A People's History of the European Court of Human Rights

By Michael D. Goldhaber | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 14
The Chechen Challenge

Kurdish cases began to dominate Strasbourg a few years after Turkey's full acceptance of European Court of Human Rights jurisdiction in 1990. Russia joined the Council of Europe in 1997, accompanied in the surrounding years by some twenty Eastern-bloc nations. It follows that the landmark challenges of the next few years will originate in the ex-Communist zone. The next two chapters examine what I believe to be the two greatest human rights crises in contemporary Europe, beginning with the Russian military's abuse of Chechen civilians.

The main gateway to Chechnya is Ingushetia, an obscure Russian republic perhaps best known to brokers of kidnap insurance. Traveling there is not easy. The first London travel agent I approached refused to help me, because the last clients it sent to the area had been decapitated. Insurers wanted a five-thousand-dollar premium to cover three days in the company of an armed guard. I found a reckless travel agent and took my chances without insurance. Too fearful to enter Chechnya proper, I relied on a local woman with a full set of gold teeth, who dodged gunfire to ferry my subjects across the border to Ingushetia, where I interviewed them at my hotel. One of the European plaintiffs invited me to her home in Grozny. “We have a Chechen saying,” she said. “The devil is not as bad as he is painted.” I demurred politely, keeping my thoughts to myself. What I was thinking is that, based on my reporting, the devil is even worse than painted.

Like the Kurds, the Chechens are mountain folk who have never been culturally absorbed by their neighbors and have spent much of their history rebelling. Both have employed terrorist tactics to provoke bloody and abusive counterinsurgencies on Strasbourg's watch. But while the Kurds represent one-fifth of Turkey's population, the Chechens make up less than 1 percent of Russia's population. If there is a common reason for the respective obsessions of Russia and Turkey with these small populations, it is not demographic but psychological. In the 1990s, the Kurds and Chechens each

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