Thursday, March 02, 2006

End the Silence over Chechnya

The following is an open letter from Vaclav Havel, Andre Glucksmann, Prince Hassan bin Talal, Frederik Willem de Klerk, Mary Robinson, Yohei Sasakawa, Karel Schwarzenberg, George Soros and Desmond Tutu:
It is extremely difficult for an honest observer to break through the closed doors that separate Chechnya from the rest of the world. Indeed, no one even knows how many civilian casualties there have been in 10 years of war.

According to estimates by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the figure is between 100,000 (that is, one civilian out of 10) and 300,000 (one out of four). How many voters participated in last November's elections? From 60-80 per cent, according to Russian authorities; around 20 per cent, reckon independent observers. The blackout imposed on Chechnya prevents any precise assessment of the devastating effects of a ruthless conflict.

But censorship cannot completely hide the horror. Under the world's very eyes, a capital - Grozny, with 400,000 inhabitants - has been razed for the first time since Hitler's 1944 punishment of Warsaw.

Such inhumanity cannot plausibly be described as "anti-terrorism", as Russian President Vladimir Putin insists. The Russian military leadership claims to be fighting against a party of 700 to 2,000 combatants. What would be said if the British government had bombed Belfast or if the Spanish government bombed Bilbao, on the pretext of quelling the IRA or the ETA, respectively?

And yet the world remains silent in the face of the looting of Grozny and other Chechen towns and villages. Are Chechen women, children and all Chechen civilians less entitled to respect than the rest of mankind? Are they still considered human? Nothing can excuse the seeming indifference displayed by our worldwide silence.

In Chechnya, our basic morality is at stake. Must the world accept the rape of girls who were kidnapped by the occupying forces or their militias? Should we tolerate the murder of children and abduction of boys to be tortured, broken and sold back to their families, alive or dead? What about "filtration" camps, or "human firewood"? What about the villages exterminated to set an example? A few NGOs and some brave Russian and Western reporters have witnessed countless crimes. So we cannot say, "We did not know."

Indeed, the fundamental principle of democracies and civilised states is at issue in Chechnya: civilians' right to life, including the protection of innocents, widows and orphans. International agreements and the United Nations charter are as binding in Chechnya as anywhere else. The right of nations to self-determination does not imply the right of rulers to dispose of their people.

The fight against terrorism is also at stake. Who has not yet realised that the Russian army is actually behaving like a group of pyromaniac fire-fighters, fanning the fires of terrorism through its behaviour? After 10 years of large-scale repression, the fire, far from going out, is spreading, crossing borders, setting the northern Caucasus ablaze and making combatants even fiercer.

How much longer can we ignore the fact that in raising the bogeyman of "Chechen terrorism", the Russian government is suppressing the liberties gained when the Soviet empire collapsed? The Chechen War both masks and motivates the re-establishment of centralised power in Russia - bringing the media back under state control, passing laws against NGOs and reinforcing the "vertical line of power" - leaving no institutions and authorities able to challenge or limit the Kremlin. War, it seems, is hiding a return to autocracy.

Sadly, wars in Chechnya have been going on for 300 years. They were savage colonial conflicts under the tsar and almost genocidal under Stalin, who deported the whole Chechen population, a third of whom perished during their transfer to the Gulag.

Because we reject colonial and exterminating ventures, because we love Russian culture and believe that Russia can bloom in a democratic future and because we believe that terrorism - whether by stateless groups or state armies - should be condemned, we demand that the world's blackout on the Chechen issue must end. We must help Russia's authorities escape from the trap they set for themselves and into which they fell, putting not only Chechens and Russians, but the world at risk.

It would be tragic if, during the G8 summit scheduled for St Petersburg, Russia, in June, the Chechen issue were pushed to the side. This dreadful and endless war needs to be discussed openly if it is to end peacefully.
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