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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- A Difficult Combination To Sustain

Washington, 30 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Moscow newspaper has suggested that Russian security forces may have been behind the disappearance of a humanitarian relief worker in Chechnya because he and his organization were simultaneously involved in human rights advocacy.

Writing in "Novye Izvestiya," Natalia Konovalova said last week that rumors are now circulating that Russian security forces rather than Chechen fighters "might have been involved" in the disappearance of Kenny Gluck, a U.S. humanitarian assistance worker in the North Caucasus for the international aid group "Doctors without Borders."

Konovalova notes Gluck's "frequent" accusations of human rights abuses against Russian commanders as the source of what she calls his "rather tense relations" with them and a possible motive for their taking "revenge" against someone they suspected of having a "'pro-Chechen'" stand. Indeed, she says, Gluck regularly "compiled reports on human rights abuses" there.

In the course of her argument, the Russian journalist points to another "nuance" as well: "Doctors without Borders is the only international aid group [in Chechnya] which is also involved in human rights activities." Consequently, she suggests, Russian officials might have had a particular interest in silencing him before the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly last week discussed restoring Russia's voting rights in the body, suspended last April because of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

But as Konovalova freely admits, "no clues have been found, and no separatist groups have claimed responsibility" for Gluck's disappearance. And as she also makes clear, the existence of motive alone does not prove that Russian security forces or groups tied to them were in fact responsible for Gluck's fate, however convenient for them his removal from the scene might have been.

Nonetheless, the inherent tension she points to between humanitarian assistance work and human rights activism calls attention to the more general problems when an individual or group attempts to do both at the same time.

Humanitarian assistance workers, the experience of the international aid community suggests, must be able to cooperate with local officials at least to the point that they can do their jobs. They need to be able to arrange for the arrival and distribution of goods, and to do that, they need to enjoy sufficient respect that they are not politically engaged with one side or the other of a conflict.

Human rights workers, in contrast, generally are in a confrontational relationship with the powers that be. They are in the business of pointing out abuses by the authorities, frequently to the point of denouncing them to international organizations and in the media of foreign countries. By doing so, human rights activists almost inevitably infuriate the officials on the territories where the activists work.

Individuals and groups involved in each of these activities have been increasingly concerned about these tensions, especially since the disappearance in Chechnya of another American, Fred Cuny, six years ago. As American journalist Kent Anderson points out in his book, "The Man Who Tried to Save the World," Cuny attempted to combine humanitarian assistance and human rights activism and got into trouble as a result.

Fred Cuny went to Chechnya twice as a humanitarian assistance worker. But between his visits, he wrote articles and gave interviews in the United States about Russian actions in Chechnya which he argued violated basic standards of human rights. For his remarks, he was much criticized by Russian officials. And when he returned, he soon disappeared and is presumed by most observers to have been killed.

Cuny's family became convinced that Fred Cuny had been killed by a group of Chechens because Russian officials had put out the word that he was acting as a political agent and that, as a result, the Russian government was fully responsible for his death, a position both Moscow and some Western governments have disputed. But because his body has never been found, the debate on his fate remains open.

The Cuny case remains at the center of discussions about the limitations on those who want to meet humanitarian needs and also to defend human rights. But if no word is soon forthcoming about the fate of Kenny Gluck, his name and his experiences may spark an even broader debate on this issue.

To the extent that happens, the Gluck case could become the occasion for a wholesale reexamination of both humanitarian assistance and human rights activism.