The Chechnya War and the Right Not to Kill

from War Resisters International

On October 7, 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a well-known journalist who regularly exposed Russian human rights violations in Chechnya, was murdered in her flat in Moscow.

Six days later, on October 13, the Russian Chechen Friendship Society (RCFS) of Nizhnii Novgorod was ordered closed by a local court, because the recently adopted NGO law makes it illegal for an organization to be headed by a person convicted of “extremist activities.” Amnesty International commented that Stanislav Dmitrievskii, executive director of RCFS, was convicted on “race hate” charges on February 3, 2006 for publishing articles by Chechen separatist leaders. He was – in the view of Amnesty International – convicted for the peaceful exercise of his right of freedom of expression, and should not have faced trial in the first place.

Only a few days later, the military prosecutors in Chelyabinsk dropped their investigation of four army officials accused of failing to stop the hazing of army conscript Andrei Sychyov, who was so badly beaten that his legs and genitals had to be amputated. While the person who beat him was sentenced on September 26 to four years imprisonment, no further action will now be taken against those in charge of protecting conscripts.

The killings of journalists, the subsequent poisoning death of former KGB officer-turned-Putin-critic Alexander Litvinenko in November 2006, and the crackdown on NGOs and civil society groups have taken place in the context of rising violence against minorities and political activists. In November 2005, two anarchists were attacked by fascists in St. Petersburg, leaving one of them dead, the other one seriously injured. Caucasians (that is, people from the Caucasus region) living in Russia face racist attacks and abuse regularly. And the present escalation of the conflict between Russia and Georgia – with the deportation of hundreds of Georgian citizens from Russia – adds to the climate of violence pervading Russian society.

The human rights situation in Russia is getting worse, while Western leaders and businesses increasingly make accommodations with Moscow. Chechnya, and the increasingly racist policy towards Caucasian citizens within Russia, is Russia’s “war on terror,” and the silence of Western leaders is the price paid for Russian cooperation in Bush’s “war on terror.” For the American peace movement, it is important not to be silent about Chechen and Russian human rights violations, but instead support peace and human rights activists in Russia and Chechnya.

Three Years of Conscientious Objection

The Russian law on conscientious objection came into force on January 1, 2004, introducing a “right” to conscientious objection which is not in line with international standards — including a substitute service 1.75 times longer than military service.

In practice — even leaving the long service time aside — problems arise mainly from the bureaucratic application procedure. An application for conscientious objection has to be submitted no later than six months before call-up. However, many potential COs are not aware of these deadlines, and the draft boards often give wrong or incomplete information. According to Sergey Krivenko, secretary of the All-Russian NGO Coalition for Democratic Alternative Civilian Service, there are cases where draft board officials overtly misinformed draftees, knowingly giving wrong or insufficient information (e.g. claiming that the right to conscientious objection only applies to people with religious beliefs). Most draft boards do not provide information on the right to conscientious objection at all.

Presently there are several cases where an application for conscientious objection was denied because of the missed deadline, and subsequently conscientious objectors were forced to perform military service. This part of the CO law is being challenged at the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation. There are also cases where the local draft board did not pass on CO applications to the conscription board — the only body which is empowered to make decisions on CO applications.

Overall, since the law on conscientious objection came into force, about 3,500 people applied for conscientious objection. There are no statistics available on how many applications have been accepted or turned down. However, about one hundred people have contacted human rights organizations in Russia to ask for help because of problems with the bureaucracy. Most won their right to conscientious objection subsequently.

Conscientious objection in Russia has to be seen in light of the disastrous situation within the military and widespread draft avoidance. According to a poll by the independent Levada center, willingness to serve in the Russian military had dropped to less than 40% by the beginning of 2006. However, for most young people draft avoidance — by means of “buying” medical exemptions or deferments — is the method of choice, and not the legally provided form of conscientious objection. This means that CO numbers do not reflect the widespread discontent with the Russian military.

Dedovshchina: Hazing in the Russian Military

In 1988, the publication of an article in Komsomol’skaia Pravda, describing an incident in which a conscript who had been the victim of ongoing abuse in the barracks eventually snapped and turned his weapon against his fellow servicemembers, killing eight, started the public debate about dedovshchina (hazing).

The practice of dedovshchina gave rise to another phenomenon more or less unique to post-Soviet Russia: the Soldiers’ Mothers Movement.

The Soldiers’ Mothers’ Committees provide practical assistance to young men who do not want to join the military for fear of dedovshchina, and have made many human rights abuses in the military public. The Soldiers’ Mothers have put the issue of dedovshchina on the agenda of Russian society, and the widespread awareness of these abuses has led to the near-collapse of the Russian conscription system through widespread draft avoidance.

According to a report by the Mothers’ Rights Foundation, “three thousand soldiers on average die every year in the Russian army… 23% of deaths in the army are attributed to accidents, 16% to military operations, 15% to other soldiers’ aggressive acts and 11% to illness. Parents of a soldier who died can get a pension that amounts to 70 dollars a month, but they receive it only if it was proved that the cause of death wasn’t a suicide or an illness. In addition, these investigations don’t take into consideration that in most cases a soldier was driven to suicide after brutal harassment.” The Russian military is now responding with a reduction in the term of military service (to one year starting in 2008), and increased professionalization. However, it is unlikely that these steps will eliminate the problems mentioned above, as they are not accompanied by structural changes.

Chechnya: War Crimes Continue

Chechnya marks the other side of human rights problems related to the Russian military: the systemic violation of human rights of Chechen civilians by the armed forces. And increasingly these practices are spreading to the neighboring republic, Ingushetia. Amnesty International writes: “Serious human rights violations, including war crimes, continue to be committed in Chechnya by both Chechen and federal forces. Chechen security forces are increasingly implicated in arbitrary detention, torture and “disappearances” in Chechnya. Women suffer gender-based violence, including rape or threats of rape, by members of the federal and Chechen security forces. There are also reports that Chechen armed opposition groups continue to commit war crimes, including direct attacks on civilians. Amnesty International is aware of only two convictions during 2005 for serious human rights violations committed in Chechnya. The majority of investigations into alleged violations are ineffective and in the few cases that come to court the prosecution is flawed.”

Violence and unrest have also been reported in other North Caucasus republics, including abuses such as arbitrary detention, torture, “disappearances” and abductions. On October 13, 2005 a group of up to 300 rebels launched attacks on government installations in and near Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, in which more than 100 people, including at least 12 civilians, are said to have been killed. The raid was reportedly in response to months of persecution of practicing Muslims in the region, including arbitrary detention and torture by law enforcement officials, and the closure of mosques. Following the raid, law enforcement officials detained dozens of people; many of the detainees were reportedly tortured.

While the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Russia on the disappearances and death of Chechen citizens in February and on October 12, 2006, the situation has not improved. In its February ruling, the ECHR found Russia guilty of serious human rights violations in Chechnya, including the disproportionate force in military operations, indiscriminate targeting of civilians, and failure to adequately investigate civilian deaths.

An Anti-War Movement?

In spite of widespread dedovshchina and the war in Chechnya, the anti-war movement in Russia is tiny. Some small groups, including the Soldiers’ Mothers Committees, Autonomous Action, Memorial, and a few others, work against Russia’s “war on terror” in Chechnya. Many Russian activists place their hopes on European and international institutions, and appeal to these to help stop the war in Chechnya. However, this is unlikely to happen, especially while the public opposition to the war in Russia itself is so limited.


This story originally appeared in the December/January issue of Peacework,
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Cambridge, MA


“The Russian Federation: Human Rights and the Armed Forces”
War Resisters International report to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, September 2003

Amnesty International 2005 report on the Russian Federation

Soldiers’ Mothers Committees

Autonomous Action



From our weblog:

Russia closes Chechnya rights watchdog amid new torture claims
WW4 REPORT, Oct. 16, 2006

Chechen resistance attacks Kabardino-Balkaria
WW4 REPORT, Oct. 14, 2005

See also:

Assassination of Rebel President Signals Escalation in North Caucasus
by Raven Healing
WW4 REPORT #108 April 2005

International Conscientious Objectors Meet in Bogota
by Yeidy Rosa
WW4 REPORT #127 November 2006


Reprinted by WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Feb. 1, 2007
Reprinting permissible with attribution