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UN: Human Rights Panel Delays Vote On Chechnya

The United Nations' top human rights body has delayed by one week a vote on a draft resolution urging Russia to investigate alleged human rights abuses in Chechnya. The decision comes amid signs that the European Union may withdraw the resolution and replace it with a softer rebuke. Correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the latest developments at the UN Commission on Human Rights.

United Nations, 18 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There are growing indications that the European Union will withdraw its resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights that expresses concern at human rights violations in Chechnya.

The EU's draft resolution introduced last week at the commission in Geneva was seen as further strengthening international pressure on Russia to be accountable for alleged violations by its soldiers. The draft resolution expresses concern over reports of abuses by both sides in the Chechen conflict and calls on Russia to set up a national commission of inquiry.

That resolution had been scheduled for a vote before the 53-nation commission today but the vote was delayed until April 25. No reason was given for the postponement, but it comes amid efforts by diplomats from the EU, Russia, and other countries to reach agreement on a text known as a chairman's statement.

Such texts are adopted by consensus after being negotiated with the country under scrutiny. They do not come up for a public vote at the human rights commission.

This development has caused concern among human rights groups, some of which have been calling for an independent international commission of inquiry into the charges against Russia.

Joanna Weschler has been attending the commission sessions as a representative for Human Rights Watch, one of the steadiest critics of the Russian campaign in Chechnya. She told our correspondent in a telephone interview her group was frustrated at the prospect of removing a resolution that could have pressured Russia to act more urgently on rights in Chechnya.

"It's very distressing because it doesn't look like there's any pressure on Russia from the international community to make it happen."

Weschler says the Russian-Chechen conflict of the mid-1990s did not strongly address the issue of responsibility for human rights abuses. She noted there were two chairman's statements on the previous Chechen conflict.

"Probably what we are dealing with today in the current conflict has something to do with the fact that nobody was ever called to account for atrocities committed in the first conflict."

Russia has repeatedly denied committing the abuses alleged by international human rights groups. Russian officials characterize the Chechen conflict as a fight against terrorists and extremists.

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin on Monday again defended his troops' actions. But Putin also said during a trip to London that a new independent Russian commission was to investigate allegations of human rights abuses. He said that development might have been helped by a visit from British Prime Minister Tony Blair to St. Petersburg before the presidential elections last month.

"The visit of the leader of Great Britain to Russia, in the middle of a complicated situation, including the North Caucasus, has created an atmosphere of confidence from Russian society, toward Western society."

Putin and Blair said in a joint press conference after talks on Monday that they wanted to avoid the isolation of Russia. Blair said it was important to engage Russia to address concerns about topics such as rights in Chechnya.

"I raised our concerns about the situation in Chechnya and urged, as we always do, a proportionate response, political dialogue, and full access for observers and investigators."

Meanwhile, in Geneva today, the UN Human Rights Commission will consider resolutions calling for human rights improvements in about 10 countries, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and China.

Agency reports say China has been heavily lobbying commission members to approve a no-action vote, which would defeat the U.S.-sponsored resolution charging a deterioration in human rights. China has defeated every U.S. attempt to censure it at the UN Commission since Beijing ordered troops to open fire on student-led protestors in 1989.