A leading human-rights group says the United States and other Western countries have eased their pressure on Russia for reported human-rights abuses in Chechnya. The organization, the Moscow Helsinki Group, says Washington is repaying Russian President Vladimir Putin for his support of the U.S.-led war against terrorism. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, however, says it has kept up its pressure on Moscow.
Washington, 17 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United States is rejecting criticism by a leading human-rights group in Moscow that it is lessening its pressure on the Russian government to crack down on alleged human-rights abuses by its armed forces in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
The State Department says it has consistently urged Moscow to investigate all reports of such abuses. The U.S. response was prompted by an accusation made in Moscow on 9 July that rights violations in Chechnya are now being ignored outside Russia.
The Moscow Helsinki Group, which monitors human rights in Russia, said Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, have become silent on Chechnya since Russia joined the international war on terrorism. It made the criticism in its annual report on human rights in that country.
In an interview with RFE/RL the day the report was released, Lyudmila Alexeeva, who heads the Moscow Helsinki Group, expressed dismay at the development. "We see how the interest of the West toward the violation of human rights in Russia has diminished after Russia joined the antiterrorism coalition and started to participate in the meetings of the heads of the democratic countries. Apparently, such an alliance has played a certain role and Russia was given absolution on the violation of human rights," Alexeeva said.
Alexeeva said she fully supports the U.S.-led war on terrorism, but says it is wrong for Washington and other Western governments to ignore Moscow's human-rights record just because Russian President Vladimir Putin has allied his country in that effort. "I welcome Russia's participation in the antiterrorism coalition, and I understand the need for joint efforts in the fight against terrorism, but we have to admit that this alliance has had such a side effect, [the lack of international criticism of Russia on the war in Chechnya]," Alexeeva said.
Before the 11 September attacks in the United States, which led to the antiterrorism war, U.S. President George W. Bush several times criticized Russia's human-rights record in Chechnya, though he expressed his personal fondness for Putin and declared that Russia is no longer America's enemy.
Since 11 September, however, Bush has been virtually silent on the issue. And Putin has argued that Russia is fighting terrorists in Chechnya just as the United States and its allies are fighting terrorists elsewhere.
Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, disputes the Moscow Helsinki Group's characterization of the American position on Chechnya. He told RFE/RL, "We have continually urged the Russian government to investigate all reported human-rights violations and to hold accountable those responsible for them."
Toner added, "The lack of movement toward a political solution to the conflict in Chechnya, combined with credible reports of massive human-rights violations and no meaningful process of accountability, are contributing to the creation of a favorable environment for terrorism in the region."
Anna Neistat, the director of the Moscow office for Human Rights Watch, dismissed both Toner's and Putin's contention that terrorism is an issue at all in Chechnya. Neistat told RFE/RL that Putin has cleverly used 11 September and the subsequent war on terrorism to distract attention from his military's human-rights abuses in the region. "President Putin was saying that those whom Russia fights in Chechnya are terrorists and that Russia's war in Chechnya is part of the global fight against terrorism, thus shifting attention from human-rights issues to terrorism-fight issues," Neistat said.
But Neistat said she is not in total agreement with the Moscow Helsinki Group. She said there are elements in the U.S. Congress and even within Bush's administration that are mindful that the war against terrorism cannot supersede the struggle to protect human rights.
Neistat recalled that Secretary of State Colin Powell -- Bush's highest-ranking cabinet member -- stated this publicly, shortly after the 11 September attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.
Still, Neistat said Human Rights Watch is disappointed that the United States and other Western countries are not bringing enough pressure on Russia to act fairly in Chechnya. "Human Rights Watch always relied on the West to put pressure on Russia in what concerns human-rights issues, especially [regarding] the war in Chechnya," Neistat said.
Neistat said this lessening of pressure by Western countries was perhaps best illustrated in April, when the United Nations Commission on Human Rights voted 16-15 against a resolution on Chechnya. That resolution would have urged Russia to invite UN monitors to investigate the human-rights situation in Chechnya.
Human-rights advocacy groups urged Bush to bring up Chechnya during his visit to Russia in May. But if Bush mentioned the issue, he did so in private.