"Human rights take a backseat in the 'war on terrorism'"
(YellowTimes.org - 27 Oct) – In an October 1st letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, regarding his impending meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Human Rights Watch (HRW) asked the leader to address the international human rights community's concerns about Moscow's abuses in Chechnya.
The letter read: "The Russian government was among the first to seek to exploit the September 11, 2001 attacks and their aftermath, suggesting that the West and Russia alike face 'a common foe' that would justify Russia's abusive operation in Chechnya. The subsequent muting of criticism by U.K. and other European leaders of human rights violations in Russia allowed the government to enjoy its new role as ally in the global campaign against terrorism and remain confident that it will face no diplomatic or other consequences as a result."
But aside from receiving occasional tough talk on Chechnya, not much of substance has ever been done to dissuade Moscow's efforts in the region; HRW is correct in pointing out that September 11th has provided a pretext for such activities though, even well before that day, Russia was carrying out what many felt to be one of the most bloody and protracted wars in the last fifty years.
The Chechen conflict is essentially one of sovereignty and began long ago. The Chechen people, indigenous to the Northern Caucasus for millennia, have been actively engaged in bitter conflict with the various Russian regimes for centuries.
In the 19th century, Tsarist Russia desired control of the region to solidify its boundary with their then enemy, the Ottoman Empire, to the southwest.
Today, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union - the event that spearheaded the Chechens' most recent proclamation of independence - the new Russian Federation has sought control over Chechnya for similar, if not more complex, reasons.
The tiny isthmus of land is still strategically key to regional influence, bordering both the Caspian and Black seas. The territory is also home to a myriad of proposed and existing oil pipelines streaming westward from Central Asia. The more Russia maintains its grasp over Chechnya and the six other semi-autonomous republics, the more say Moscow will have regarding the routes of future pipelines.
Additionally, Russia has strong interest in maintaining maximum influence over three of her former satellites: Georgia (most importantly), Armenia, and Azerbaijan, as the Middle East and Central Asia are gradually reshaped. U.S. military presence in Georgia has not gone unnoticed.
Significantly, Chechen resistance has proved more than enough to balance Moscow's fierce desire to bring the region under its control. For the past decade, highlighted by two major wars, Russian troops have been held at bay by rebels who are second only to Afghanistan's Mujihadeen for their tenacity.
Indeed, Chechnya has seemingly become another Afghanistan for the fiercely proud former superpower. Once again, Moscow is being thwarted by what many consider a rag-tag band of guerrillas.
The West has never overly concerned itself with the Russian/Chechen conflict and attitudes aren't about to change. Especially with the "war on terrorism" well under way and promises of its indefinite timetable, human rights abuses in a tiny republic in Asia aren't the main concern of the U.S. and Great Britain. The West is able to muster up even less concern knowing that Islamists have sought refuge with, fought alongside, and funded the Chechen resistance. The overwhelming majority of Chechen fighters are indigenous Chechen Muslims fighting for their independence and not intimately linked to fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
This stance of relative indifference, however, differs greatly from the one taken by George W. Bush during pre-election campaigning when he said that, if he were elected, he would say to Putin, "I think in order for you to have standing in the world of nations that you ought not to be bombing innocent women and children, and you're causing refugees to flee from your country, and therefore, until you decide not to do so, we won't continue with IMF aid and/or export/import loans."
Such comments aside, the situation in Chechnya resembles other conflicts that the U.S. has been involved with and traditionally backed the aggressor, such as East Timor's fight for independence from Indonesia or western Sahara's struggle under Moroccan rule.
Such struggles for independence have traditionally been feared by imperialist powers due to the inherent potential they possess for setting off strings of such secessions and inspiring other "breakaway republics," so Western policy towards Chechnya is transparently pro-Russia by default.
Russia and President Putin also occupy one of the five permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council. This fact is not lost on the administration of George W. Bush, who knows best its own plans for future military endeavors and, quite understandably, will seek Moscow's approval of them - if only to show the international community that they still respect the idea of multilateralism.
Washington wants at least the semblance of a coalition for its actions and will trade this for ignoring other countries' human rights violations as long as they don't hit too close to home.
An example of this is Uzbekistan, who HRW has deemed one of the most grievous of human rights violators. Yet for purposes of territorial strategy, Uzbekistan is a perfect partner for Washington in the Central Asian theatre of the "war on terrorism."
Moreover, witness HRW's latest observations of Russian operations in the North Caucasus: "Russia's war in Chechnya has continued to be plagued by severe human rights and humanitarian law violations perpetrated against the civilian population in Chechnya. Over the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented numerous military sweep operations in which Russian troops arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed civilians in a climate of lawlessness. The war is also characterized by sexual violence, including rape, by Russian servicemen against women in Chechnya. Human Rights Watch documented five such cases in connection with sweep operations in winter-spring 2002."
So it remains clear that, until a geostrategic shift occurs or until Washington finds Russian troops undesirable in the North Caucasus, Moscow will continue to have carte blanche in Chechnya and human rights will continue to take a backseat as the major players jockey for position in the new global order now focused in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Matthew Riemer drafted this report; Erich Marquardt contributed.