The United Nations is pressing ahead with efforts to bring more attention to the humanitarian and human rights situation in Russia's republic of Chechnya. There are signs of cooperation from Moscow, but so far nothing close to a commitment that would allow independent aid workers and rights monitors into Chechnya. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 17 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The official Russian news agency ITAR-TASS confirmed in a brief news item yesterday that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson will visit Russia in two weeks.
The news item quoted the Foreign Ministry as saying Robinson will visit the North Caucasus and will meet Russian human rights commissioner Oleg Mironov.
It was not clear whether the March 31 to April 4 trip would include a visit to Chechnya, as Robinson has been requesting. But her trip is seen as a sign of new cooperation from the Russian Foreign Ministry, which has criticized Robinson for what it called her "non-objective, biased and one-sided" criticism of the Chechen war. Robinson told reporters at UN headquarters last week that she was looking forward to assessing the situation in Chechnya first-hand. She said it was important to be open-minded and fair, but made clear that she will press for investigations into valid claims of human rights abuses.
"My real concern is not only to be a voice for the victims of human rights allegations and abuses, but also to make a very strong case for the need for redress, the need for fair procedures for those who allege that their rights have been seriously violated and the need for investigations when those in uniform on behalf of a state are alleged to have carried out acts of violation of human rights. It was important in Indonesia in relation to East Timor. It's important in relation to the serious allegations emerging from Chechnya."
The announcement of the human rights commissioner's trip follows a visit earlier this week to Chechnya by a delegation from the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly. The head of the delegation, Lord Frank Judd, said war crimes have been committed by both Russian soldiers and separatist fighters. And he said the Russian government has done little to end abuses by federal forces.
Mironov, the Russian human rights commissioner, expressed concern yesterday about condemnation of Russia at an upcoming meeting of the Council's parliamentary assembly. Mironov told Interfax that the Russian parliament should hold hearings on Chechnya before the Council's session so that Russia will "have a case against unjust accusations" from the West. Mironov said the West's position on Chechnya is biased and that human rights have been violated by Chechnya's separatist leaders for years.
But the presence of UN officials in Chechnya is likely to bring new pressure on Russian officials to investigate widespread charges of human rights abuses.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters at a news conference last week that he hoped Robinson's pending trip to Russia would help ensure an international human rights presence in Chechnya.
"In Chechnya, besides the humanitarian crisis, there are very troubling questions about violations of human rights and humanitarian law. I fully support Mary Robinson's emphasis on the vital importance of ensuring an international human rights presence to monitor the treatment of civilians and to seek access to detainees, and I am glad she is going to be able to visit in person next month."
Separately, Annan has dispatched an envoy to Moscow to prepare the way for international aid workers to begin operating in the republic. The envoy is a former official of the UN high commissioner for refugees, Mr. Homann-Herimberg, who has been working with the Russian government on the draft of a memorandum of understanding that would define the terms under which relief agencies could operate in Chechnya. No agreement has been reached after one week of discussions.
The United Nations this week launched an appeal for more than $19 million to meet the emergency food and health needs of tens of thousands of people displaced by the war in Chechnya. The money would go initially to help people who fled the conflict to Daghestan, Ingushetia and elsewhere.