November 1, 2018 at 5:21 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
U.S.-inclusive coalition to probe alleged anti-gay Chechnya abuses

Protesters demonstrate in “Eyes on Chechnya” protest. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

A coalition of international partners, including the United States, announced Thursday plans to investigate alleged anti-gay abuses in Chechnya that have sparked worldwide condemnation.

On Thursday, a 16-member group of countries in the Organization for Security & Cooperation in Europe invoked the organization’s “Moscow Mechanism” to set up an international fact-finding mission to investigate the alleged human rights abuses.

The statement by Iceland invoking the OSCE mechanism details actions urging Russia to investigate the alleged anti-gay abuses in Chechnya, concluding those efforts have been to no avail.

“This has only deepened our concern that the Russian Federation is unwilling or unable to address the reports of serious human rights violations and abuses, which contributes to a climate of impunity for authorities in Chechnya,” the statement says. “We believe that the reported violations and abuses reflect a particularly serious threat to the fulfillment of the provisions of the OSCE human dimension.”

The 57-member OSCE was set up during the Cold War as a forum where the United States could raise human rights and security issues with countries aligned with the Soviet Union. It now serves as a pan-Atlantic forum for conversations on early warning, conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation.

The “Moscow Mechanism,” adopted in 1991, provides OSCE member states the option of sending expert missions to assist participating states in resolving a particular question or problem on human rights, according to the organization’s website.

According to the Helsinki Commission, the “Moscow Mechanism” has been invoked a total of only seven times in cases of Russia (2018), Belarus (2011), Turkmenistan (2003), Serbia and Montenegro (1993), Moldova (1993), Estonia (1992), and Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1992).

Iceland invoked the mechanism on behalf of a coalition that includes itself as well as Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

A U.S. State Department background statement on the invocation obtained by the Washington Blade asserts “the Trump administration has made it clear that we will hold Russia accountable for its malign activities, including its abuses against those within its own borders.”

“For more than a year, the United States and other countries in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have repeatedly pressed the Russian Federation to investigate reports of extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detentions and other violations and abuses in Chechnya,” the statement says. “These violations and abuses targeted members of the LGBTI community, members of human rights NGOs, and those the Chechen regime labeled ‘terrorists’ without justification.”

The State Department asserts the coalition “did not take this step without exhausting other means” to encourage Russia to take action against the alleged abuses in Chechnya.

The United States, the State Department says, raised concerns through bilateral channels in Washington and in Moscow, including at the Foreign Minister level, as well as at the United Nations, OSCE and other international fora.

Also cited by State Department is sanctions the United States imposed in December 2017 against Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and police official Ayub Katayev under the Magnitsky Act. Those sanctions freeze assets of Russians who commit human rights abuses and ban them from entering the United States.

Finally, the State Department cites an Aug. 30, OSCE letter signed by the United States formally calling on Russia to provide a substantive response to international concerns over the alleged abuses. Russia failed to comply, according to the State Department.

“With these actions, the United States and the other invoking states are underscoring the seriousness of the international community’s concerns, the need for accountability and our insistence that the Russian Federation fulfill its international human rights obligations,” the State Department says.

Beginning last year, reports emerged that local authorities in Chechnya, have engaged in systematic efforts to round up and even execute gay men in concentration camps. The extrajudicial killings also seem to include critics of the Kadyrov regime.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley issued a statement last year calling the reports of Chechnya abuses “troubling,” but President Trump himself never commented unlike other world leaders like Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron — much to the disappointment of LGBT rights supporters.

In response to the allegation, Kadyrov said last year in a media interview the reports are “ridiculous” because they “don’t have any gays” in Chechnya. Russian officials echoed that claim in response to growing international concern over the alleged abuses.

The scope of the fact-finding mission, according to the State Department, is to examine mounting reprisals in Chechnya against independent civil society organizations and media outlets, alleged human rights violations and abuses against LGBT people and others as well as the overall climate of impunity for these alleged abuses.

The mission, the State Department says, is also charged with examining Russia’s efforts to ensure Chechnya is upholding human rights, including how Russian authorities have conducted their investigations, how they determined that no violations occurred and how they concluded that no LGBT people exist in Chechnya.

Michael Guest, who’s gay and senior adviser to the Council for Global Equality, told the Washington Blade he’s “encouraged” the United States and other countries “continue to demand that Russia investigate and hold accountable those responsible for a string of atrocities against LGBT people in Chechnya.”

“I’d be surprised if Russia were to let a fact-finding mission into the country — and given the passage of time, finding concrete evidence may be a stretch,” Guest added. “But using this diplomatic tool is in itself a rebuke to Russian officials, and keeps a spotlight on a tragedy that Russia would just as soon ignore.”

Guest, a former U.S. ambassador to Romania, also headed the U.S. delegation to a OSCE human rights review conference in 2010.

According to the State Department, the fact-finding mission will be comprised of up to three experts from a list maintained by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions & Human Rights. The experts are charged with conducting the fact-finding mission and submitting to the OSCE Permanent Council a report that can serve as the basis for further action.

The first expert is chosen by the states that invoked the “Moscow Mechanism.” The second expert may be chosen by Russia. The third expert is chosen by the first two experts. If Russia chooses not to select the second expert, the first expert selected by the invoking states participates in the mission alone.

Neither the Russian delegation to the OSCE, nor the Russian embassy to the United States responded Thursday afternoon to the Blade’s request for comment on the invocation of the “Moscow Mechanism.”

In a joint statement, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), top senators on the Helsinki Commission, commended the 16-member OSCE coalition for invoking the “Moscow Mechanism.”

“It is long past time for a credible, independent investigation into the allegations of human rights abuses in Chechnya,”  Wicker and Cardin said. “The OSCE can no longer ignore reports of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and other gross violations of human rights, and should hold the perpetrators of such vicious crimes accountable. Impunity for such crimes creates an increasingly unsafe and unstable environment in an area already fraught with violence, terrorism and fear.”

David Stacy, government affairs director for the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement the creation of the fact-finding mission is a signal that Russia must “hold accountable the perpetrators of violence against LGBTQ people in Chechnya.”

“It is unconscionable that Vladimir Putin has allowed Chechnya’s human rights violations to go on with impunity for so long,” Stacy said. “With this investigation, we will finally get an objective multinational report on the atrocities against LGBTQ people in that region and the key perpetrators behind them. This is a big step toward justice for those targeted by violence, and for preventing anti-LGBTQ violence in the future.”

Daniel Baer, who’s gay and a former U.S. ambassador to OSCE, also commended the U.S. delegation for the invocation, asserting U.S. officials “must have worked as part of this broad coalition of concern over many months to lay the groundwork for today’s announcement.”

“Multilateral diplomacy is tough — and they and the many partners from other countries deserve huge kudos for using the mechanisms available to them to speak with one voice about a human rights issue that should be a concern for all,” Baer said. “And yes, the Trump Administration deserves credit for having the U.S. be a part of this group — there are many other policy areas where the U.S. could be more effective if we did a better job of working with partners, rather than going it alone.”

Baer added, “there is much that the Russians can do to obstruct the work if they choose not to respond in good faith,” but he has high hopes for the fact-finding mission to spotlight human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“I would just offer a personal view, which is that one of the reasons why Putin’s regime has done so little to address the violence in Chechnya may be that he doesn’t in fact have as much power to do so as outside observers might think because Kadyrov is not really under his control,” Baer said. “If that’s partly true, there’s a chance that the ‘Moscow Mechanism’ reporting may evidence Putin’s inability to exercise control in Russian territory, which would itself be a security concern to Russia and others.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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