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JON HOISAETER : We have been able to avoid a humanitarian disaster for this large group that came into Ingushetia. That doesn’t mean of course that, that every need is fulfilled and that there are no problems. We are continually always trying to fill the gaps that are arising.
KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, civilians in war-the plight of refugees of the war in Chechnya.
SIMON CHESTERMAN: The basic responsibilities of an army with regard to civilians are first and foremost not to, not to harm them.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Long before the United States declared its war on terrorism Russia launched its own campaign against terror in Chechnya. Two separate conflicts spanning seven of the past ten years have transformed a once thriving Russian republic into a vast wasteland, claiming tens of thousands on both sides along the way.
PORTER: Since the start of the second conflict in September of 1999 more than 200,000 Chechens have fled their homes. A majority now reside with the help of family, friends, and humanitarian aid in neighboring Ingushetia. But many fear they will be forgotten as the world’s attention turns to the refugees of the latest war in Afghanistan. Kristin begins her report near the Chechen border.
[sound of someone opening a package, followed by women talking]
TIEMPIEVA HASAN: [via a translator] Two spaghetti’s; one-and-a-half sugar; and two kilos rice; three candles; then the matches and salt.
MCHUGH: Tiempieva Hasan is taking inventory of her latest food parcel.
HASSAN: [via a translator’s explanation] The lady said for one months, one months. This one is for four persons. The quality is terrible.
MCHUGH: Tamara is one of the estimated quarter of a million Chechens displaced by two wars in the past seven years. She now lives with her eight children, son-in-law, and two grandchildren in a tattered tent in Sputnik, one of several camps set up with help from the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, or UNHCR, in neighboring Ingushetia. Ashap Godydov is Ingushetia’s Deputy Prime Minister.
ASHAP GODYDOV: [via a translator] Since the beginning of the conflict in Chechnya, since September 1999, more than 300,000 refugees moved to Ingushetia. At the present moment we estimated 158,000 still temporarily residing here, out of which 148,000 are officially registered by the Interior Minister of the Migration Service.
[a group of women chatting with each other]
HASAN: [via a translator] If you come into the tent to have a look around you can see for yourself. From one perspective the tent conditions are good in comparison to the war. But from the other perspective-come inside and have a look.
[sound of people walking]
UNKNOWN WOMAN: Please have a seat here.
MCHUGH: A quick examination reveals Tamara’s dusty tent measures less than 20 square feet. Bunk beds are stacked wall to wall, leaving little room to maneuver. Clothing is stacked neatly on shelves. A small gas stove in the middle of the tent churns out heat even though it is well above 70 degrees outside. The sun shines brightly outside, but it’s dark enough inside the tent that I nearly tripped over Tamara’s youngest granddaughter. She crawled out from under one of the beds wearing nothing more than a thin T-shirt.
JON HOISAETER : There are some seven tented camps. The biggest ones are in the eastern part of Ingushetia, relatively near the Chechen border.
MCHUGH: Jon Hoisaeter is a protection officer with UNHCR in the Ingush capital, Nazran.
HOISAETER : In that area there is some, some 15,000 people living in tents. The first of these camps was set up by the Russian authorities. Later UNHCR has helped the Russian authorities to set up two more camps. This process is still actually ongoing. We still have people in need of shelter and we’ll probably, by the end of this year, have extended the capacity of some of these camps.
MCHUGH: The growing demand for tents is cause for concern for UNHCR and other aid agencies. Tent camps are designed to provide temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict. But many of the Chechens seeking refuge in Ingushetia are now preparing for their third winter away from home. Hundreds of tents need to be repaired or replaced and Hoisaeter admits UNHCR and other aid agencies are scrambling to maintain the camps.
HOISAETER : It’s a very pleasant area in the summer, but as you know it can get very cold here in winter. So it’s some of the very obvious things like preparing, first of all making sure that the shelters and the tents are sufficiently heated. Meaning that they are winterized and that they have a heating source-a stove. Also, we need to make sure that there is, there are floors, that people have beds to lie on, that there are mattresses; obviously also clothing is a problem, and particularly for children. We try to make sure that children have clothing to wear for winter.
MCHUGH: The Chechens who live in the tent camps account for only 12 percent of the refugees now living in Ingushetia. Nearly 70 percent of the internally displaced persons, or IDPs, are staying with extended relatives and host families. Sashka Azive and his brother Salamhan are hosting five other families in a few ground rooms and two garages in their Nazran home. Sashka says his reason for hosting is simple.
SASHKA AZIVE: [via a translator] These are our people. We had to accept them. Certainly it’s difficult, but we are handling it.
MCHUGH: It’s not surprising that so many of the Chechen refugees are living with host families. In Soviet times Ingushetia and Chechnya were one republic. Ingushetia severed its ties with Chechnya in 1992, although the border between the two has never been officially drawn.
TZARA SHAZDIEVAH: [via a translator] Certainly to say everything is good would not be just.
MCHUGH: This is Tzara Shazdievah. She is among the more than 20 refugees now living with Sashka’s family.
SHAZDIEVAH: [via a translator] In our souls we miss our homes but our host has succeeded in joining with us to make this place feel like home.
MCHUGH: Tzara says the Russian military may have destroyed their homes, but they can’t destroy family ties. She and others living in the Azive compound often gather as one big family to sing Russian pop songs, translated of course, into Chechen.
[sound of the extended family singing]
MCHUGH: Although the living conditions here are visibly better than in the tent camps, making ends meet is still difficult. All of the refugees living with host families are eligible for food aid. But nonfood assistance such as clothing and medicine is harder to come by. And the host families themselves do not receive humanitarian assistance. Since many of the refugees are unemployed and poor, host families are digging into their own pockets to provide basic necessities such as electricity and natural gas. But the generosity is starting to wane as the conflict in Chechnya heads into its third year. Ingush Deputy Prime Minister Ashap Godydov says some refugees have worn out their welcome.
GODYDOV: [via a translator] The main burden was taken by the population because they hosted the refugees. At the beginning of the conflict the population was very generous. They not only accommodated the people but they gave them food and so on. Today our infrastructure is hardly coping. Some Ingush families are getting tired of having so many guests for such a long time. And therefore some refugees are being evicted.
[sound of someone opening and walking through a gate]
MCHUGH: Some Chechens evicted from their host family arrangements end up here in spontaneous settlements.
[sound of pouring water]
HOISAETER : There are some 200 spontaneous settlements in Ingushetia.
MCHUGH: This again is UNHCR’s Jon Hoisaeter .
HOISAETER : These range from large factories or farms that can have up to several thousand people, down to maybe small workshops and so on, where only a few families have found shelter. Very often we find the worst living conditions in some of these. Where even sometimes people are sharing shelter with their animals.
[sounds of birds cheeping]
MCHUGH: Today, 75 people from 12 families call this run-down, abandoned barn home.
AIMON SALDAHANOVA: [via a translator] We had no place to go. But there was no place to sleep here and there were 40 people jammed in one unit. Today it’s cold inside. The electricity was cut off.
MCHUGH: Aimon Saldahanova has lived in this barn with her husband and three young children for the past two years.
SALDAHANOVA: [via a translator] It was the place where cows were kept. We had asbestos sheeting on the roof and brick, and that’s it. You can see the conditions for yourself.
MCHUGH: This room is probably nine foot by nine foot. They do have a window, so there is some light. But they’re sleeping on boards. There’s clothes obviously drying above a really old stove. There’s one gas line in the middle of the barn. And they were telling us that they have rats and so their, all their food, you can see their corn is hanging from the rafters to try to keep the rats away.
SALDAHANOVA: [via a translator] We would go home if we had a home. But we have no place to go home to.
[sound of birds cheeping]
MCHUGH: The events of September 11 have not gone unnoticed in Ingushetia. Refugees are quick to extend their sympathies and condolences to all Americans. But they are also quick to voice concerns about their own future. Many fear they will be forgotten as the world’s attention turns to the number of people displaced by the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. UNHCR’s Jon Hoisaeter says the fears are unfounded.
HOISAETER : We have been able to avoid a humanitarian disaster for this large group that came into Ingushetia. That doesn’t mean of course that, that every need is fulfilled and that there are no problems. We are continually always trying to fill the gaps that are arising. We know at the same time that many of the IDPs themselves are very much worried at this point that they will become even more forgotten. I’m not so fearful maybe that, that countries will directly decide to move resources from here. But knowing that there is a $500 million dollar appeal coming out for the Afghan crisis-I think it’s fair to assume that that will probably limit to some extent the available resources for other operations. So that’s something that, that we have to take into account for our planning for the future. At the same time, one has to try to remain optimistic and hopefully, with some positive political developments next year there will be a possibility to gradually scale down this operation.
MCHUGH: But optimism is fading and winter is looming. Gas and electricity suppliers, unable to collect mounting debts, have threatened to cut off service to host families and tent camps throughout Ingushetia. And daily armed clashes between Russian troops and rebel soldiers continue in Chechnya. Russian and Chechen negotiators have launched talks to end the conflict, but with no concrete settlement in sight Tamara Hasan knows she will be spending another long, cold winter in the Sputnik tent camp.
[sound of children in the tent camp]
HASAN: [via a translator] We want to lead a normal life but recently there was a commission here from Moscow and they said it was useless to return this year.
[sound of Chechen refugees singing]
MCHUGH: For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh, Nazran, Ingushetia, Russia.
[sound of Chechen refugees singing]
PORTER: Civilians in war, next on Common Ground.
MCHUGH: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details, or visit our Web site at commongroundradio.org. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs designed to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
PORTER: Civilians accounted for only 5 percent of the casualties recorded during World War I. But in the past decade the number of civilians killed in various global conflicts skyrocketed to nearly 90 percent of the casualties reported.
MCHUGH: Simon Chesterman is a Research Associate at the International Peace Academy in New York and editor of a new book titled Civilians In War. I recently spoke with Chesterman about the book and the rights of civilians in war.
SIMON CHESTERMAN: The basic responsibilities of an army with regard to civilians are first and foremost not to, not to harm them. That doesn’t mean that you can’t deprive them of certain civil liberties. In a state of emergency, in a war, a government is entitled to make such a declaration and, if necessary, detain people arbitrarily. But you can’t torture them, you can’t arbitrarily kill them, and in particular, civilians in themselves are not allowed to be targets of military action.
That also includes special responsibility for areas that fall under one’s control. So for example, in Afghanistan the US and its allies, or its ally in the United Kingdom, take control of a portion of territory. That entails special responsibilities towards the civilians there. So you can’t simply allow them to starve. But other than that the primary obligation is a quite simple one-not to make them the target of military action and not to allow unnecessary suffering.
MCHUGH: How do you define a civilian in war?
CHESTERMAN: International humanitarian law, or the law applicable to armed conflict, has two basic provisions. The first is to try and prevent unnecessary suffering. And the second is to try and limit suffering to those who are combatants rather than noncombatants. And so that’s the essential distinction-is someone a combatant? Now, this is a definition that has been a little bit confused over the years, in part because there’s a widespread assumption now that the definition of a civilian is a definition of a protected person. In fact the origins of the term “civilian” or the idea of a civilian, go to a completely opposite question. Which is that they were designed to limit the protection of the rules that governed war to those who were combatants-in fact, professional armies in 19th-century and early Twentieth-century Europe.
Now of course that’s changed, and in the Geneva Conventions we’ve now got a specific convention, the Fourth Convention, on the protection of civilians. What it now means is essentially someone who’s not an active participant in the conflict, usually defined by exclusion. So someone who’s in the armed forces in military uniform is a combatant-fairly clearly. In other situations someone who is wearing some sort of military insignia and/or carrying arms openly would usually be regarded as a combatant. However, it’s entirely possible for a combatant to become a civilian, if they throw down their arms, or most obviously, if they’re wounded, and therefore if that takes them out of the conflict.
MCHUGH: In the case of Afghanistan, for example, if someone has strong political support for the Taliban, they could be a civilian or they could be a combatant?
CHESTERMAN: It would depend entirely on what they were doing. There’s also a separate distinction that needs to be made about the nature of the conflict. In an international armed conflict there are fairly clear provisions that the Geneva Conventions will apply. Both Afghanistan and the United States have signed the Geneva Conventions. And there’s no question really that there’s an international armed conflict in Afghanistan at the moment.
Similarly, one could raise questions about the nature of the attack on the World Trade Center, where fairly clearly, everyone who was killed there was a civilian, although there might be arguments about the CIA station that was blown up at the same time. But probably everyone was a civilian. And so that would have been a violation of the laws of war.
In relation to your specific question on Afghanistan, this, this raises questions about the nature of political leaders. For example, there’s been much discussion in the US about assassination. Now, assassination is a fairly-it’s not a term of art in the laws of war, as I understand it. If it means targeting someone for extra-judicial killing, then that’s probably a-that’s certainly a violation of human rights and probably a violation of the laws of war. If it’s in a context where someone has been taken out of the combat-for example if it’s a prisoner of war, you’re not allowed to execute prisoners of war arbitrarily. However, there is no restriction on killing military targets within the laws of war.
Whether it’s a just war or not is a separate question, but at the moment we’re only talking about the laws of war. So for example, if one regards Osama bin Laden as the leader of a military force-that is the party to this ongoing conflict-then he is a military target, and killing him in the course of this battle would not be a war crime. Similarly, discussions about Saddam Hussein during the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein was certainly, despite being a political ruler of the Baath Party, he was also the chief of the armed forces. Naturally, of course, that also applies to George Bush.
MCHUGH: Does the definition change in a civil conflict?
CHESTERMAN: What one usually finds in a civil conflict is an attempt to take this out of the discussion of the laws of war entirely. So for example, in Kosovo the Yugoslav government, or the Serbian government, this was not a military engagement with the KLA, it was police action. Similarly in Northern Ireland there’s been great reluctance to recognize that this was any sort of conflict-rather suggesting that it was an insurgency or some sort of riot rather than a military conflict.
The reason for this is that if it becomes a conflict of an internal character, an armed conflict of an internal character, then some of the provisions of the Geneva Convention and the provisions of Additional Protocol Two to the Geneva Conventions-an additional set of treaty agreements that were ratified in 1977-these will start to apply and international scrutiny will increase. If you can define it simply as a police action there tends to be much more understanding from states who will politely turn the other way.
MCHUGH: Where does the conflict in Chechnya fall in that definition? Is it an internal conflict? Is it a police action?
CHESTERMAN: It depends on who you ask. If you ask the Russians then they will certainly say that it’s a police action and that has been reaffirmed since September 11. And indeed there appears to be a tacit understanding that Russia’s support for the United States’ response to terrorism here is going to be mirrored by at least some greater degree of understanding of what Russia presents as its own attempt to deal with Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya.
Now, that being said, I think fairly clearly there is an organized military structure in Chechnya. And indeed, the provisions of the Additional Protocol Two, which I note that the United States hasn’t ratified, and I don’t think Russia has ratified either-define these things not in terms of identification, but in terms of capacity. So what will often happen is that the insurgent group-in this case the Chechen rebels-will often try to define themselves as a, as a belligerent group, in control of some proportion of territory and able to comply with their obligations under Additional Protocol Two, in order to get the protections of that. Whereas the government, the recognized government that is opposing them will usually try and avoid that sort of definition. So, the only way to come to a conclusive determination would be if this came before an international tribunal. For example, if the International Criminal Court gets up and running-although that will only look to future disputes-that’s the sort of forum in which this might, this might be determined.
MCHUGH: How many civilians are there in conflict around the world today?
CHESTERMAN: It would depend on how many conflicts you recognize. And I think on some of the, some of the definitions of conflict suggest if it’s 1,000 deaths related to political violence in the course of a year then I think the numbers are in, between 20 and 30 conflicts at any one time. Clearly one could count the vast majority of the Afghan population. So up to 27 million people. The majority of the population of Iraq, add another many millions. Populations in Chechnya, millions more. The Sudan-two million people have died there in the last 17 years. Millions and millions.
And one of the disturbing trends in conflicts over the past hundred years has been despite all the increased normative response to protecting civilians, civilians have more and more become a target, a direct and specific target, of battles that are no longer set pieces between armies that line up on a field and attack one another. Rather the attempt is to, very often to undermine the hearts and minds of an opposing army rather than to win them.
MCHUGH: I actually wanted to ask you about a hundred-year perspective on the number of civilians in war today versus say a hundred years ago. Is it certainly higher?
CHESTERMAN: The figures are disputed. But one that’s widely cited-and indeed it’s cited in my introduction to Civilians in War-although, as I said, it’s disputed-is that around the First World War something like 5 percent of casualties were civilians. By the Second World War that had increased to about 50 percent. But in the wars of the 1990s this had increased to around 90 percent. And this, in particular, is a result of the, the changing nature of conflicts, in particular identity conflicts. And whether one sees these having a specific basis in identity, certainly the consequences are a hugely increased number of civilians get caught up in the battle even though they’ve got no direct engagement in it as a combatant themselves.
MCHUGH: In the situation of the conflict in Kosovo and some of the conflict in Chechnya, and certainly other conflicts, we hear the term “human shield,” now. That civilians are being used as human shields. I mean, in Belgrade they lined the bridges to prevent the bombings. Is that part of the changing nature of conflict?
CHESTERMAN: Yeah. It’s an ironic consequence of more and more precise munitions. That even as our capacity to limit the effect on civilians, or collateral damage, whatever one calls it, even as that capacity increases, the number of civilians who are actually getting killed also increases. Now, partly that’s a result of low-tech warfare like in Rwanda. But also it’s partly a result of attempts to use civilians in the course of a battle, either by, as I was saying before, killing them in order to undermine support for a particular regime, or as you’ve just said, dragging them into the battle in part because of a recognition of the changing sensibilities of warfare. That if you, if you line a military base with civilians then people watching CNN might be more reluctant to see that many dead civilians. And indeed, there’s been some evidence of that in Afghanistan, with reports of the Taliban installing anti-aircraft weapons on civilian apartment blocks and so on.
MCHUGH: Do they become legitimate targets though in a situation like that?
CHESTERMAN: The civilians themselves don’t. But the presence of civilians doesn’t in itself deprive a target of its military character. Otherwise war would become impossible. And the laws of war are the most pragmatic of all legal regimes. I mean, these are laws designed to regulate the killing of people. And I think it’s important to stress that. So what ends up having to happen is a legal advisor to an army has to make a judgment as to whether or not the military necessity of the target outweighs the danger to civilians. And so it’s got to be connected to the war effort. It’s got to be able to be justified. And most prominently it’s got to avoid being able to be characterized as a war crime or a crime against humanity.
MCHUGH: Civilians are protected by international law, but as you mentioned the number of civilians in conflict has increased and the number of deaths has increased in the last 100 years. Is it time for the laws to change?
CHESTERMAN: What we argue in the book is that changing the laws themselves would be unnecessarily complicated and not clearly helpful. The problem with protection of civilians isn’t the deficiency of the legal regime in itself, although some greater enforcement might be useful and so we’d support the development of the International Criminal Court in particular. But the real problem goes to the applicability of these laws, the failure of some countries to sign onto existing laws-as I mentioned the US hasn’t signed either Additional Protocol One or Two, which gives additional protection to civilians.
And also, I think there’s a failure to understand that these conventions aren’t simply about protecting civilians. They’re also about protecting soldiers and making their job easier. Now, in the context of a war, the confused and violent environment that presents that, that might sound silly. But all of these norms have been designed with the participation of armies and the aim is to assist in the winning of a war, and focusing that on the objective. Which is not to kill civilians. The objective of a war is to degrade an opponent’s capacity to fight against you or to bring about a particular political change. Now, what the laws of war try and do is distinguish that from the otherwise unnecessary suffering of civilians that get caught up in all of that process.
MCHUGH: If we turn back to Afghanistan would you say that this conflict may change the way civilians in conflict are viewed in the future?
CHESTERMAN: We keep talking about modern wars. The Gulf War was meant to be the first modern war. In fact, it was probably the last old war, with massive deployment of ground troops. Kosovo was meant to be the first new war. I think this is really the post-modern war. I forget who said it. I think it was a columnist in The Guardian, said this is the first really post-modern war because we know there’s a war going on, but we don’t know who the enemy is. I think certainly this is changing the way in which the United States fights a war. There’s an increasing recognition that the US cannot fight this sort of war alone or in isolation from other problems.
In terms of the actual protection of civilians I actually don’t see this as being so different. And I think the fact that we’ve reverted to-well, we, meaning the United States-have reverted to using weapons not, not used since the Vietnam War-suggest that this isn’t such a new war. As for civilians themselves outside of the conflict, I think the test of this will be what the US and its allies do during the winter. And if there is an abdication of the responsibility to look after people who will-the millions of people who will face the risk of death or at least severe malnutrition during the winter. Then I fear that that will demonstrate that nothing has really changed at all.
MCHUGH: Simon Chesterman is a Research Associate with the International Peace Academy and editor of the book Civilians In War. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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