian officials have countered that the allegations are based on disinformation. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 12 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union has taken its biggest step yet to pressure Russia into investigating mounting allegations of human rights abuses committed by Russian forces in Chechnya.
The EU's current president, Portugal, submitted a resolution on Chechnya late Tuesday to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. It calls on Russian to set up a commission of inquiry and admit human rights investigators into Chechnya to determine the truth about charges of rights violations.
Commission spokesman Jose Diaz told our correspondent by telephone that the commission would vote on the resolution on April 18. Such resolutions are non-binding, and some agency reports said the EU would allow Russia to join discussions on the resolution, which could weaken it. But if passed, it would carry a great deal of weight in the international community and could result in rights investigators from the commission visiting Chechnya.
The commission has in recent years sent special rapporteurs on human rights to countries under scrutiny.
The EU move followed a long debate in the commission on Tuesday in which representatives from the EU and United States urged Russia to properly investigate rights abuses or risk isolation from the international community. Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin's representative for human rights in Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, told the commission many of the allegations were based on rumor and disinformation.
Russia has consistently denied in the strongest terms committing the alleged atrocities. But Diaz, the UN spokesman, says it is likely to take seriously any resolution passed by the commission.
"I think they are also quite serious about putting their point of view across, and I think that reflects the sort of moral weight, the moral authority that the commission has in making observations and conclusions."
Portugal's ambassador, Mendonca e Moura, told the commission on behalf of the EU that it had become especially concerned at reported human rights violations such as mass killings, violence against women, torture and arbitrary detention. He said the EU was encouraged that some criminal prosecution of soldiers had been initiated by Russian authorities but he said a more significant response was needed.
The call for a Russian commission of inquiry into rights abuses in Chechnya was first made last week by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. She proposed this after completing her own limited tour of Chechen locations.
But a statement from two leading international human rights monitors -- London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch -- said Russia has already shown it does not have the political will to hold such an inquiry. The statement was read at the commission debate on Tuesday.
"Our organizations firmly believe that only an international commission of investigation established by the United Nations will provide the necessary resources and strong guarantees for a thorough, independent and transparent process of systematic collection of evidence."
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata also addressed the commission on Tuesday to describe the difficulties aid agencies have in caring for the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the Chechen war. Ogata said the local populations in the Russian North Caucasus have made great efforts to host those fleeing Chechnya, but their resources are limited.
She said international aid workers can function under tight security arrangements but have no regular presence in Chechnya. She said UNHCR workers have heard numerous stories from displaced people about violence against civilians committed by both of the warring sides in Chechnya.
The high commissioner for refugees said the establishment of a Russian government commission committed to upholding human rights would provide a major boost to the efforts of humanitarian workers.
"The transparent handling of reports or allegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by the Russian Federation will go some way to create the confidence and conditions necessary for safe, voluntary and durable return of the displaced population to Chechnya."
Ogata said many of the displaced people are eager to return to their homes as soon as possible. UNHCR officials in Geneva said Tuesday that a steady number of displaced Chechens are starting to return home, despite the uncertainty about their safety.
The refugee agency said that since the Russian presidential elections March 26, more than 5,000 displaced people have gone home and the rate is now about 500 people per day crossing into Chechnya from Ingushetia.
UNHCR spokesman Jacques Franquin said the majority of returnees are leaving one or two relatives behind in Ingushetia in case hostilities flare up again in their towns.