November 30th 2009 · Prague Watchdog / Usam Baysayev · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Commissioner's justice

Commissioner's justice

By Usam Baysayev, special to Prague Watchdog

Oslo, Norway

In my schooldays the subject I cared for least was physics. I think it was because of the teacher, who too assertively tried to drum the formulas and theorems into our heads. He was so enthusiastic about his work, constantly performing experiments in his study, which he eventually turned into a kind of laboratory. While it was all very well for him to spend his time and effort on this, he often dragged us along with him, distracting us from more important things. Football, for example, or aimless strolling about town,  or hiking to nearby dachas for apples and quinces. His attacks on our freedom aroused protest. Like many of my classmates, I disliked both the teacher and his subject.

I remember his name – Alexander Artashesovich. He probably regretted that his efforts went to waste, that even if their coefficient of performance was above zero, it was not by much.  Excessive zeal sometimes causes harm. And even our physics teacher’s blackboard pointer reached out to the second row of desks...

I felt the same resentment and frustration, coupled with some regret, during a speech given by Thomas Hammarberg, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, in Stockholm on November 15. He had been invited to address a human rights seminar on the problem of impunity in the North Caucasus. Its organizers, respecting the status of the distinguished guest, and realizing that he might have more important things to do, asked him to speak first, which was apparently a bad idea. The flow of the pre-planned agenda was disrupted. Participants had to put aside the prepared texts of their speeches and found themselves opposing not Moscow, as had been intended, but the chief human rights monitor on the continent of Europe.

Hammarberg’s speech boiled down to a justification of Russia's leadership. According to him, blame for the killings and abductions in the North Caucasus lay at the door of the  extremists (or terrorists – or Islamists, a term he used with no less frequency). The Russian government was warding off their attacks, resulting in the death of civilians. In other words, one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs (if the translator is to be believed, he gave the Russian version of this saying in Swedish). 

In Thomas Hammarberg’s view the regional leaders are independent of Moscow. He takes a cordial attitude towards Ingushetia’s President Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, who "has inherited a difficult legacy”. The republic is easy bait for the Islamists: there is high unemployment and corruption among high officials. Part of the money from bribes goes to help mafia-like organizations, while the rest of it fills the pockets of  the extremists. The Ingush leader is combating this while at the same time trying to improve the human rights situation. Yevkurov invites the human rights activists to talk with him, he meets with the victims’ relatives. Hammarberg even said that he witnessed one such meeting.

He did not, though, explain why it should be that this year, under the leadership of the "moderate and democratic" Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, more people have been killed than in the past. The Commissioner said nothing  about the results of the Ingush government’s campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people, or about whether any of the kidnapped residents had been set free, or whether even a single case  involving the murder of a local citizen by the security forces had been investigated.

These questions, which were asked at the end of the speech, hung in the air.

In direct contrast to the type of regional leader described above stands Ramzan Kadyrov. According to Thomas Hammarberg, Kadyrov came down from the mountains, where at the beginning of the second war he had led a small unit of fighters against Russia. Hence the man’s toughness, despotism, lack of democratic leanings. The Commissioner defined the  current Chechen leader as an autocrat who has overseen the rebuilding of Grozny. And the city’s new Grand Mosque, which symbolizes Chechnya’s  revival, is as big as the one in Istanbul. Nevertheless, last year there were fewer kidnappings and murders in the republic than this year. So what went wrong? There followed  an explanation borrowed from official sources: that after the lifting of the counter-terrorist operation regime the terrorists had become active again.

He also spoke of the fear that nearly all Chechens feel in connection with the killings of human rights workers. But in his remarks there was nothing about who is causing this fear, about whom it is that people are afraid of – the Russian government, or those who oppose it. Merely an expression of surprise that there were so few protests...

Thomas Hammarberg presented an expanded version of more or less the same theses in the report he gave to the Council of Europe on November 24. There were the same passages about the two types of politicians, the corruption and unemployment as the main reasons for the existence in the region of an armed opposition to the Russian government and state. In other words, men are going off to fight and die in order to earn a little cash.

Rejecting other motives for taking up arms (such as the striving to achieve freedom for themselves and their homeland, opposition to an unjust social order imposed from outside, the desire to take ultimate revenge for crimes committed), the respected Commissioner reduced the North Caucasus resistance fighters to the level of rabid dogs. It was essential to destroy them. As for the deaths of innocent people, they were simply the cost of the process. After all, one cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs...

... At the end of the Stockholm speech Vladimir Putin was quoted.  Hammarberg said he had asked Putin a question about the mass graves in Chechnya. Putin’s answer (possibly with some distortion in translation) was: "One should not open old wounds, for that will infect the air and fill it with more hatred for the Russians in the region."

The Commissioner was apparently unaware that in this sentence Russia's Prime Minister had made several important admissions. Putin did not deny that Russian federal forces are behind the mass graves. He, if anyone, knows this to be so. Hence there is no desire to investigate how and why the people who lie in those graves were killed. But more importantly, his words provide an answer to the question of why the Chechen resistance is so tenacious, including the apparent fact that  Russia's military, security forces and police have committed crimes, and continue to commit them.

Neither in his speech nor in the report published nine days later did Thomas Hammarberg make such inferences. And this, in my opinion, is proof that Russia's human rights community has lost its last protection. If CoE’s Commissioner for Human Rights has accepted the official version of events in the North Caucasus, if he only needs the activists’ on-the-spot reports in order to put a frame around what he is told by the Russian government, our situation really is bad.

It's just a pity that we have spent so much effort on it. We have repeatedly met with Hammarberg around the table – in Ingushetia, in Chechnya, we have travelled to Moscow for it. But apparently our "table" is too bland, too uninteresting. Piled high with corpses. We have only given the thumbs-down, showering him with numbers, names, our opinions. And then, as if all that were not enough, we have rushed after him with equally negative reports, eyewitness accounts and all the rest of the human rights waste paper. We have overloaded the Commissioner. Not even a computer could have survived it, and we are talking about a living organism.

We have been overzealous, in other words, just as my (in retrospect) dearly beloved physics teacher Alexander Artashesovich once was.  

I think we human rights activists have something to learn here. We shouldn’t go counting corpses all the time. 


(Translation by DM)


 · Report by Thomas Hammarberg, following his visit to Chechnya and Ingushetia on 2-11 September 2009 (CoE, 24.11.2009)



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