Halt the fall into barbarity

The savagery in Chechnya must not be allowed to become an accepted norm, argues Jean-Marc Bornet
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The Independent Online
Dzhokhar Dudayev, leader of the rebel Chechens, is dead; but his successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, has already announced to the world that he will continue and even intensify the struggle against President Boris Yeltsin's forces. In any event, despite a publicised peace plan, war goes on in Chechnya.

Chechen towns - including Sernovodsk, Samachki, Pervomaiskoye, Novogroznensky and soon, possibly, Shali - are mostly piles of rubble and mounds of twisted metal of war. The conflict thrives in a region of ruins where death and sorrow are the average person's common fare. The dead bodies are not just those of fighters but of civilians, including woman and children - the levelling of Chechnya is as indiscriminate as it is violent.

Because our capacity to react to horror is limited, television viewers and newspaper readers are selective in voicing their concern and, at times, their shame. Despite the fact that it has already claimed tens of thousands of lives, the war in Chechnya strikes only some people, hits only some TV screens, occasions only some diplomatic concern. And I wonder: had this war flared up in the days of the Soviet Union, would the diplomatic silence have been so deafening?

For the the Red Cross, however, the war in Chechnya stands out from among its contemporaries, despite the fact that acts of horror have been perpetrated against civilians in other parts of the world. In general, these other indiscriminate killings, rapes and pillagings were done by ill-disciplined, or undisciplined, armed groups - fighters driven to combat by pure (ethnic) hatred and the will to survive at all costs, and nothing else.

But on this outer rim of the Russian Federation, two organised forces clash. One, the Russian Federal Army, is heir to the Red Army, once one of the world's proudest and mightiest military forces. The other is the latest in a long line of fighters forged by tradition and nobility of spirit. Both sides, before the war, owed allegiance to some form of discipline which, despite their respective evolutionary differences, valued codes of conduct honouring fighters of fighters, and holding in disgrace murderers of women and children.

Today, there is little chivalry on record in Chechnya. Instead, we are confronted with villages razed to the ground, hostages taken by the hundreds, indiscriminate killings and the use of civilians as human shields. Fighters in arms mingle with civilians to protect themselves from their enemy's fire; while tanks, big guns, rockets and even strategic bombers relentlessly strafe civilian districts.

In Chechnya, tragically, discipline has broken down. Instead of offering their foes positive examples of dignified military conduct, each side hasencouraged the drift towards further degradation, further cruelty. This should not have been so. Wars occur because groups of people believe there is no other way for them to resolve the grievances they harbour against another group of people. They are at an impasse and believe that this makes their cause just.

But it is not sufficient to believe in a cause. A just cause does not make a just war. And a just war does not necessarily lead to a conflict in which the rules of war are respected.

A force going to battle believes in its fundamental right; the fact that this right is contested by an opposing force only adds justification for the ensuing violence. The battlefield is not a place conducive to rational thinking and, as far as the individual is concerned, the spurs of war have a natural tendency to release internal furies blind to everything but the urge to kill. Because of these conditions, war, since time immemorial, has evolved its rules, the don'ts and dos of trained fighters. This is why military discipline, which one can define as "codified behaviour authoritatively implemented", is so important and why it must be tempered by an unconditional acknowledgement of the fundamental tenets of international humanitarian law applicable to the behaviour of warriors.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is the recognised "guardian" of the Geneva Conventions and its two Additional Protocols, rules designed to preserve basic human dignity at times of conflict.Until very recently, there was a substantial chance that those who breached these rules would be brought to book by their superior officers or by their country's judges. Today, this is no longer so. The end of the Cold War has unleashed new energies, as destructive as they are raw. As a result, the ICRC is deeply concerned by the growing number of free-for-alls.

In Chechnya, the ICRC calls upon all signatory governments to the Geneva Conventions (who are not only duty-bound to respect their provisions but to ensure their respect) to prevail upon both sides to stem the fall into barbarity. If the slide towards barbarity is not checked in Chechnya, not only will ancient civilisations and rich cultures lose their souls, but the savagery will increase until it becomes a new and ghastly human norm.

The writer is the ICRC delegate general for Eastern Europe and Central Asia.