Russia Takes War Crimes Education Lead

Chechen conflict triggers Russian debate on the rights and wrongs of war.

Russia Takes War Crimes Education Lead

Chechen conflict triggers Russian debate on the rights and wrongs of war.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Russia has a good claim to be the father of modern war crimes law: it was a Tsar who in 1899 convened the first Hague peace conference, which ended with one of the key war crimes treaties.


A century later, Russia is again setting the pace - as the only nation where war crimes law is a mandatory subject for all budding journalists.


While western reporters are happily ignorant of war crimes treaties, the Russians are busy swatting up. All journalism undergraduates here are taught war crimes laws, principles and key conventions, as part of a course on conflict.


The reason is simple: Chechnya. This war, now into its fourth year, has sucked in an entire generation of journalists. More than this, it is also the first war Russia has viewed through a free press.


And this press has uncovered a string of atrocities – both by Chechen warlords and units of the Russian army.


Media coverage has focused on missing Chechens and on the indiscriminate bombardment of the town of Grozny. And last year, newspapers and broadcasters alike reported extensively on a sensational war crimes trial, with a colonel accused of the abduction, rape and murder of a Chechen girl.


All of this has been hugely controversial - people here have mixed feelings about the war, particularly after the release of videos showing Chechen commanders executing Russian prisoners and keeping others for months as hostages.


But all of it has served to raise questions about the rules of war - and which ones are being broken.


“The biggest problem we have now is Chechnya,” said the architect of the war crimes course, Professor Andrei Raskin of Moscow State University, Russia’s leading higher education institute – “This conflict is our home conflict. Before Chechnya we did not have a war on Russian territory for fifty years.”


The students at his faculty, across the street from the Kremlin, look like the MTV generation, yet they can quote you great tracts of Hague and Geneva law.


The students are concerned not just with Chechnya but also other trouble spots around the world, especially the Gulf conflict.


What alarms Russians, young and old, about the invasion of Iraq is that it was done without bothering to get UN approval. The UN may not be liked, but for many people here, the fact that it can be ignored means the world is a step closer to anarchy.


Hence the enthusiasm for anything that offers to set up a few basic rules to govern international behaviour.


“To be honest with you, the greatest idea would be to stop the war altogether,” said Professor Raskin. “We should admit this is impossible now. (But) it’s necessary to develop new norms and principles.”


He is not alone. Television news, when it is not saturated with war coverage, is now staging debates between journalists, politicians and generals over the rights and wrongs of war.


These debates spill over into the faculty coffee bar. “This war in Iraq is not so far away from here. People don’t feel safe,” said student Anna Shargatova. “We need useful information about how to behave in conflict situations.”


Professor Raskin is proud of the liberal traditions of his college, “Students of the faculty of journalism are a little bit different. They are students who like to change the world in a better way.”


Russia itself has taken a back seat on the question of war crimes: it supports, but without much enthusiasm, the UN court in The Hague, and has signed the Rome Treaty that created the International Criminal Court. But it has yet to ratify this treaty - and may not do so unless it can get assurances that it won’t be brought to book for the Chechen war.


For teachers, meanwhile, the problem is that there are thousands of keen students, but little money. Textbooks are in short supply. Cash was provided by a sponsor to translate a few thousand copies of Crimes of War, by American journalists Roy Gutman and David Reiff. All have long since sold out, and are unobtainable to students in universities far from Moscow.


All of which is sadly ironic. In the West, there is a mass of material about war crimes and the various courts now springing up – most of it unread.


In Russia, where there is the desire to learn more, there is nothing.


Things are changing. Professor Raskin is building links with other universities, notably London’s City University, and hopes exchanges of information and joint projects will follow.


Chris Stephen is IWPR project manager in The Hague.


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