Chechens (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Chechnya is a small mountainous region in the Russian Federation. Bordered by Georgia to the south and the Russian constituent republics of Ingushetia and Dagestan to the east and west, the Connecticut-sized enclave straddles the crossroads between Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Its indigenous people, known as Chechens, are an ethnically distinct national group with a language and culture predating the formation of the Russia state. Worldwide in the early 2000s, Chechens numbered around 1 million.
Although Chechens are Sunni Muslims, the practice of Islam in Chechnya is generally moderate and strongly influenced by Sufi teachings and various mystical orders. Equally important is the adat, a body of indigenous, pre-Islamic law resting on principles of family honor, deference to elders, and personal hospitality. While kinship, clan, and religious structures are strongly patriarchal, Chechen women nonetheless possess full social and political equality.
Prior to the Russian colonial, Chechnya was an independent nation but not a centralized state. Villages were largely autonomous, linked through mutual defense obligations and larger, multi-clan confederations. In 1858, however, Moscow consolidated its control of the Chechen lowlands and the neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, eventually forcing the highland clans to capitulate after forty-six years of bloody conflict. Thousands of refugees left the Caucasus and resettled in Jordan and Turkey, where Chechen communities remain.
A History of Conflict
In 1918 Chechens and other peoples in the Northern Caucasus declared independence following the Bolshevik Revolution. Within four years, however, the Red Army had once again occupied the territory and began to impose communist rule. In 1944 Soviet leader Joseph Stalin departed the entire Chechen nation en masse to Kazakhstan and Siberia, killing at least onequarter and as much as one-half of the entire population in transit. Though politically rehabilitated in 1956 and resettled in 1957, Chechens remained objects of both official and unofficial discrimination under both Soviet and post-Soviet governments.
In 1991 communist authorities in Chechnya supported the attempted military coup against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. As the Soviet Union fell, Chechens deposed their hard-line leadership and declared independence. The following year, the newly formed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria (ChRI) adopted a constitution defining it as a secular democracy. In 1994 Russian troops invaded Chechnya to quash the independence movement. Some 100,000 peopleost of them civiliansied before the conclusion of a ceasefire in the 1996 Khasavyurt Accords.
In August 1999, guerrillas led by Chechen warlord Shamyl Basayev launched a failed raid into neighboring Dagestan. Shortly thereafter, a string of unexplained bombings rocked apartments in Moscow and Volgodonsk, killing 300 civilians. Though the ChRI condemned Basayev's actions, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of Russia swiftly launched a second military campaign to end Chechnya's drive for independence.
The human cost of the Russian offensive proved severe. Between October 1999 and February 2000, no less than 200,000 Chechen noncombatants were displaced by aerial and artillery bombardment. Federal Army and Interior Ministry (MVD) troops failed to provide safe passage for many, ignoring key provisions of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. Thousands more were detained in filtration camps, where the MVD and the Federal Security Service (FSB) culled alleged terrorists from the general population.
Violations of basic norms governing warfare further exacerbated these derogations from international humanitarian law. Putin's decision to use SS-1 SCUD and SS-21 SCARAB rockets during the siege of Grozny, Chechnya's capitol, marked the first and only time (as of 2004) a modern head of state has used ballistic missiles against his own population. The strikes razed homes, schools, and hospitals, burying thousands of noncombatants seeking shelter below ground.
The Kremlin's offensive met with international condemnation. In February 2000, the U.S. Senate unanimously declared that "the people of Chechnya [were] exercising their legitimate right of self-defense" and demanded a negotiated settlement under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Shortly thereafter, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) suspended the voting rights of its Russian delegation, citing egregious violations of the 1954 European Convention on Human Rights.
The diligent documentation of crimes against humanity and looming threat of genocide in Chechnya produced little more than rhetoric, however. Efforts by PACE and OSCE to monitor abuses met with hostility in Moscow and generated little support among Western governments. As the Russian offensive gradually became an armed occupation, the relevance of international institutions and enforcement of international conventions grew politically ambiguous.
Apart from ad hoc Russian consultative arrangements with PACE and the European Parliament, there were currently not any international or intra-governmental mechanisms for monitoring war crimes. With ethnic Chechens facing systematic discrimination within the Russian judicial system, many turned to civil suits before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in
Left unchecked, the second Russo-Chechen conflict spawned a demographic crisis comparable, in relative terms, to the Balkan wars. Figures compiled by the U.S. Department of State estimate that at least 80,000 Chechens have died since 1999. Total deaths, including those from the first war, are believed to be around 180,000, though figures compiled by both Russian and international human rights monitors suggest that this number may be closer to 250,000.
Many of the survivors have been driven from their homes. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that approximately 350,000 Chechens were displaced between 1999 and 2002. Of that number, some 150,000 were believed to be sheltering in Ingushetia, with another 30,000 seeking refuge in regions throughout the Russian Federation. Thousands more joined growing diaspora communities in Central Asia, Europe, and North America. All told, half of Chechnya's pre-1989 population was either dead or displaced.
Those remaining in Chechnya are subject to arbitrary detention, beatings, lootings, and torture. Since the start of the war, more than 2,750 Chechen noncombatants have disappeared in Russian cleansing operations. Between 2003 and 2003, human rights organizations discovered some 49 mass burial sites, most near Russian military installations. Documents released in April 2003 by Kremlin-backed Chechen authorities revealed an average of 109 extrajudicial executions by Russian forces each month. Chechnya's per capita murder rate exceeds that recorded for the entire Soviet Union at the height of Stalin's purges.
This human calamity is compounded by an environmental and epidemiological catastrophe. In 2003 the Russian Health Ministry designated one-third of Chechnya as a "zone of ecological disaster" and another 40 percent as a "zone of extreme environmental distress." In 2003 Chechen infant mortality rates were nearly twice as high as those for Russians and almost four times greater than in the United States; and three percent of the Chechen population suffered from tuberculosisn epidemic comparable to that present in the Russian penal system.
Yet despite documentation of widespread, systematic crimes against humanity, governments and nongovernmental organizations remain reluctant to frame the crisis in Chechnya using the rubric of genocide. Foremost among the relevant considerations is the fact that Chechen combatants have also committed egregious violations of international humanitarian law, though not on the scale perpetrated by their Russian counterparts. Those violations include abductions and extrajudicial executions of Russian loyalists, as well as the 2002 seizure of the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow by gunmen with ties to Chechen organized crime.
Also disturbing is the increasing frequency and intensity of suicide bombings by irregular elements along the radical fringe of Chechen society. Chief among them were the leveling of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration headquarters in December 2002 and the subsequent attacks on the Prokhladny Air Base in North Ossetia in 2003. Attacks against nonmilitary targets are also evident, with Chechen widows launching a series of reprisal bombings in Moscow during the summer and fall of 2003. Though these acts bore a striking similarity to the suicide campaigns by women in the Sri Lankan civil war, the means employed ultimately conflated the Russo-Chechen conflict with the global war on terrorism.
Further complicating efforts to discern ethnic or sectarian motives for the violence is the role of the numerically small but politically significant pro-Kremlin Chechen militia. Continued economic, political, and military cooperation between this armed faction and Russian forces belies suggestions that genocide, at least in the legal sense, is a motivating factor in the conflict. As such, the Russo-Chechen war is best understood as a postcolonial war, rather than an explicitly genocidal crisis.
SEE ALSO Cossacks; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
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