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The Failure of Conflict Prevention and Management: The Case of Chechnya. Part II: International Reactions to the War[i]



By Ib Faurby

[From: Tom Trier & Lars Funch Hansen (eds.), Conflict and Forced Displacement in the Caucasus. Perspectives, Challenges and Responses. Copenhagen: Danish Refugee Council, 1999, pp. 72-81. Copyright: Danish Refugee Council and the author] 

The war in Chechnya, which began in December 1994 and lasted for 22 months, was a humanitarian catastrophe. Time does not allow for a detailed description of the war and its consequences, nor for a thorough discussion of the many violations of international law and human rights which took place during the war. These violations have been described in authoritative reports from a number of Russian and Western human rights organisations as well as by the Russian President's Human Rights Commission and by fact-finding missions sent out by the Council of Europe.[ii]

One conclusion which stands out from all these reports is that in spite of a number of Chechen violations of human rights - primarily in connection with the hostage taking in Budjonnovsk and Kiselyar - the most massive violations were perpetrated by the Russian forces and by Russian authorities - most probably as a matter of deliberate policy. These included violations of the Geneva Convention, particularly Additional Protocol II, a number of UN conventions, and - following Russia's admission to the Council of Europe - the European Convention on Human Rights and other conventions within the framework of the Council. Furthermore, a number of CSCE/OSCE "politically binding documents" on human rights and politico­-military affairs were violated.

Our focus will be on how Western governments and relevant international institutions reacted to these violations and what the consequences of these international reactions were for the war, for Chechnya and Russia and for the humanitarian relief work and international humanitarian law.

Western reactions

The reactions of the Western countries to the war were - to put it mildly - passive. Only when the atrocities were reported on the front pages of the Western press - and particularly in dramatic television images - did Western political leaders feel compelled to react, but then mainly in mild language expressing regret at the loss of civilian lives and appealing to the parties to find a political solution to the conflict. There were only few and faint-hearted attempts by Western governments and international institutions to highlight and criticise violations of international law and human rights - let alone do something to enforce these principles.

From the outset, practically all Western leaders Chose to portray the war as an "internal Russian affair", thus signalling to the Russian leadership that it could do e111110St almost as it pleased without harming Russia's relationship with the West. President Bill Clinton compared the war to the American Civil War, and his Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, stated that President Yeltsin had no choice, While Chancellor Helmut Kohl noted that the war would not spoil his personal friendship with President Yeltsin.[iii]

At no point during the autumn 1994 intensified crisis and covert Russian military intervention in Chechnya did the Western governments utilise the existing international instruments for seeking information about the situation and for conflict prevention and mediation developed during the preceding years. For example, OSCE's Vienna Mechanism for consultations on unusual military activities was not invoked. The Budapest CSCE Summit - where the name was changed to OSCE - took place precisely during the December 1994 Russian military build up aimed at intervening in Chechnya. Nevertheless, not a word was uttered and not a question asked about the matter. Instead, the heads of states and governments signed a Politico-Military Code of Conduct, a code violated only five days later by the Russian invasion of Chechnya.

The bitter irony of the Western governments' reaction to the war as an internal Russian matter was that Russia had not originally invoked the traditional Soviet rejection of international concerns by referring to the conflict as an internal matter. Rather, it was the Western governments, thereby depriving themselves of their legitimate right to criticise the Russian government's actions. From the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 onwards, the member states of CSCE/OSCE have agreed on a number of documents which have made human rights, unusual military activities and other matters of international concern, about which every member state has the right to seek information and express concern via elaborate international mechanisms. Thus, the Moscow Document from the CSCE Conference on the Human Dimension states that member governments: "categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the CSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating states and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the state concerned." [iv]

In short, due to a lack of understanding of the conflict and lack of political will in the major Western states, none of the relevant mechanisms were used in trying to seek information or mediate during the initial phase of the conflict. The attitudes of the United States and major European countries defined and circumscribed what the intergovernmental organisations could do and did in the Russian-Chechen conflict. Consequently, these organisations came to play a far weaker role in conflict prevention, management and resolution, as well as in humanitarian assistance, than they could have.

Intergovernmental organisations

The United Nations
The role of the UN was absolutely marginal, and this was not just a consequence of Russia s permanent membership of the Security Council and its power of veto. No other UN institutions or specialised agencies played the kind of role for which they were intended. The war in Chechnya was never placed on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Russia, being a permanent member of the Security Council, could certainly have vetoed any proposed resolution on the matter. Undoubtedly, this was a major reason for not putting the matter on the agenda. However, the prospect of a veto has not always prevented an issue for being debated in the Council if the other members wanted it. In the case of Chechnya, however, the will was lacking. This lack of will was also visible by the Secretary-General. Boutros-Ghali never expressed himself on the war in Chechnya, except by remarking that it was an internal matter in the Russian Federation.[v]

Already before the outbreak of war in Chechnya, the UNHCR was engaged in humanitarian relief work m the North Caucasus. In December 1994, Russian authorities requested the assistance of the UNHCR in dealing with persons who had been displaced as a consequence of the fighting in Chechnya. The Russian authorities, however, did not want the UNHCR working within Chechnya itself but only in the neighbouring areas, and neither the UNHCR nor any other UN agencies put any pressure on Russia to obtain permission to work in Chechnya.[vi]

The European Union

During the second half of 1994, neither the EU Commission nor the German Chairmanship reacted to the conflict in Chechnya and the Russian military intervention. The heavy fighting in Grozny in early 1995, however, forced the EU to postpone the signing of an Interim Agreement on trade, part of a broader Agreement on Partnership and Co-operation with Russia, which had not yet been ratified by the member states. In March 1995, the EU formulated four conditions, which had to be fulfilled before the Interim Agreement could be signed. The four conditions were:

  1. Establishment of a permanent OSCE presence in Chechnya;
  2. Access for humanitarian assistance;
  3. Cease-fire;
  4. Opening of negotiations for a political solution to the conflict.

The EU, however, emphasised that these conditions should in no way be seen as sanctions against Russia.[vii]

In the spring of 1995, as soon as the war had moved outside Grozny and away from the front pages, the EU resumed its original policy. The Commission urged the Council to intensify dialogue with Russia, and at the Cannes Summit in late June the Council proposed that the Interim Agreement be signed. The following months saw the member states also ratifying the Agreement on Partnership and Co-operation with Russia. These developments occurred despite the fact that not all four conditions, which the EU itself had established a few months earlier, had been fulfilled.

The unwillingness of the West to accompany its words with deeds was most vividly illustrated by the fact that the IMF, in March 1995, shortly after the fall of Grozny, decided on a new stand-by-credit for Russia amounting to 6.5 billion dollars.[viii]

The Council of Europe

In May 1992, Russia had applied for membership of the Council of Europe, which had initiated the procedure for evaluating the Russian application. In early February l 995, however, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended the procedure due to the war in Chechnya.[ix] As already described, however, after the fall of Grozny, the major West European states and the EU wanted to resume normal relations with Russia. This development was also felt in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, although the "return to business as usual" took a little longer than in the European Union. Despite reports from its sub-committee on Human Rights, which documented continued violations of international humanitarian law, the Council of Europe resumed deliberations on the Russian application for membership.

As late as January 1996, the sub-committee delivered yet another report, strongly critical of the general legal situation in Russia. Regarding Chechnya it stated that the war had intensified and that the Russian forces were committing severe human rights violations, contrary to the promises given to the Council of Europe.[x] Nevertheless, a week later the Parliamentary Assembly voted in favour of admitting Russia to the Council of Europe. The original demand that the war in Chechnya should be brought to an end before Russia could become a member was dropped. And this was precisely at a time where the war was escalating with large scale attacks on undefended villages and towns - notably the atrocious attacks on Sernovodsk and - for the second time - Samaski in March 1996.


We have already mentioned the slow reaction of the OSCE to the crisis and war. Even so, the OSCE became the international community's main instrument - or face-saving device - in relation to the war in Chechnya.

Due to pressure exerted by the United States and the European Union, an OSCE mission, called the OSCE Assistance Group, was established in Grozny in late April 1995. The OSCE Assistance Group had a broad mandate but worked under extremely difficult conditions. One could ask if the different parts of the Assistance Group's mandate were mutually compatible and particularly whether the same mission could at one and the same time be an impartial mediator, criticise human rights violations and support the work of the humanitarian organisations. At least in one case the Assistance Group's report on human rights violations was modified by the Secretariat in Vienna before being released to the press.[xi]

In any case, the Assistance Group was small. The Russian authorities had only allowed a six-man mission, but during several periods the mission was even smaller due to the unwillingness of the OSCE member states to provide personnel for the mission, while some of those provided in the early phases were often not the most competent. An important improvement in the work of the Assistance Group took place, however, from January 1996, when leadership was taken over by the Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann. Guldimann bears a large part of the honour for bringing the parties together in the spring of 1996 at a meeting in the Kremlin, an important milestone on the way to the final cessation of hostilities in the autumn of 1996. Guldimann was, nevertheless, constantly short of staff and money. Time and again he appealed, in vain, to the Chairman-in-Office and the Secretariat of the OSCE for more staff - including an expert on international humanitarian law. But to no avail. Finally, the Russian military authorities in Chechnya, contrary to the agreement between OSCE and Russia, often placed restrictions on the work and freedom of movement of the Assistance Group. This made it difficult for the Group to support the humanitarian aid organisations when they had problems with the Russian military authorities.

Explanations of Western attitudes

Let us briefly try to address the question of why the Western governments and the intergovernmental organisations reacted as they did. First of all, there was a lack of knowledge and interest in the problem. There was no real understanding of the nature of the conflict, of Chechen history and of the fact that the Chechen case was unique compared to other ethno-political problems in the Russian Federation. Hence, Western governments often uncritically accepted the Russian authorities' definition and description of the conflict - even in cases where it should have been obvious that it was outright misinformation.

Second, there was what could be called the West's "Russia First-policy". Russia was and is the most important successor-state to the Soviet Union. For good reasons, the West wanted Russia to succeed in its political and economic reforms and to develop co-operative relations with the West. More specifically the West wanted Russian co-operation on nuclear arms control, Russian acceptance of the enlargement of NATO and Russian co-operation in Bosnia and in other crisis areas around the world.

In this respect, the Chechen conflict was an unwarranted distraction, and many Western leaders could not hide their desire for the Russian forces to just get it over with as quickly as possible. As the Russian defence journalist Pavel Felgenhauer wrote, Western politicians hoped, "that a rapid and not too bloody elimination of the hotbed of separatism in Chechnya would allow them to keep silent".[xii]

Finally, the Western governments saw President Yeltsin as the guarantor of - if not the only hope for - reforms and benign relations with the West. Western policy thus came to be dependent on the actions and the political survival of a single person, and Western governments came to fear that strong reactions to the war would weaken Yeltsin and strengthen his communist and nationalist opponents.

What could have been done?

All the Western considerations of high politics were serious and important. Our point is certainly not that they should have been ignored. Rather, we insist that such considerations need not have excluded equally compelling considerations of international law and humanitarian norms and a far more active Western policy whose purpose was to place pressure on Russia to seek a peaceful solution to the conflict and to respect international humanitarian law. Russia had clear political and economic interests in maintaining a workable relationship with the West.

But Russia is a great power. Had a smaller state done what Russia did in Chechnya, there can be no doubt that the Western powers and the inter-governmental organisations would have reacted differently to its violations of international law and humanitarian norms.

Consequences of Western attitudes

Finally let us discuss some consequences or possible consequences of the way in which the war was interpreted and dealt with by the Western governments and the international institutions. The weak Western reactions verged on outright endorsement of Russia's actions in Chechnya. The West's official pronouncements on the war sent a message to Moscow that the war would not harm Russia's political and economic relations with the West - particularly if the problem was swiftly and effectively dealt with.

It is highly possible that a more determined Western attitude and more active Western involvement at the onset of the conflict could have favourably influenced the course of events. We do not blame the West for not preventing the war - nor for not bringing it to an earlier end. We simply blame the West for not trying to do so.

Consequences for Chechnya

The war was a catastrophe for Chechnya and for the people of Chechnya - Chechens and Russians alike. We do not know the exact number of civilian casualties, but we do know that the war was one of the most bloody conflicts of the post-Cold War era.                

Likewise, the number of refugees - or IDPs - was enormous. The physical destruction of Chechnya was such that even under the most favourable circumstances it will take years to reconstruct and re-establish a functioning society - and the circumstances are far from optimal.         
Furthermore, the war radicalised Chechen politics and the Chechen people. Partly       thanks to Western reactions - or rather lack of action - to Russia's violations of international humanitarian law, the war alienated the Chechens from the West and from Western ideas and values. And Western lack of concern helped fertilise the ground for radical political and religious ideas, which before the war had not had any substantial following in Chechnya - Sharia law, for example.

Consequences for Russia

The war was also a catastrophe for Russia: for its standing in the world, for its armed forces and for its economy. More importantly, the war was also a disaster for the development of democracy in Russia. The war was partly a result of the weakening of the democratic forces at the highest levels of government, and the war itself further weakened these forces. There were, of course, positive signs of the development of a civil society, primarily in those parts of the press, which opposed the war, and in the activities of groups such as the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers. However, the democratic parties proved unable to find a common attitude to the war, and their political impotence was all too clearly demonstrated. As far as the press was concerned, with a few notable exceptions, its criticism of the war diminished over time due to waning interest as well as increasing political and financial pressure.

The rationale for Western policy was support for Yeltsin as the guarantor of political and economic reform. However, the liberal opponents of the war in Russia were both puzzled and disappointed by the Western attitudes. They did not perceive it as support for the democratic forces.

More fundamentally, Russia has to choose between empire and democracy. Russia cannot become a genuine democracy, while at the same time forcing whole nations against their will to stay within the federation. But this was exactly what was attempted in December 1994 and in the following years.

Consequences for international law and norms

By not insisting on Russia's adherence to international law and norms, Western policy contributed to a weakening of these, including the Geneva Convention and the many OSCE norms and mechanisms developed in the preceding years.

By admitting Russia to the Council of Europe while the war still raged and even at a time when Russian forces were stepping up their atrocious attacks on civilians, the Council of Europe undermined its own authority and watered down the distinction between its legally binding norms and the OSCE norms which are only politically binding.

Consequences for humanitarian aid

The nature of the war meant that the need for humanitarian assistance was very large indeed. A number of humanitarian organisations were active in Chechnya during the war. However, the conditions under which they worked were extremely difficult and dangerous. One of the most important negative consequences of Western policy on the conflict was the lack of support for the humanitarian efforts in Chechnya. Like several other humanitarian organisations, Medecins sans Frontieres viewed the lack of diplomatic support as one of the main problems limiting the effectiveness of humanitarian aid in Chechnya.

Due to the unwillingness of governments to apply concrete and sustained diplomatic and political pressure, neither the UN nor the OSCE provided an effective political-security framework for implementing humanitarian actions inside Chechnya and for addressing the causes of the humanitarian catastrophe.

As Greg Hansen and Robert Seely concluded in their important study War and Humanitarian Action in Chechnya, written while the War was still going on:

At the international level, the prevailing tendency to acquiesce in Russia's management of the crisis rather than pressing to uphold international law and the rules of war (to which the Russian Federation is a signatory) has undoubtedly cost thousands of lives, increased the intractability of the war, and risked its expansion into neighbouring republics. The repeated and flagrant denial of humanitarian access by Russian and, to a lesser extent, separatist military forces, and their combined harassment of humanitarian opel-ations and personnel within the region has hobbled effective international action.[xiii]

Conclusions: what is to be done?

Many of the conclusions to be drawn from our presentation are self evident: although there are many areas where the international legal regime could be strengthened, the primary problem is not lack of law and norms, but political unwillingness to use the existing regimes when a great power is involved. It is often suggested that the international community needs better mechanisms for early warning of potential conflicts. Undoubtedly, something could and should be done in this respect. Such mechanisms - formal as well as informal - do in fact exist. In the case of Chechnya there were ample warnings by experts, by fact-finding missions[xiv] and by journalists. But the warnings went unheeded, in Moscow as well as in Western capitals and in the secretariats of international organisations. Despite an elaborate system of intergovernmental organisations, there exist no effective channels through which ethnic groups and non-recognised nations can air their grievances and be drawn into real negotiations. Conflict assessment is an important issue for the international community. When, for example, are internal conflicts legitimate issues of international law and entitled to international mediation and intervention? Mechanisms for providing the participation of non-state parties to intra-state conflicts in both conflict assessment and conflict resolution must be improved.


[i] This paper is based on a research project on the Russian-Chechen conflict conducted in co-operation with Märta-Lisa Magnusson and partly financed by the Danish Institute of International Affairs.

[ii] Report on the Human Rights Situation in Chechnya, Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Parliamentary Assembly. Committee on Legal Affairs and Hunan Rights, 29 June 1995; O. Orlov, A. Cherkasov, and S. Sirotkin: Conditions in Detention in Chechen Republic Conflict Zone: Treatment of Detainees, MOSCOW: Memorial Human Rights Center, 1995; Rieks H.J. Smeets and Egbert G. Ch. Wesselink, Chechnya one Year of  War: A Pax Christi International Report, 11 December 1995; On the Observance of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in the Russian Federation (I994-I995). Report of the President's Commission on Human Rights. Approved at the 5 February 1996 Session of the Commission, Moscow 1996; Civilians Targeted, A Medecins sans Frontieres Report on Violations of Humanitarian Law in Chechnya, Moscow: 18 April 1996; Russia/Chechnya. Report to the 1996 OSCE Conference, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, November 1996; Russia Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1996, Washington: U.S. Department of State, 30 January 1997.

[iii] Reuters, 14 December 1994; Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung, 20 January 1995; Press Conference by President Clinton and President Yeltsin. White House Press Release, 21 April 1996.

[iv] OSCE Handbook, Vienna: OSCE, 2nd ed., 1996, pp. 53-54.

[v] UN Secretary General has no comments on Russian abuse in Chechnya, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, New York, 15 February 1995.

[vi] Greg Hansen and Robert Seely, War and Humanitarian Action in Chechnya, Occasional Paper no. 26, Thomas J. Watson Jr. Institute for International Studies, Providence, RI, 1996, pp. 58-62.

[vii] EU Bulletin 3/1995, Brussels 1995, p. 85; Financial Times, 7 March 1995.

[viii] Le Monde, 12-13 March 1995.

[ix] Resolution 1055 (1995) on Russia's request for membership in light of the situation in Chechnya, adopted on 2 February 1995.

[x] Opinion on Russia's Membership of the Council of Europe. Doc. 7463, 18 January 1996, Opinion by the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, Strassbourg 1996.

[xi] Greg Hansen and Robert Seely: War and Humanitarian Action in Chechnya, p. 54.

[xii] Segodnia, 5 January 1995.

[xiii] Greg Hansen and Robert Seely: War and Humanitarian Action in Chechnya, pp. 74-75.

[xiv] See e.g., Chechnia. A Report of an International Alert Fact-Finding Mission London: International Alert, 1992.