Written by Madeline McCann, graduate student in REEI
Several weeks ago, the Russian Studies Workshop and the Department of International Studies sponsored a seminar on Human Rights Justice in Hybrid Regimes. Although the seminar broadly addressed the challenges of domestic litigation where there is weak rule of law, the focus in particular was on enforced disappearances and torture in the North Caucasus. In this mountainous region of the Russian Federation, it is not uncommon for the state military to burst into people’s homes, to kidnap and incarcerate individuals, and to torture those individuals into making confessions of various kinds.
The background here is complex; home to dozens of different nationalities and languages, the mountainous North Caucasus region has long been one of Russia’s most volatile. Groups of local separatists have historically presented challenges to Russian control over the region. Notably, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation has been involved in two prolonged wars in an effort to maintain control over the territory of Chechnya. Perhaps unsurprisingly, enormous levels of conflict and violence have extended within and beyond these wars.
Yet this violence didn’t end with the wars themselves. In fact, the Russian Federation has systematized and legalized a great deal of violence in the region over the past twenty to thirty years in the name of anti-terrorism and anti-separatism. Concerns about terrorism are not entirely unfounded – in the past, ardent separatists from the North Caucasus have perpetrated a number of violent acts within the Russian Federation (most infamously tragedies at a theatre in Moscow and at a school in Beslan). Yet in response to real and imagined fears, the state has shown a blatant disregard for human rights. Policies implemented since the First Chechen War in particular have enabled the systematic kidnapping and torture of its own citizens in the North Caucasus (only a very small percentage of whom are actually separatist fighters).
Enforced disappearances such as these are tragic not only for the victims, but also for the friends and families of those victims, who have no domestic legal means to seek justice for the victims. Who does one bring complaints to, if local police and authorities were themselves the perpetrators? Those who wish to learn more about these kidnappings and their impacts on victims and their families might be interested in the film Barzakh. Starring one of the panelists from this event, Barzakh provides an informed glimpse into the lives of those impacted by these enforced disappearances in the North Caucasus.
This conference itself was less about the background behind these disappearances and more about the local and international institutions through which victims of these disappearances and their families can seek justice. As I listened to each of these speakers, largely law professionals and activists, I found myself wondering if perhaps my next step should be to seek out a law degree. Over the course of the day, these speakers touched upon a large range of institutions seeking to support human rights across the globe, including the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT). Unsurprisingly, bridging international standards with domestic practice has been an uphill battle in many countries across the globe.
Despite difficulties, professionals and activists such as those at this conference have made enormous strides in demanding transparency, accountability, and respect for human rights across the globe. At the conference, a representative from the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (KIBHR) spoke about one landmark case where hard work and dedication succeeded in ensuring justice for a victim of torture. In this case, Gerasimov v. Kazakhstan, the Open Society Justice Initiative collaborated with KIBHR to support a victim of torture seeking compensation. The process involved numerous steps, but ultimately, a city court in Kazakhstan ordered the Department of Internal Affairs of the Kostanay region of Kazakhstan to pay Mr. Gerasimov compensation, highlighting the mandatory implementation of a decision made earlier by the UN Committee against Torture. When taken to a higher-level court, this decision was upheld. This case, we learned, was the first decision in Central Asia to treat a UN treaty body’s decision as the basis for compensation.
The content of this workshop was, in many ways, tragic. The brutality, violence, and suffering at the center of our many lines of discussion were difficult to hear about and at times overwhelming. I was heartened, however, by the participants of the conference who were at the front lines of the fight for human rights, justice, and rule of law. These individuals were not simply listing problems, but actively searching for solutions to those (towering) problems, and I was extremely grateful to hear about their efforts.
As an aside, I should note that this conference made use of an app (via the company Interprenet) through which translators in Chicago provided live translations throughout the entire conference (in English and Russian) so that we could all understand and converse with each other even despite our language barriers. I found this to be amazing – but that probably warrants a whole post of its own…