By Masha Karp
Human rights activists from all over Britain came to a conference on Enforced Disappearance held by Amnesty International in London on 23 October to learn what is being done, and what can be done, about the hundreds of thousands of people in different countries who have been detained or abducted by the state, and never seen again.
The prominent place that the countries of the former Soviet Union occupy among the perpetrators of these crimes was highlighted by the fact that the keynote speaker at the conference was Professor Philip Leach, Director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Centre (EHRAC). Together with Memorial, the EHRAC helps to bring cases from the North Caucasus to the European Court of Human Rights, and half of Professor Leach’s speech was devoted to Chechnya. Other areas which attracted attention at the conference included the Philippines, East Timor, the Balkans, North Africa and Central America.
The feature that unites disappearance cases all over the world is their double impact: on the victims who are frequently tortured and eventually killed; and on their families who are ignorant of the fates of their loved ones. Both work as a powerful tool of intimidation. A senior legal advisor to Amnesty International, Christopher Hall, reminded the conference that precisely for that purpose Hitler issued in September 1941 the Nacht und Nebel (Night and Fog) decree. This decree ordered that opponents of the Nazis in occupied territories be seized and taken to Germany, without letting anyone know what happened to them. Seventy years later, combating enforced disappearances remains an extremely difficult task. This is despite the fact that several international mechanisms have been established to do just that.
The oldest such mechanism is the UN Working Group created in 1980 to assist the relatives of disappeared people in discovering their fate and whereabouts. During the 30 years of its existence, the Working Group has reviewed 50,000 cases of disappearances in 80 countries. In about 20 percent of cases, the fate of the victims has been established. Of course it is a remarkable achievement that 10,000 families have received some information about their vanished relatives. Nevertheless, this result seems less impressive when one thinks that a vast majority of cases do not even get reported. In 1992 the United Nations passed the Declaration against Enforced Disappearances, and in 2006 adopted a much more comprehensive International Convention. The new Convention prohibits secret detention, affirms that enforced disappearance constitutes a crime against humanity, places an obligation on states to investigate a possible enforced disappearance, even if no complaint has been made, and establishes a right to truth about a victim’s fate and a right to reparation. However, this Convention will only come in force once ratified by 20 countries. Since 2006 it has been ratified by 19 states and signed by 83.
As Britain is among the countries that have yet to ratify this Convention, one direction of work for British activists is clear: to campaign for ratification. But further steps look much more problematic.
Bright yellow postcards with the Amnesty symbol of a candle set in barbed wire and photographs of young men were spread on the tables next to the auditorium where the conference took place. The covers of the postcards proclaimed: “Justice for Bulat Chilaev (abducted in Grozny in 2006)”, “Justice for Makhmadsalors Masaev (abducted in Grozny in 2008)”, “Justice for Zelimkhan Murdalov (abducted in Grozny in 2001)”, “Justice for Ibragim Gazdiev (abducted in 2007 in Ingushetia)”, “Justice for Bashir Mutsolgov (abducted in 2003 in Ingushetia)”. On the reverse side of each postcard, a letter begins: “Dear President Medvedev…” Whoever wishes can send this printed postcard to Ilyinka Street, 23, Moscow, urging President Medvedev to ensure effective and impartial investigation in each particular case in order to bring to justice those responsible for the disappearance. It is, however, clear to everybody that this is not likely to happen.
Conference participants were reminded unambiguously that: “Enforced disappearances are only considered as such when the act is perpetrated by state actors or by private individuals or organised groups acting on behalf of, with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the government.” In all the disappearances of Russian citizens that Amnesty is dealing with, this is known to be the case. Moreover, to date the European Court of Human Rights has made 119 judgments on disappearances in the North Caucasus and found the Russian state responsible in each case. It is a well-known fact that, faced with a European Court ruling on a disappearance, the Russian government duly pays compensation but refuses to investigate the circumstances of the disappearance. Moreover, disappearances continue to be perpetrated. Ninety-three abductions have been registered in the North Caucasus in 2009. The number has significantly gone down in comparison with previous years but, as Philip Leach put it, we cannot say that abductions are a thing of the past.
How can one then expect any investigation or justice from the Russian government? When asked what it would take to establish a Tribunal on Chechnya, Professor Leach answered: “It would take national and political will in Russia, and we are many years away from that.” It would, however, seem more natural to wonder about the political will of other countries, especially if the planned tribunal is to be international in nature. When, after the plenary meetings, participants split into groups, the workshop on the Russian Federation named all the usual reasons for the West’s indifference to the obvious human rights abuses in Russia: the “War on Terror” after 9/11, which allowed Putin to pretend that he is fighting his own “War on Terror” in Chechnya; European dependence on Russian oil and gas; and the lack of moral authority after Guantanamo.
The latter reminded me of the arguments Western intellectuals used in order to justify their reluctance to condemn Stalin’s crimes: “Did not senator McCarthy do the same when he prosecuted Communist sympathisers in Hollywood?” The answer to this of course was: “No he did not, not in the same way.” It is not just that the scale is different. Appalling as the Guantanamo cases are, they still need to be set in the context of a society that is governed by the rule of law, not the triumphant lawlessness that reigns in Russia. The indignation people in Britain feel when they hear about the extraordinary rendition of British citizens to third countries, where they might be tortured, is understandable. Yet it is still difficult to understand how this can justify the paralysis that seizes many people when crimes committed by Russia are considered.
The most prominent recent victim of abduction in Chechnya, Natalia Estemirova, had enough courage and presence of mind to shout out from the car in which her captors were driving her away: “I am being abducted!” The fact that none of those who heard her cry – and there were several - attempted to do anything about it is the most convincing testimony to the depth of fear that reigns today in Chechnya – a Chechnya “pacified” by Ramzan Kadyrov. But doesn’t her cry urge those outside Chechnya to action?