The European Union's top aid official in Russia says Moscow has done very little -- if anything -- to improve the humanitarian situation in its breakaway republic of Chechnya. Philippe Royan says that four years after the start of the republic's second conflict, Chechnya remains one of the most difficult aid operations in the world.
Brussels, 3 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Philippe Royan is in an unenviable position.
As the European Union's top humanitarian aid official for Russia and the Caucasus, Royan is in charge of one of the bloc's more substantial aid budgets -- amounting to 110 million euros since autumn 1999, with an extra 26 million euros in the pipeline.
Yet, Royan -- and the EU -- have very little to show for the money.
Royan describes the conditions facing nongovernmental organizations subcontracted by the EU to deliver aid in Chechnya as among the "most difficult in the world."
"[The situation is] difficult," he said. "Chechnya is one of the most difficult operations to implement in the world. Every operation has its specificities, being more or less difficult to implement. Chechnya must be categorized as a difficult one because of the lack of security, [the] lack of access."
While security problems are not surprising in an environment characterized by continuous low-intensity warfare, bureaucratic obstacles are cited by humanitarian aid workers as presenting almost as much of an obstacle to their work.
Royan says the European Commission's humanitarian aid office (ECHO) -- has spent six months in a futile effort to establish a permanent presence in the North Caucasus. Its closest office is now located in Moscow.
"We don't have yet a field office in the Northern Caucasus, [which is] something we [have been] trying to do for six months," Royan said. "It's a bit difficult. You need a lot of clearances from the local authorities to register an organization. This is something all the NGOs are facing in the Northern Caucasus -- to get registered, to be reregistered year after year and to get all the registrations for their international staff."
Royan says it seems to make no difference to the Russian authorities whether they are dealing with NGOs or the EU's executive body. The process, he says, is equally time-consuming and inundated by paperwork. Many NGOs, including ECHO, have resorted to hiring staff members who specialize in overcoming bureaucratic obstacles.
To complicate matters, Russia denies aid workers the ability to use radio communication equipment. Moscow has also refused to issue licenses necessary for the use of radio frequencies. Royan adds that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other donors are still struggling to be exempted from Russia's value-added tax requirements.
Security problems are rife in the area. Another EU official, who asked not to be named, said the worst affected among aid workers are doctors, who often face harassment from both sides, depending on who they treat. Several doctors have been forced to leave Chechnya after threats were made.
Royan also cites the abduction last year of the head of the Swiss mission of the French agency Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres) in the Daghestani capital, Makhachkala. Although Russian authorities have promised cooperation at the highest levels, no progress has been reported so far.
As far as alleged human rights violations go, Royan says his office steers clear of the issue for fear of jeopardizing its humanitarian mission.
"We are the office [at] the European Commission for humanitarian aid," he said. "We don't deal with human-rights issues, although we finance some partners who in the field encounter, witness, [and in] some cases are linked to human rights [issues], and they will separately report on that. But we make [it] clear [to our] partners that they shouldn't mix the two things because it could jeopardize our capacity to deliver humanitarian aid."
Another EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFE/RL that ECHO regularly receives reports of human rights abuses in Chechnya. The official said NGOs are encouraged to compile their information and forward it to the UNHCR. The EU does give some financial support to Russian and Western organizations dealing with human-rights abuses.
The EU official also noted that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg recently agreed to consider a number of cases brought before it by relatives of victims of the violence in Chechnya.
Royan is also sharply critical of the treatment of Chechen refugees outside the republic's border -- of whom 74,000 still remain in neighboring Ingushetia. He says such "internally displaced persons" (IDPs) have certain rights, enshrined by the United Nations and recognized by the Russian Federation, such as the right to documents pertaining to identity, access to health and education, and the right to receive humanitarian aid.
IDPs also have the right to refuse to return to their homes if they feel their security is not guaranteed.
Royan says that, in addition to the closure of two camps in Ingushetia last year, Russian authorities also closed another one three weeks ago, at least "on paper" -- meaning aid supplies to it will be cut. The only option for refugees is likely to be to return to Chechnya against their will. This, Royan says, is in direct contravention of Russia's international obligations.
"People who do not want to return right now should have the right according to their IDP status to stay in their host republic, [which is Ingushetia] in this case. If they cannot stay in a tent camp, they should be offered an alternative shelter of better quality than a canvas tent, if possible. And this is where we have difficulties with local authorities, where we try to develop a number of alternative shelter solutions. And they are somewhat reluctant to let us do so because they would prefer to fulfill [their own] agenda, which is to facilitate the return of people to Chechnya."