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(Un)Civil Societies Report: August 20, 2003

20 August 2003, Volume 4, Number 20
SERGIO VIEIRA DE MELLO: A HUMANITARIAN IN HARM'S WAY. The bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August, which killed at least 23 people, dramatically demonstrated the vulnerability of humanitarian workers to attack and exposed the fragility of efforts to restore democracy and justice in Iraq months after major combat operations ceased. The death toll included 14 UN staff members and the UN's top envoy to Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who also served as the UN high commissioner for human rights. The bombers were "enemies of the civilized world," U.S. President George W. Bush declared, as throughout the day horrified UN employees watched television reports first of de Mello trapped in the rubble after the blast, calling on his cellular telephone and receiving water, then dying of his injuries. "Sergio was not only an accomplished diplomat, but a true humanitarian," Kenneth Roth, executive director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement published on the organization's website ( "It is tragic he should end up the victim of the kind of war crime he fought so hard to prevent."

Vieira de Mello, appointed as Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative, had temporarily left his post as high commissioner for human rights and assumed a mandate to "assist the Iraqi people and those responsible for the administration of this land to achieve freedom, the possibility of managing their own destiny and determining their own future," "The New York Times" quoted him as saying on 19 August. Nearly a year into his job as high commissioner and only 2 1/2 months in Iraq, at the time of his death Vieira de Mello was working on such issues as the establishment of a justice system to address numerous human rights atrocities.

In July, Vieira de Mello had convened a conference of international scholars and Iraqi experts to discuss what kind of justice system should be established to deal with war crimes, and to prosecute deposed President Saddam Hussein, should he be caught. Wary of international courts, U.S. officials have discussed trials in an U.S. military tribunal for Iraqis who commit crimes against Americans. The U.S. appeared to lean toward an Iraqi-led process for war criminals. Concerned about both the limited effect of "victors' justice" and the incapacity of the Iraqi system, the UN advocated a different approach. In a briefing to the Security Council in July, Vieira de Mello said, "I believe there is much merit in considering the establishment of a mixed Iraqi and international panel of experts to consider in detail the options that would best suit Iraq." Vieira de Mello stayed shy of advocating an international tribunal, but held out for the prospect of international participation.

While serving as the UN's envoy in Iraq responsible for coordinating humanitarian relief and other issues, Vieira de Mello maintained a profile on human rights. "I consider the development of a culture of human rights in Iraq as fundamental to stability and true peace in that country," the UN's news agency IRIN quoted him as saying in June as he headed to Iraq. "Respect for human rights is the only solid foundation for durable peace and for development. I shall place particular importance...on the need to insure women's rights and their full participation in the consultative process -- at least the political one."

Sadly, Vieira de Mello's remarks at a press conference before heading out to Iraq were prescient. "Security has not been completely restored and it is impossible to deal with the rest and to build what we want to build -- democratic institutions and a real culture of human rights and political processes...without security," he said.

A charismatic diplomat in a world where officials often hide from the public, Vieira de Mello was seen as the "go-to guy" for assisting newly-independent states in high-risk neighborhoods through turbulent postwar reconstruction periods. The career of Vieira de Mello, 55, a Brazilian national, illustrates the world's worst hotspots in recent decades. He came to work at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva in 1969. He served in Bangladesh when it won its independence from Pakistan; in Cyprus following the 1974 Turkish invasion; in Cambodia; in Kosova following the NATO bombing to dislodge Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He also headed the UN office in East Timor from 2000-02 to prepare it for independence. UN-watchers surmised that de Mello would eventually become secretary-general.

Some NGOs were critical of the appointment of de Mello to Iraq because they believed he already had a full plate as high commissioner for human rights, having to cope with challenging issues ranging from the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Liberia and the lack of international response to the ongoing trauma of displacement and killings in Chechnya, where the UN has had to work more quietly. In a public statement issued at the time of his appointment, Amnesty International said the jobs of special envoy and human rights commissioner should not be combined. Bertrand Ramcharan, a seasoned diplomat with 30 years of experience, had already been named acting high commissioner and is currently remaining in the post. Vieira de Mello had intended to return to his original position in Geneva within the next two months, colleagues said, as the mission to Iraq was not intended for the long term.

Dubbed a "bureaucratic black belt" by those who worked closely with him, Vieira de Mello was known as an insider talented at navigating the troubled currents of UN politics but quietly pushing to get things done. He had been picked for his current position and past jobs for just that quality, and human rights experts believed he was effective particularly in strengthening the UN's field missions and in tackling such issues as the internally displaced in war zones. Some wished for a more high-profile impact. Human Rights Watch's Roth told the "Los Angeles Times" at the time of his appointment in 2002 that Vieira de Mello would have to "prove he could stand up to governments" and "be a clear and resounding voice on behalf of the victims." In the end, as in so many attacks on humanitarian workers around the world, governments and their actions were not immediately at issue, as Vieira de Mello was most likely victimized by non-state actors who had chosen terrorism as their method.

Some UN observers perceived Vieira de Mello as less outspoken than his predecessor in the human rights job, former Irish President Mary Robinson, who managed to rankle all five permanent members of the Security Council with her candid criticisms of human rights abuses, particularly in conjunction with the war on terrorism following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. While more discreet, Vieira de Mello and his staff continued to make public criticism on human rights issues, including interventions with the Russian government on the question of forced return of displaced persons from Ingushetia to Chechnya, which Vieira de Mello said in a 14 April BBC interview was being done against their will. He also arranged for Ramcharan to visit all the Central Asian nations earlier this year due to mounting concerns about human rights conditions in the region.

While most of the world's attention for Iraq has focused on the killing of soldiers and journalists, humanitarian workers have also been targeted. Like dozens of other humanitarian workers, both locals and foreigners, around the world, they were unarmed and open to attack, especially as they began to encounter information about massive human rights abuses. Increasingly, as civil wars take their greatest toll on civilians, the humanitarian workers and human rights investigators who come to aid the population themselves fall under attack. Before the Baghdad blast, 18 workers were killed in 2003, in Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The UN is considering a resolution to protect such workers, but NGOs say that unless the U.S. and other countries make a commitment to provide overall military security, such expressions of support will have no teeth. U.S. leaders have been reluctant to extend security forces, not only because they are not equipped for the job of policing but because they themselves can draw fire. The Baghdad blast will undoubtedly call also into question whether human rights investigations and work in reconstructing civil society can reasonably be performed in what essentially remains a combat zone.

Outright attacks on the UN are not as frequent as those against specific countries such as the United States or Jordan. The latter was a victim of a bomb blast earlier this month at its embassy in Baghdad, where 11 were killed. Experts say those who attacked the UN compound in Baghdad may have associated the UN with the U.S. presence in Iraq, and may also have wanted to specifically target Vieira de Mello. L. Paul Bremer, the chief U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq, said there were indications that the truck bomb crashed deliberately into the compound just beneath de Mello's third-floor office, "The New York Times" reported on 19 August.

The UN is often disparaged by governments frustrated with the inaction of its bureaucracy. Civilians in areas of armed conflict often complain that the UN is helpless to assist them and is even forced to cooperate with their persecutors to keep a presence on the ground in war zones. It is only at times when humanitarians fall in the line of duty that belated recognition comes for their sacrifices and the small but important victories they are able to achieve under hellish circumstances. Speaking of East Timor, Vieira de Mello once said, "You don't change it into a Garden of Eden in two years" but added, "we have laid solid bases for the country to live in peace." CAF

COURT UPHOLDS OPPOSITION FIGURE'S 10-YEAR SENTENCE. On 15 August, the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan reviewed the case of Feliks Kulov, former vice president and national security chief and leader of the opposition Ar-Namys party, and upheld the previous 10-year sentence, the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee and local media reported. Kulov had been convicted on charges of abuse of office and embezzlement of state funds while in office in the 1990s. In January 2001, a military court sentenced Kulov in closed proceedings to seven years in prison for abuse of power while serving as national security minister in 1997-1998. The sentence was delivered despite his acquittal of the same charges in August 2000. Kulov was sentenced on 8 May 2002 with co-defendant Aleksandr Gasanov on charges of embezzlement while Kulov was governor of Chui Province and Gasanov was a construction company manager.

Kulov's lawyers and human rights activists in Bishkek and abroad say the accusations were fabricated in retaliation for Kulov's political campaigns and outspoken criticism of President Askar Akaev. They say the real reason he is in prison is because he challenged Akaev in presidential races and garnered some support in Kyrgyzstan, although it is difficult to assess given government manipulation of polls and the media. Activists believe the outcome of the court session was influenced by what they call a long-standing vendetta of the president. Kulov previously served as chief of the State Security Committee and was also formerly the mayor of Bishkek. Authorities did not begin investigating the charges against him until after he announced the formation of Ar-Namys and became publicly active.

Kulov ran in both parliamentary and presidential elections in recent years, but the Kyrgyz Human Rights Committee and international observers say authorities maneuvered to keep him from winning the race. Officials of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which has a mission in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the European Union and the U.S. government have raised Kulov's case repeatedly. Attorney Scott Horton, president of the International League for Human Rights, visited Kulov in prison, interviewed security and justice officials, and compiled a dossier on the case against Kulov. In his report, he recounts how such incidents such as the unlawful wiretapping by subordinates formed the basis for serious accusations against Kulov, although they were trivial.

As Kulov's case has made its way through the courts, relatives and human rights activists in Kyrgyzstan have expressed hope that Western pressure on President Akaev might encourage him to relent and release Kulov, as other political prisoners have been let go in recent years. Apparently the authorities are telling Kulov that he can only be freed if he agrees immediately to leave the country, and have also implied that he could seek a pardon -- if he were to admit his guilt. So far, he has declined.

On occasion, Kulov has penned articles of protest from prison and has not complained of harsh treatment. He has refused to admit his guilt and vows to continue his activism. His supporters have repeatedly seen their hopes of his release dashed, especially at times of high-level meetings between the U.S. and Kyrgyzstan (see RFE/RL's "(Un)Civil Societies," 28 August 2002). When Akaev comes to the UN General Assembly this fall, human rights groups are expecting his case to be raised again.

ONE YEAR LATER, COLLEAGUES DEMAND RUSSIAN ACCOUNTABILITY FOR KIDNAPPED AID WORKER. Colleagues and relatives of kidnapped aid worker Arjan Erkel, a Dutch citizen who volunteered for Doctors Without Borders (MSF), gathered in Geneva, Moscow, and New York, one year from the date of his abduction in Daghestan, to call on Russian authorities to do more to find him. They say Russian security agents witnessed the kidnapping in Daghestan last year, but failed to intervene, and that recent "proof of life" conveyed by the kidnappers illustrates efforts should be increased to free the Dutchman. In Moscow, MSF representatives picketing Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Lyubanka Square said in a statement distributed to the press, "It is a scandal that, after one year, our colleague Arjan Erkel is still missing. This can only be attributed to the mishandling of the investigation and a lack of commitment by the Russian authorities," AP reported on 13 August.

In New York, 50 coworkers and supporters of Erkel assembled across from the UN dressed in brightly colored MSF T-shirts and the white vests of medical personnel, carrying placards with a picture of Erkel and the questions: "Where's the Investigation?" "Where's the Accountability?" and "Where's Arjan?" Carol Etherington, president of the board of MSF-USA, spoke before the group, noting she had worked with Erkel in Tajikistan in 1999. An experienced humanitarian worker, Erkel had been with MSF for six years. He volunteered for service in Chechnya "without any political agenda, with a mission only to alleviate the suffering of the Chechen people," Etherington said.

No groups have claimed responsibility for his kidnapping, said Etherington, and MSF does not speculate about the persons currently holding them. Yet Russians have "failed in their responsibility for guaranteeing the safety of humanitarian workers," says Etherington and that the lack of progress in investigating the incident and freeing Erkel represents a "lack of political will and resolve that is essential in mobilizing resources," she said. Other countries in the international community, including the U.S., also bear responsibility because they have been "too, too discreet," Etherington said, and have not pressed the Russian federal government, on whose territory the abduction took place, to do more to solve the case. In mid-June, kidnappers made available a video of Erkel, in which he held up a current newspaper, and in late July, produced some pictures to indicate he was still alive and well, prompting colleagues to hope that it would be a matter of not "whether" Erkel would be found and freed but "how and when."

Noting that a number of humanitarian workers have been attacked, kidnapped, or killed in Chechnya in two wars, Patrice Page, another MSF representative in New York, said, "We must draw the parallels between such abductions and the violence against Chechen civilians -- it is only an extension." MSF has been an outspoken witness of attacks on civilians by Russian forces and Chechen fighters and has documented the plight of displaced persons. MSF say they have been forced to stop all operations in Chechnya, as they are unable to gain the safe access to the population required to perform their mission, which they describe as an effort "to assist civilians and bear witness" to violations of international humanitarian law in war. Some 89,000 displaced persons remain in Ingushetia, 40,000 in Chechnya, and 35,000 in Daghestan, MSF estimates.

With a renewed focus on the case, Dutch reporters have brought new details of the investigation to light that were previously not publicized. Coen van Zwol of the Dutch newspaper "NRC Handelsblad," working with "Novaya gazeta" reporters in Moscow, says Erkel was being followed by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) at the time of his kidnapping. An FSB car was spotted on the scene by eyewitnesses when unidentified men with Kalashnikovs pushed the relief worker into a car. The Russian agents watched the abduction, but did not interfere, say witnesses. While it is likely Erkel, as a foreign humanitarian worker, was already under surveillance in Chechnya, the FSB reportedly took a keener interest in him because he had had dinner in a public place with two visiting U.S. military observers shortly before his disappearance in Makhachkala, capital of Daghestan.

Through conversations with four people said to be close to the criminal investigation in Moscow and Makhachkala, the journalists have attempted to reconstruct the events leading up to Erkel's kidnapping. They say the two American diplomats contacted Erkel, and that at least one was a member of the military section of the U.S. Embassy. The diplomats were said to be visiting Daghestan at the invitation of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry to observe a Russian fleet exercise in the Caspian Sea between 8-15 August. Russian President Vladimir Putin used the exercise to put on a display of force in troubled negotiations about the demarcation of the Caspian Sea.

The two U.S. diplomats contacted Erkel, evidently as part of their effort to get a general briefing on the security situation in the region. Observers say the contact with military personnel may have endangered him by drawing the attention of the authorities to him, as well as those intent on intimidating MSF for their vigorous criticism of human rights abuses in Chechnya. Contacted by the Dutch journalists, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow refrained from giving the names of the military observers and did not comment on the meeting with Erkel, calling it a "very sensitive issue," "NRC Handelsblad" quoted an embassy spokesperson as saying. An eyewitness of the abduction told reporters he had noticed an FSB car near the home of Erkel's girlfriend on 12 August, when he dropped her off.

Visits to Chechnya by U.S. personnel are not a frequent occurrence due to the risks there and reluctance of Russian authorities to tolerate outside scrutiny. In Chechnya, as elsewhere around the world, relations between military authorities and nongovernmental organizations are uneasy, as humanitarian workers fear the army presence can intimidate civilians they have come to help. Russian authorities have required that humanitarian groups operating in the region accept military escorts, but MSF has had a policy of rejecting such assistance, given allegations that the Russian military is responsible for attacks on civilians. Another MSF member, Kenneth Gluck, a U.S. citizen, kidnapped in 2000, was held for some three months before his release.

Another detail discovered by the Dutch journalists was that the kidnappers were said to leave Makhachkala and head to the mountains in a small car, in which it would have been difficult to hide a hostage, "especially a tall, burly Dutchman," they said. Local Daghestani authorities say they offered Erkel an armed police escort early in August, but he declined.

The authorities have every reason to believe Erkel is alive, and has been moved to Chechnya. The kidnappers originally used Erkel's cellphone to call police in Daghestan. In late July, the kidnappers made available a video of Erkel, holding up a current newspaper. At the EU-Russian summit in St. Petersburg on 31 May, the Dutch foreign minister raised Erkel's case with President Putin, and characterized the Russian leader as "well-informed" and "interested in the case." Local authorities had closed the investigation into Erkel's disappearance last November, but then reopened it. The "NRC Handesblat" reporters surmised that after the summit, and with the year anniversary approaching, the FSB in Moscow had put pressure on their local colleagues to solve the case.

"The UN must act for the accountability of the Russian Federation in the investigation," MSF's Page said. "It is alarming that the international community has allowed this intolerable situation involving a permanent member of the UN Security Council to continue for so long," says an MSF leaflet directing supporters to sign a petition at Following long-established practice, Security Council members have only very tentatively and indirectly raised the issue of the war in Chechnya, and both permanent and rotating members have faced sharp rebuff. A resolution calling for more investigation into human rights atrocities in Chechnya and more accountability failed at the UN Commission on Human Rights earlier this year.

Officials officially acknowledge 215 people listed as missing in Chechnya, but human rights groups believe there have been many hundreds more. There have been less kidnappings of foreign and Russian aid workers and journalists in the second war, which began in 1999, than in the first war of 1994-1996, but this appears to be a function of restrictions to the region imposed by the Russian military. No other foreign aid workers are known to be held at present, although a police officer, Ibragim Zyazikov, who worked as a security guard in Grozny for People in Need, a Czech humanitarian group, has been missing since last February.

AFGHANISTAN. "Afghanistan's New Constitution: Towards Consolidation or Fragmentation?" A briefing by RFE/RL's Afghanistan analyst Amin Tarzi. In October, Afghanistan is scheduled to approve the draft for a new constitution that is to form the basis for establishing a pluralistic and inclusive nation-state. Many questions remain, however, about the role of women and minorities, the role of religion, and what type of political system will be established by the 500 members of the Constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) en/2003/08/54317452-54D4-4A98-A5F7-1145DB292EBA.ASP

AZERBAIJAN. "Azerbaijani Opposition Mulls Options," "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." Azerbaijani opposition politicians have announced their intention to convene mass protests against the appointment of ailing octogenarian President Heidar Aliev's 41-year-old son, Ilham, as prime minister. Other opposition politicians have embarked on a hunger strike in protest. But it is by no means clear whether the population at large feels strongly enough to take to the streets and protest. And deep-seated rivalries among the various opposition parties and groupings are likely to preclude their closing ranks behind a single candidate to challenge Ilham Aliyev in the presidential ballot scheduled for 15 October, a failure that may in turn fuel popular apathy. To date, five candidates including President Aliyev and his son have been confirmed, and an additional 11 are seeking recognition of their signatures for the ballot.

BELARUS. "A Struggling Civil Society." Belarus is the least democratic and most repressive country in Europe, according to Ted Kontek, a former political/economic officer in the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. Before the re-election of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in September 2001, the country still had a good chance of joining the fast-developing states of Central and Eastern Europe, like neighboring Poland or Lithuania. However, Kontek said, in the last two years Belarus's economy has deteriorated and, consequently, living standards have fallen. Kontek found that Belarusians are concerned about two issues: the possibility of a referendum to change the constitution and allow Lukashenka to run for a third consecutive term as president, and the possible loss of their country's sovereignty to a deepening political and, especially, economic and currency union with Russia. en/2003/08/06B2B1B9-C8A2-4471-B0E4-2D2105C4E713.ASP

IRAN. "Government Officials Report Several Deaths in Riot." Mehdi Taheri, the Isfahan Governor General Office's director-general for political-security affairs, said that eight people, including two policemen, were killed and some 150 injured during 16 August riots in the central Iranian province. The original protest was against the amalgamation of two towns, Vardasht and Dehaqan, but Taheri says it turned violent when agents provocateurs came on the scene. "A number of the town's youngsters also joined in the riots for the sake of entertainment," he said.

SERBIA. "Official Calls For More Vigorous Response to Attacks." Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic has called on international forces in Kosova to mount a more vigorous response to ethnically motivated attacks. In an address to the UN Security Council, Covic sharply criticized the role of international security forces in Kosova since the withdrawal of forces by Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Covic cited a recent series of killings of Serbs in the province, the latest last week when unknown gunmen fired on Serbian teenagers swimming near a Serbian enclave, killing two of them. Another Serbian man shot early last week while fishing near a Serbian enclave in Kosova died yesterday of his injuries in a Belgrade hospital. Covic said UN and NATO-led forces (KFOR) in Kosova must be more efficient in investigating the attacks, most of which have been unsolved. He said international forces had become helpless in dealing with terrorism by ethnic Albanian forces.