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Chechnya: Europe Backs Away From Disciplining Russia

Europe's leading human rights body, the Council of Europe, voted yesterday (Thursday) to delay for three months any sanctions against Russia for its military campaign in Chechnya. Russia thus enters the 128th day today of its much-criticized air and ground assault, without suffering any penalty from the West.

Prague, 28 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Russia is defending itself from condemnation over Chechnya by relying on an exception to the Council of Europe's main declaration on the right to life.

And Russia's critics cite an exception to the exception.

Ten West European nations established the Council of Europe following World War II. The council members' first major act was to adopt the European Convention on Human Rights, which opens its article on the right to life with these words: "No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally."

The article provides for exceptions, such as when deaths occur during the quelling of an insurrection. That is exactly what the Russian government of acting President Vladimir Putin says is occurring in Chechnya.

An exception to the exception is that the force used must be, in the convention's words, "no more than absolutely necessary." Many nations say that Russia's conduct of its military campaign involves extravagant use of force against Chechnya's population. These critics include a number that otherwise support Russia's right to prevent Chechnya from seceding.

The Council of Europe has taken in a number of new Western European members since its early days. At the end of the Cold War, it also gained East European members, of which Russia is the most prominent. The council now represents 41 nations.

Putin demonstrated two weeks ago Russia's desire to remain on good terms with the council. When news reports warned that the council might suspend Russia's membership, Putin spent nearly three hours justifying his government's actions before a Council of Europe fact-finding mission. Lord Russell-Johnston, president of the council's Parliamentary Assembly, led the mission to Russia.

Putin has said repeatedly that Russia's critics are condemning Russia based on faulty information obtained from untrustworthy sources.

After meeting with Putin, Lord Russell-Johnston's delegation headed off to Chechnya to see for itself. Subsequently Russell-Johnston said that Russian authorities limited the group's itinerary and contacts to such a great extent that, in his words, "It wasn't a satisfactory visit." He added that Russia was violating the terms of its entry into the council in 1996.

Putin dispatched Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to the council's session in Strasbourg yesterday (Thursday) to speak for the Russian government. Ivanov told the body that Russian troops in Chechnya were defending all of Europe by opposing international terrorism with force appropriate for the level of the threat. The Russian foreign minister said:

"Russia essentially is defending Europe against terrorism. Russia today is defending the common borders of Europe from the barbaric invasion of international terrorism, which consistently and persistently is extending its influence starting with Afghanistan, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans."

Following Foreign Minister Ivanov's speech to the council yesterday, Russia's delegate to the council, Sergei Kovalyov, a prominent Russian human rights activist, cast doubt on Ivanov's own reliability as a source.

"Our foreign minister's speech was full of lies, from the first word to the last. I could uncover these lies if they gave me a chance. But they only gave me four minutes; so I could not. The sense and content of Ivanov's speech was discussed on a higher level, I think with Putin."

Lord Russell-Johnston presided yesterday over a Council of Europe assembly session that condemned Russia's conduct of the Chechen war and demanded that Russia cease attacks on civilians. But the council then defeated (83-71) a motion to suspend Russia's membership. The council gave Russia three months to show progress toward peace in Chechnya. If Russia continues to fail to protect the lives and rights of unarmed citizens, the council will consider suspending it at the end of that time period.

In its 52 years of existence, the council has suspended a nation's membership only twice: Greece in 1969 after a military takeover of the government, and Turkey in 1981 after a coup.

(RFE/RL's Belarusian Service contributed to this report.)