- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006

BESLAN, Russia — As the top defender of human rights at United Nations, Louise Arbour is no stranger to horrific scenes. But as she walked last week through the ruins of Beslan’s School No. 1 and past row on row of children’s graves, even she was taken aback.

“I have seen a lot of these places — in Bosnia, Croatia, throughout the Balkans, in Rwanda. I’ve seen terrible sights,” said Miss Arbour, a former justice of Canada’s Supreme Court and currently U.N. high commissioner for human rights.

“But what you sense here — the only word for it is desecration. The desecration of a school, which is supposed to be a place of comfort for children … it’s absolutely overwhelming.”

Miss Arbour’s visit to Beslan — where more than 330 people, half of them children, were killed in 2003 during a gunbattle between Russian forces and Chechen militants who had seized the school — came near the end of a three-day tour of Russia’s troubled North Caucasus region.

Chechen woes spread

Her trip included a rare official visit to Chechnya, where Russian forces have been in bloody conflict with separatist guerrillas for most of the past decade.

The rebels have turned increasingly to radical tactics and in recent years have killed more than 1,000 Russian civilians in hostage-takings, suicide bombings and other attacks. The conflict has spread beyond Chechnya, with large-scale attacks taking place in cities throughout the mainly Muslim North Caucasus.

Human-rights groups say that in their zeal to stop the insurgency, Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen forces routinely commit abuses such as kidnapping, torture and murder.

“The smallest suspicion, however groundless, is sufficient for someone to be seized by armed men in camouflage, to be subjected to torture and murdered,” the region’s leading human-rights groups said in a January report.

Issues raised in Grozny

Miss Arbour said she raised many of these concerns with officials during her visit to the Chechen capital, Grozny. There, she met with — among others — acting Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who is in charge of security in Chechnya.

His security forces, nicknamed “the Kadyrovtsy,” are feared by Chechens and frequently have been accused of human-rights abuses.

“The heart of my discussions in Chechnya were that I am extremely concerned by the amount and the credibility of allegations of abuse of power by the authorities … and that I’m extremely troubled by the very poor response to these allegations,” she said.

“I told them that when allegations of torture are made against state officials, they have to be independently investigated, and that there have to be systems to protect people who have the courage to make these kind of allegations.”

Chechen officials scolded

“What you hear in Chechnya is exactly the opposite: That when allegations are made against the security forces and military personnel, a kind of ‘machine of harassment and intimidation’ is put in place.”

Miss Arbour also asked about up to 5,000 people who have disappeared in Chechnya since 1999, telling the Russians that without credible investigations, it will not be “plausible to believe that in Chechnya, more than anywhere else in the world, people disappear without a trace.”

A source who attended the meeting in Grozny said officials in Chechnya seemed surprised by Miss Arbour’s blunt talk.

“I don’t think they are used to being spoken to that way,” said the source, who asked not to be identified.

Ingushetia, Ossetia talks

During her trip, Miss Arbour also met with leaders in Ingushetia and North Ossetia to discuss their long-standing dispute over the status of refugees who fled border areas during a brief armed conflict between the two regions in the early 1990s.

Her trip was dominated by meetings with state officials — a fact that caused concern among local human-rights groups. In all, only one hour of her three-day visit to the region was spent meeting with people from independent nongovernmental organizations.

The one-hour meeting that did take place was hosted by Memorial, the most important human-rights group in the region, at its offices in Nazran, the largest city in Ingushetia.

Memorial representative Katya Sokirianskaia said that many people, including victims of severe abuses, were very frustrated that so little time was given for them to raise their concerns.

NGO aide critical

“The U.N. high commissioner came to the most problematic human-rights region in Europe and spent only one hour with NGOs,” she said. “She was only able to scratch the surface; she won’t be able to hear the truth.”

Mrs. Sokirianskaia didn’t lay the blame on Miss Arbour, saying her Russian hosts wanted to limit her time away from official functions.

“We know that the authorities did not want this meeting to take place, but that she insisted on it,” Mrs. Sokirianskaia said. “I felt a lot of responsiveness from her. I could tell she wanted to stay, but she was being pressed to leave.”

Miss Arbour said it was standard for her to spend most of her time with government officials on this kind of diplomatic mission.

Cooperation praised

“I’m very happy with the level of cooperation that has been extended to me,” she said. “The fact that I’m in a region that is problematic for the government on human rights is a very good signal. I see it as a sign of their willingness to engage and pursue a dialogue.”

She also held separate talks with NGOs in Moscow before coming to the Caucasus region, and a number of private meetings with victims in the North Caucasus, including family members of those killed at Beslan.

A Russian official traveling with Miss Arbour said every effort had been made for her to get the full picture of conditions in the North Caucasus.

“There were plenty of opportunities to meet with civil society representatives,” said Yury Boychenko, senior counselor in the Russian mission in Geneva.

Praise from diplomat

“To understand the situation, it’s good that she meets both local NGOs and the local authorities, so she can make her own evaluation. We’re not trying to hide anything.”

Miss Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court justice and former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, has not shied away from controversy since taking over as human rights commissioner in 2003. Most recently, she waded into the debate on the U.S. prison at the U.S. Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying she saw no alternative to closing the prison, where about 500 suspected terrorists are being held. Many have been incarcerated there for up to four years without trial.

U.N. speculation hit

Miss Arbour has been mentioned as a possible successor to Kofi Annan when his term as secretary-general of the United Nations ends at the end of the year, but she demurred when asked if she’d be interested in the job.

“The selection of the next secretary-general of the United Nations will not be decided on the basis of whether I or anybody else expresses any interest in the position. An expression of interest by anybody is a pure exercise of vanity,” she said.

“There is no running, there is no race, there’s no in, there’s no out, there are no candidates.”

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