Tragedy in Beslan and the Fight against Terrorism
No one possessed of any shred of humanity could be other than appalled and deeply saddened by the tragic events at the school in Beslan in North Ossetia two weeks ago. I reiterate the Commission’s condolences to the people of Beslan. I also, unhesitatingly and unreservedly condemn terrorist acts wherever they are perpetrated. Attacks on civilians are always contemptible. When they deliberately target children, they plumb new depths of atrocity.
Sadly, this event was not isolated. In recent months, Russia has suffered several terrorist attacks, with targets ranging from the Moscow metro to domestic passenger flights. The sequence is deeply disturbing, and the Commission has of course expressed its readiness to intensify our work with Russia to combat the very real terrorist threats that it faces. We are, to take one example, already working with Russia to combat the financing of terrorism, by helping Russia improve its anti-money laundering efforts.
We want ideally to pursue those efforts as part of our much-vaunted ‘strategic partnership’ with Russia, as part of a process of dialogue. Dialogue inevitably involves questions. Real help comes only with understanding, and understanding comes only with clarity. What happened in Beslan is still not fully clear, at least to the outside observer. Who were those involved? How did the hostage-takers plan and execute this horrific act? What provoked the storming of the school? Why was the number of casualties so high?
The link with Chechnya is, however, clear. Events in Beslan followed an intensification of rebel attacks in both Chechnya and Ingushetia since the spring. The current conflict, now in its fifth year, has been a vicious affair, with widespread human rights abuses and the targeting of civilians by both Russian armed forces and rebels. Many civilians have simply disappeared. The conflict has caused a massive humanitarian crisis and has laid the economy waste.
We should all recognize, though, that this is not the time to read Russia lectures about Chechnya. This is a time of grief, and shock. We have had, and will continue to have, our differences with Russia over Chechnya. We have made, and will continue to make, those differences clear in our meetings with the Russians, and to discuss them. That is what partners do.
For the Commission, there are two principles that guide cooperation with Russia on terrorism. First, that it is equally, if not more, important to work together to prevent terrorism, by which I mean addressing its root causes. Second, that human rights are paramount and must be respected - the fight against terrorism does not justify or excuse the violation of human rights. Rather, it is strengthened by a demonstrable respect for the human rights of all citizens. I noted a remarkable statement the other day by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Israel. He was giving a judgement on the security barrier. What he said reminded me of what we share fundamentally with Israel, whatever our criticisms of the present government’s policies. Democracies, he argued, have to fight with one hand tied behind their backs. That is true. But it is also true that the moment you behave like the terrorists, you undermine your moral authority and augment the number of citizens who either actively or passively support them.
So when we do return to discussion of Chechnya, we should continue to make clear our support for a political solution to the conflict, which fully respects Russia’s territorial integrity. But we should do so in a consistent, intelligent way that does not risk changing from Presidency to Presidency, and that recognizes the complex nature of ethnic conflict in the Caucasus. I note in passing that we and our Russian partners need urgently to come to a shared understanding of this point.
Territorial integrity and stability matter throughout Russia’s near abroad, as well within Russia itself. A shared recognition of that would do much to make our common neighbourhood a safer place. We for our part should recognize that no one sensible in Russia could or should want to return to the Chechnyan status quo of the years immediately before 1999. They remember what that was like, and what it led to. So should we. It was appalling – a community that exported gangsterism.
So the Commission welcomes efforts to rebuild properly functioning public health, education and administrative systems, but we have no illusions. This is the start of a very long journey, which will only be lengthened by the siphoning off of reconstruction funds by corrupt officials, the apparent manipulation of elections, a failure to protect human rights and the absence of dialogue.
The challenge for Russia is to put in place a leadership in Chechnya in which the population of Chechnya has confidence. Without this, there can be no lasting, genuine reconciliation, which it is clear the majority of the population wishes to see. We can help in this, in a modest way, supporting efforts to promote reconstruction and institution-building in Chechnya. I repeat the Commission’s readiness to provide funds for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the north Caucasus, as soon as the security situation permits, and once a needs assessment mission to Moscow and the north Caucasus can be undertaken. But ultimately that, and any lasting resolution, of the Chechnyan tragedy, depends on the pursuit of far-sighted, humane and resolute policies in Moscow. I hope they are forthcoming and that the government of the Russian Federation will not conclude that the only answer to terrorism is to increase the power of the Kremlin. Frankly, there is not much good history on the side of that proposition.