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UN: Top Human Rights Official Visits A Defensive Russia

The top UN human rights official, Mary Robinson, leaves today for Moscow in a trip that could bring down further condemnation on Russia for its conduct of the war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. During the trip, Robinson is to visit Chechnya at a time when evidence is mounting of human rights abuses by Russian soldiers. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 31 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, begins her long-awaited trip to Russia today to get a first-hand look at the situation in Chechnya.

After arriving in Moscow, Robinson travels tomorrow to Russia's North Caucasus republic of Ingushetia and is due to arrive in neighboring Chechnya on Sunday. She plans to inform the Human Rights Commission about her trip after her scheduled return of April 4.

Russia had denied requests after Robinson had spoken critically of the Russian campaign in Chechnya. Some observers say Russia's eventual decision to allow the visit is the sign of a move toward dialogue from Russia to meet the growing chorus of international condemnation at alleged rights abuses.

The respected international human rights monitors Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued fresh statements claiming rape, torture and coverup by the Russian military in Chechnya. And a Council of Europe delegation charged after a recent visit that both Russian troops and Chechen rebels were guilty of serious human rights violations. The Council of Europe is to make a decision next week about excluding Russia as a member.

Robinson has been the most outspoken UN official concerning the allegations. At the opening of the Human Rights Commission session in Geneva last week, she spoke of the hardships faced by civilians in Chechnya. She insisted on the need for what she called "no selectivity, no sanctuary, no impunity" for those guilty of major human rights violations.

Senior analyst Arch Puddington of the U.S.-based human rights watchdog Freedom House says Russia can be assured of an objective assessment by Robinson. Puddington noted her independent voice in human rights matters, including her criticism of abuses of NATO forces as well as Serbs during the Kosovo air campaign last year.

"She is a woman who will go and weigh the facts and issue an opinion based on what the situation is on the ground. I don't think she is someone who will just simply gang up on Russia and ignore atrocities and human rights violations committed by the Chechens."

Russian officials have reacted angrily to the allegations of rights abuses. They have consistently pointed to abuses they say Chechen rebels have committed and say they provoked the Russian crackdown on the republic. Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ordzhonikidze told the Human Rights Commission on Wednesday (March 29) that Russia has been the victim of an "information war" unleashed by the international media and rights organizations.

The deputy foreign minister said there was no such outcry when terrorists in Chechnya routinely staged kidnappings and other terrorist acts in the years prior to the latest conflict.

"When foreign citizens became victims of terrorism -- and there were many incidents in which people were killed and taken hostage -- we heard only shy voices of protest. No state would tolerate that sort of undermining of its foundations. That's why we decided the only right solution was to get rid of this international terrorism by force."

Robinson's visit marks a gradual Russian approval to allow access to Chechnya by international agencies. The Kremlin spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said yesterday that President-elect Vladimir Putin has agreed to give representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to any detention centers, including those located outside Chechnya.

The ICRC shut down its main operation in Chechnya in 1996 after the murder of six foreign members of staff.

(Yuri Zhigalkin in New York contributed to this report)