Human Rights Watch World Report 1997 - Helsinki overview

Human Rights Developments

While the international community continued to pay lip service to human rights principles in the Helsinki region, 1996 was notable for the wholesale subordination of these principles to political objectives in certain key countries, especially by the United States and the countries of the European Union. With regard to Bosnia-Hercegovina, the international community preached respect for human rights, democratic pluralism and accountability for past abuses, but did not insist on these principles if it meant delaying blatantly unfree and unfair elections. Shortly after Russian forces initiated a new offensive in Chechnya with massive violations of international humanitarian law, the Council of Europe, one of the regional institutions with a clear human rights mandate, admitted the Russian Federation (hereafter "Russia") as a member. By year's end, the governments and institutions considered most likely to speak out against human rights abuses had lost much credibility. Especially in the case of the former Yugoslavia, where the atrocities of the war had been so severe as to warrant the establishment of the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY), the rhetoric about accountability and justice proved largely hollow in 1996. By year's end, officials at the tribunal questioned how long they could continue without the arrest of indicted persons. These developments, along with the fact that those responsible for "ethnic cleansing" were still in firm de facto control of the region and that there was little prospect of accountability for gross abuses, had ominous implications for human rights, not only in the Balkans but throughout Europe.

Human Rights Developments

Among the gravest abuses during 1996 were those that occurred in the context of the armed conflicts in Bosnia-Hercegovina and in Chechnya. In both cases, civilians were the victims of executions and "disappearances," torture and other mistreatment in detention, and other gross violations of international humanitarian law. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Bosnian Serbs carried out a highly organized campaign of "ethnic cleansing," murder and rape in northwestern Bosnia even as diplomatic efforts toward a peace settlement intensified. The Dayton peace agreement, which went into force in December 1995, brought an end to the most severe of these abuses. Despite the successful implementation of the military provisions of the Dayton agreement, however, at the end of 1996, hundreds of thousands of civilians remained displaced, many with little hope of ever returning to their homes; ethnically and politically motivated killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and the physical mistreatment and harassment of minorities by local authorities remained common; and those responsible for gross violations of human rights maintained power with little fear of being called to account for their crimes. In Chechnya, civilians continued to suffer from indiscriminate and disproportionate fire until the August 1996 cease-fire. Russian forces routinely razed whole apartment blocks and heedlessly shelled residential areas throughout Chechnya, killing untold numbers of civilians. Government forces were not the only ones to disregard international legal standards for the protection of civilians. Armed opposition groups in Chechnya, Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Northern Ireland, Tajikistan, and Turkey also committed severe violations of international humanitarian law. Torture and other forms of mistreatment remained routine during interrogations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Kosovo (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, abusive officials were rarely held accountable, and confessions procured under torture were often admitted as evidence. Poor prison conditions and horrendous overcrowding also contributed to numerous deaths in detention in Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Excessive use of force in dealing with prison disturbances led to at least fourteen inmate deaths in Turkey. Respect for human rights and democratic principles deteriorated dramatically in Albania, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, where government leaders, intent on maintaining political power, severely restricted the independent media, used the police and other state agents to restrict free assembly and association, and often resorted to fraud and electoral manipulation. The crackdown on political dissent was especially prominent in the period leading up to elections in Albania, Armenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan. Respect for human rights in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece, Kazakstan, Slovakia, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan remained poor. Government officials recognized and feared the power of free expression and repeatedly tried to control or restrict critical speech. A journalist was beaten to death in detention in Turkey; journalists were arrested and prosecuted for their peaceful expression in Albania, Croatia, Russia, and Turkey. In Belarus, Bosnia-Hercegovina, the FRY, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, government monopolies of the media limited citizens' access to diverse views and information. Throughout the region, vaguely worded laws that prohibit inciting public violence, defaming state institutions, and publishing state secrets, were used almost exclusively to punish peaceful, albeit critical, expression. The press also came under attack in Chechnya, where clearly marked press vehicles were shot at by Russian forces; in Chechnya, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, journalists were killed by unknown assailants or in crossfire. Police brutality remained a serious concern in many countries in the region and was often justified by the growing crime rate. In Bulgaria, efforts to control organized crime were the pretext for the routine beating of citizens, destruction of property, and the complete disregard for due process by police forces. In Russia, a crackdown on crime resulted in the harassment, brutal mistreatment and arbitrary detention of persons from the Caucasus, especially Chechens. Accountability for past abuses continued to be illusory in most of the region. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, Croatia, the FRY and Tajikistan, those who had committed serious abuses during times of armed conflict often showed total disregard for human rights and the rule of law in times of peace. Another devastating cost of the continued political influence exerted in the region by persons responsible for past abuses was the large number of refugees and internally displaced persons who remained displaced long after the military conflicts ended. In refugee-receiving states such as the member states of the European Union, the rights of refugees were increasingly under attack and asylum seekers faced severe limitations on the right to appeal, detention for long periods, and, in some cases, refoulement. Domestic violence, rape and other crimes of violence against women were seldom treated seriously by law enforcement officials in the region. Female victims of violence continued to be denied justice, including by the criminal justice system itself, in countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Russia. Ethnically motivated violence and discrimination against Roma continued to be pervasive in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and the Slovak Republic. In one positive development, Roma appeared increasingly willing to seek legal recourse for human rights abuses. The death penalty continued to be invoked in Albania and many of the countries of the former Soviet Union, including Georgia, Kazakstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. In Bulgaria a move was underway to lift the 1990 moratorium on the death penalty. Routine denial of due process and the admission into evidence of confessions extracted under torture in many of these countries made the use of the death penalty all the more troubling.

The Right to Monitor

Although human rights groups made important contributions by documenting and opposing human rights abuses during 1996, a number of governments tried to interfere with their work. In countries such as Albania, Bosnia-Hercegovina, the FRY, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, human rights activists faced systematic harassment and surveillance by police and other government agents. Although the government of Uzbekistan tolerated some human rights monitoring to an unprecedented degree for that country, it continued to obstruct the registration efforts of independent human rights groups and to harass human rights activists. Turkmenistan remained one of the few countries in the world that, due to crushing government repression, could not boast a single in-country human rights monitor.

The Role of the International Community


Many European institutions play an important role with regard to human rights: the Council of Europe and its attendant institutions – the Parliamentary Assembly, European Commission of Human Rights, European Court of Human Rights, and European Committee for the Prevention of Torture; the European Union, the European Commission and European Parliament; and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and its Permanent Council. However, these institutions had a mixed record on human rights in 1996. On the one hand, European institutions condemned abuses in Belarus, expressed concern over the state of democracy in Slovakia and, after some delay, criticized electoral violations in Albania. The Council of Europe's foreign ministers, in a surprise move, postponed consideration of Croatia's application for membership in mid-May due, in part, to Croatia's poor human rights record. However, despite Croatia's continued non-compliance with the human rights provisions put forward by the council, Croatia was admitted as a full member in October. However, the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe remained silent on the pervasive repression in Turkmenistan and the deterioration of respect for human rights in Kyrgyzstan. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, where the OSCE was responsible both for organizing elections and monitoring respect for human rights, elections quickly became the primary focus of the mission, due in large part to the U.S. government's insistence that elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina be held before the U.S. presidential elections. European diplomats acknowledged that the time line created at Dayton had been unrealistic from the start because it had been determined largely by U.S. domestic considerations. However, the most powerful European governments were not willing or able to formulate a unified policy to counter that so forcefully pursued by the Clinton administration. The European Union continued efforts to create a unified and increasingly restrictive asylum regime for its member states, leading in 1996 to increased detention, expulsions, and other measures that, in some cases, violate international standards and increase the risk of refoulement.

United Nations

United Nations monitoring missions in Croatia (Eastern Slavonija), Georgia (Abkhazia), Macedonia and Tajikistan were able to contribute significantly to regional stability. However, these missions often remained silent with regard to human rights abuses, opting instead to emphasize their security role. The UNHCR assisted in protecting vulnerable populations in Bosnia-Hercegovina, but failed to promote the safe return of refugees to Abkhazia and placed undue pressure on Tajik refugees in Afghanistan to return to their homes prematurely. The U.N. Security Council condemned Croatia during the year for ongoing abuses against ethnic Serbs in the Krajina region of the country and for the government's failure to cooperate fully with the ICTY. However, it lifted sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian Serbs on October 1, following what it considered "successful" elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina without mentioning the parties' failure to cooperate with the tribunal, as required by the U.N.'s own resolution 1022, or the ongoing repression of ethnic minorities in Sandjak, Vojvodina and Kosovo. In Bosnia-Hercegovina, the U.N. International Police Task Force (IPTF) often underplayed its mandate, especially with regard to the protection of vulnerable civilians. It did, however, cooperate with the International Implementation Force (IFOR) to remove checkpoints and, in some areas, individual IPTF units actively patrolled villages where ethnic minorities were being threatened. The IPTF also had the important task of vetting the local police forces, but at the end of 1996, this process was only beginning in the Bosniak-Croat Federation and had not yet begun in the Republika Srpska, while persons indicted for war crimes worked as Bosnian Serb police as late as October.

United States

The U.S. government's human rights policies in the Helsinki region were particularly disappointing in 1996. The Clinton administration continued to tout the importance of democratic principles in the countries of Eastern and Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, but it ignored electoral violations and fraud and remained silent about other human rights abuses to ensure that certain friendly governments remained in power. The Clinton administration played the leading role in bringing about an end to hostilities in Bosnia-Hercegovina at the end of 1995 and thereby contributed to the single most significant human rights improvement in the region. However, the administration was willing to jeopardize the long-term success of the peace process because of short-term considerations. Although the administration paid lip service to the need for free and fair elections in Bosnia-Hercegovina, it insisted that the elections take place before they could be free and fair, largely because of Clinton's own reelection agenda. The administration backtracked on its stated commitment to accountability. The U.S.-dominated IFOR refused to arrest persons indicted for war crimes, downplaying the extent of its authority and claiming that indictees would only be arrested if "encountered in the normal course of business." IFOR did everything it could not to encounter indicted persons, however, and did not arrest such persons even when, on several occasions, it came face to face with them. In Russia, the Clinton administration refused to condemn massive humanitarian law violations in Chechnya during the Russian election campaign, clearly having decided that it would support President Yeltsin's reelection bid no matter what. Although the administration did criticize the abuses in Chechnya from time to time during the year, it failed to use the most important opportunities, such as the summit meeting between Clinton and Yeltsin in April, to press for improvements. Similarly, the U.S. government disregarded numerous signs that the Albanian government of Sali Berisha was becoming increasingly intolerant of political opposition in the months leading up to the May elections in Albania and was noticeably slow to respond to widespread abuses during those elections. After some delay, however, the U.S. government took the lead in calling for a new vote. And the Clinton administration de-emphasized human rights concerns in Turkey, in part because of its concern about political stability, given the electoral success of the Islamist Welfare Party, and also because of regional security concerns related to the internecine Kurdish fighting in northern Iraq.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki

While maintaining broad coverage of and engagement in human rights developments throughout the Helsinki region, during 1996, a primary goal of the Helsinki division was to monitor and influence the human rights policies of the international community with respect to the former Yugoslavia. This emphasis was due to our recognition that the failure of the Dayton peace process – to achieve a peace built on respect for human rights and justice for the victims of gross abuses and to prevent the "success" of "ethnic cleansing" by insisting that refugees and internally displaced persons be able safely to return to their homes – would have devastating implications for human rights and the safety of ethnic minorities, not only in the countries of the former Yugoslavia but in every country in the Helsinki region. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki continued systematically to document human rights abuses by all sides in the former Yugoslavia. However, the dramatically changed situation in Bosnia-Hercegovina – the presence of some 60,000 NATO troops, the influx of other international representatives into Bosnia-Hercegovina to monitor and enforce the peace agreement, and the potential for reconstruction aid – gave the international community new leverage over the parties. A priority, therefore, was to ensure that that leverage be used to obtain real human rights improvements. The Helsinki division kept the profile of human rights abuses high on the agenda of the international actors in Bosnia-Hercegovina and repeatedly reminded them of the human rights implications of policy options. We opened an office in Sarajevo and maintained a presence in the country throughout 1996. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki repeatedly pressed for the arrest of persons indicted for war crimes by the ICTY, including through a June letter organized by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki to European and U.S. heads of state and government, which was signed by 204 organizations and prominent individuals in the U.S. and Europe. The Helsinki division also testified before the U.S. Congress and participated in a variety of international fora to urge international actors in Bosnia-Hercegovina to respond more assertively to ongoing human rights violations. In cooperation with the Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, we urged that human rights concerns of women be promoted and that any human rights training for Bosnian police include special training on responding to and investigating crimes of violence against women. We engaged in a concerted campaign prior to the September elections calling for the international community not to hold elections until conditions for free and fair balloting had been created. In June we released Bosnia-Hercegovina – A Failure in the Making: Human Rights and the Dayton Agreement, which concluded that the parties to the Dayton agreement had failed to comply with significant human rights provisions, that the international community had failed to insist on compliance with the legally binding obligations created by the Dayton accord and numerous Security Council resolutions, and called for the international community to use the means at its disposal to insist that the highest standards of human rights be upheld as prerequisites for economic aid and assistance. We also pressed the IPTF, responsible for overseeing the process of creating a new police force in Bosnia-Hercegovina, to assure that those responsible for gross human rights abuses are eliminated from the force. Staff also exposed systematic abuses by the Croatian government against the ethnic Serb minority in the Krajina region after "Operation Storm." In April, we called for a delay, which was subsequently granted, in Croatia's admission into the Council of Europe and pressed for Croatia to be denied political and financial rewards until it cooperated with the ICTY. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also condemned restrictions on freedom of expression in Kosovo, conducted investigations in Kosovo, Sandzak and Vojvodina, and repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council not to lift sanctions against the FRY until it also cooperated with the tribunal. A report released in June documented violations of civil and political rights in Macedonia. In Chechnya, we employed a three-pronged approach: documenting violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by both sides to the conflict, briefing international bodies on our most recent field research and formulating specific recommendations for their action, and pressing for accountability. We continued to document massive violations of the laws of war in Chechnya during missions to the region in January and October and released our findings in three reports during the year. Staff briefed the OSCE and the Council of Europe on atrocities committed by Russian forces and Chechen fighters and urged the Council of Europe, to no avail, to use the opportunity of Russia's application for membership to condemn such abuses. We also raised concerns regarding Chechnya at the fifty-second session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki opposed an amnesty for serious violations of the laws of war and pressed for accountability to be on the agenda of multilateral and bilateral meetings on Russia. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also conducted fact-finding missions to Stavropol and Krasnodar to expose the escalation of state-sponsored xenophobic violence, condemned the discriminatory implementation of anti-crime measures in Moscow, and worked to combat violations of the rights of refugees in the CIS. We played an active role in the UNHCR-IOM-OSCE conference on forced migration in the CIS held in Geneva in May, emphasizing the degree to which human rights abuses often cause migration and formulating recommendations to improve chances that refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) will be able to return to their homes in safety. Our Moscow office worked with the Women's Rights Project to oppose violence against women in Russia and to press for needed legislation on domestic violence (see section on the Women's Rights Project) and raised these concerns before the fifty-second session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. In an effort to prevent a further deterioration in the human rights situation, during 1996 significant resources were devoted to exposing the alarming spread of serious abuses in several countries in the region. In June, the division sent its first mission to Belarus to document growing restrictions on the political opposition. In Armenia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki protested against police violence in the wake of September 25 demonstrations following the elections and the ensuing crackdown on the political opposition and worked closely with Armenian human rights activists to bring international pressure on the government to address these concerns. Following the March release of our report "Human Rights in Post-Communist Albania," Human Rights Watch/Helsinki focused on the electoral fraud and post-electoral violence in Albania. Staff testified before the U.S. Congress on three occasions during 1996 regarding human rights in Albania and held numerous meetings to raise our concerns with the Clinton administration. In 1996, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki intensified its efforts to engage the government of Uzbekistan in a dialogue on its human rights record and to exploit the government's desire for diplomatic and financial recognition by pressing the E.U., the U.S. government and other influential actors to insist on concrete improvements from the Karimov government. In May, Helsinki representatives met in Toshkent with senior government officials to discuss the findings of our November 1995 mission to Uzbekistan. A report entitled "Uzbekistan: Persistent Human Rights Abuses and Prospects for Improvement" was released in May. Throughout 1996, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki staff campaigned for the release of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, to obtain the registration of independent local human rights organizations in the country, to condemn widespread censorship, and to oppose impunity for state-sponsored abuses. To further its efforts in Central Asia, the Helsinki division opened a regional office in Toshkent in July and successfully pressed the government of Uzbekistan for its formal registration. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also pressed the government of Turkmenistan for improvements in its human rights record during meetings in Ashgabat in June. As part of our ongoing work on government destruction of villages in southeastern Turkey, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki released a report in June on the occasion of the U.N. conference on housing, Habitat II, documenting the failure of government programs to aid those forcibly displaced. We also protested the arrests of human rights activists during the conference, which was held in Istanbul. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki documented continuing torture of detainees, especially by Turkey's Anti-Terror units and also focused on the government's reprisals against victims of human rights abuse such as torture who seek recourse with the European Commission on Human Rights. "Turkey: Violations of the Right of Petition to the European Commission of Human Rights" was released in April. Helsinki staff also raised these concerns with the European Commission on Human Rights during meetings in Strasbourg. Numerous urgent appeals were sent to the Turkish government on cases of "disappearances," torture and restrictions on free expression, and we raised concerns regarding torture at the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. The Helsinki division, in cooperation with the Human Rights Watch Arms Project, also condemned the indictment of the publisher and translator of the Arms Project's November 1995 report "Weapons Transfers and Violations of the Laws of War in Turkey" for "defaming and belittling the state's security and military forces." Human Rights Watch/Helsinki remained actively engaged in documenting and holding governments accountable for violence and discrimination against Roma, through fact-finding missions to and reports on the Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic. In cooperation with the Children's Rights Project, we also exposed the mistreatment of street children in Bulgaria, a large majority of whom are Roma (see section on the Children's Rights Project). In Romania, we again urged the parliament to reject provisions of the criminal code that would continue to criminalize consensual sexual acts between individuals of the same sex. Building on previous work on racism and xenophobia, Human Rights Watch/Helsinki launched an initiative to influence the asylum policies and practices of the states of the E.U., focusing in 1996 on Sweden, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Germany, and efforts by the E.U. to harmonize the asylum policies of its member states. In September 1996, we published "Sweden: Swedish Asylum Policy in Global Human Rights Perspective," which was released to coincide with the Swedish government's introduction of a proposed reform of the asylum law in parliament.
This report covers the events of 1996

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