Academic journal article American University International Law Review

Circassian Right of Return: "Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened?"

Academic journal article American University International Law Review

Circassian Right of Return: "Putin the Terrible or Putin the Enlightened?"

Article excerpt


Circassians are an indigenous ethnic group that originates in the northwestern Caucasus Mountains.1 Throughout the nineteenth century, the Russian Empire enacted a policy to eradicate Circassians from their ancestral homelands, effectively pushing almost all surviving Circassians throughout the diaspora.2 Russia recently hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, the heart of Circassian ancestral lands.3 Many Circassians have expressed an interest in returning to Circassia, particularly Circassians fleeing the conflict in Syria.4

Under article 12(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ("ICCPR"), Russia has an obligation to allow Circassians the right of return.5 Many Circassians, particularly refugees from Syria, wish to utilize Russia's Compatriot Law (a program to encourage Russians throughout the diaspora to return to Russia).6 However, a recent determination by Russian officials that Circassians are not considered compatriots under the law has prevented Circassian right of return.7 Russia should meet its obligations under the ICCPR's article 12(4) to allow Circassians the right of return by either amending the Compatriot Law or creating a new law to repatriate Circassians.

Section II of this comment will provide a history of the Circassian people, including Russian policy to eradicate and expel Circassians from their ancestral homelands throughout the nineteenth century.8 It will then go over the Russian government's Compatriot Law and a recent decision by the Russian government that Circassians are not compatriots under the law.9 The comment will then discuss the right of return as a binding principle of international law that can continue through subsequent generations of an outcast people.10

This comment argues that Russia is frustrating Circassian right of return in violation of articles 12(4) and 2(1) of the ICCPR. Section III will analyze the Circassian right of return under the ICCPR and legal barriers that could otherwise prevent Circassian right of return.11 It will then discuss how the Russian Compatriot Law fails to meet Russian obligations under article 12(4) of the ICCPR.12 In addition, Russia's subsequent amendments to the Compatriot Law to limit the scope of compatriot and decision to deny Circassian right of return constitutes a discriminatory practice prohibited by article 2(1) of the ICCPR. Finally, Section IV will recommend how Russia can fulfill its obligations by providing measures to allow Circassian return.13 For instance, Russia could amend the Compatriot Law to allow Circassian return, accept Circassians as Russian compatriots under the international law of succession, or create a new law that specifically targets Circassians for return to the ancestral homelands.


The background will describe Circassian history in the northwest Caucasus region and ultimate removal under Russian imperialism during the Caucasian War from 1817-1864. It will then explain the Russian Compatriot Law, Syrian Circassian refugee attempts to use the law for repatriation, and Russia's determination that Circassians are not compatriots under the law. Finally, it will present the history and current precedent for right of return under articles 12(4) and 2(1) of the ICCPR.


The term "Circassian" refers to members of an indigenous ethnic group from the northwestern region of the Caucasus Mountains, which borders Russia, Georgia, and the Black Sea.14 It is a distinct group with its own culture and language.15 Circassian mythology, known as the Nart Epics, predates the Bronze Age and provides thousands of years of Circassian history and culture originally passed down as oral tradition before being recorded in Circassian texts.16 For most of their history, Circassians enjoyed relative autonomy as tribal groups connected through custom and culture, which regularly interacted with neighbors through trade, noble marriages, and war. …

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