The misery of Chechnya – and the failure of humanitarianism?
by Austen Davis June 2003

The kidnap of Médecins sans Frontières worker Kenny Gluck in Chechnya in January–February highlighted once again the risks humanitarian workers face in conflict zones. But more than this, Chechnya confronts us with the near-total failure of humanitarian action.

In today’s civil and ethnic wars, the simple and fundamental concept of humanitarian action and human solidarity has been compromised by the lack of political respect for humanitarian action; the lack of military discipline and control leading to the abuse of aid; the diversion of aid for military ends; and the political manipulation of humanitarian action by outside powers. Many of these factors are present in Chechnya. The Chechen people have faced one of the most complete and devastating attacks in recent history. Their towns and villages have been flattened. They have been forced to flee to neighbouring Ingushetia, or have become displaced within Chechnya itself. Chechen civil society and social and institutional organisations have collapsed.

The trajectory of conflict

The failure of humanitarian action in Chechnya is rooted in the conditions of the conflict there, which has been marked by cruelty, suffering and indignity. For Russia, the mistake was to wage war against the entire country and its people, breeding contempt and deepening opposition to Russian authority. In the face of overwhelming Russian military superiority, the Chechens have resorted to guerrilla warfare, fragmenting lines of control and political and social organisation. The conflict has also attracted other fighters, whether Islamist, anti-Russian or anti-Western, diversifying the motives and goals of the insurrection and further fracturing political control and command structures. Finally, both sides have become increasingly dependent on criminal networks and local commanders whose only loyalty is to personal profit and power. In this climate, the Russians cannot win – but neither can the Chechens.

Meanwhile, Chechnya’s cities have been flattened; Russia has even suggested moving the capital from devastated Grozny as there is no hope of rebuilding it. The people are traumatised, and stories of fear and persecution beggar belief. All Chechens are targets – harassed at check-points, taken into custody and bartered for cash or prisoner swaps. There is no work, no space to educate and bring up children, no hope and no dignity. There is little real support for the Russians, but ordinary people also fear some of ‘their’ fighters as criminals or extremists. There is a belief in a free and fair Chechnya, but while many support the Chechen nationalist cause, the political legitimacy of some rebel leaders is challenged by the ability of others to access foreign funds and weaponry. In this war, it is the strong, not necessarily the legitimate, who win.

The crisis of humanitarianism in Chechnya

In such a fractured, multipolar conflict, coherent and respectful behaviour towards humanitarian actors is virtually impossible. We can provide relief items; at worst, food and medicines could be parachuted in. In the meantime, Chechen doctors and nurses, many of whom have gone unpaid for five years, continue to treat the wounded and sick from all sides – and regularly face persecution for doing so.

The Russian authorities do not understand NGOs. They understand the logic of the UN – but are only now starting to understand that NGOs do much of the implementation of UN programmes. On the other side, rebel leaders openly admit that they do not have full control over all anti-Russian forces. Some of this resistance is anti-Western or simply criminal, or at best does not profess to value the secular and liberal concept of humanitarian assistance. Finally, the much-vaunted ‘international community’ – if such a thing exists – is more worried about antagonising Russia than upholding international norms of humanitarian action, or international humanitarian law. Chechnya is, in effect, a forgotten conflict; concerns about Russian nuclear weapons, business opportunities, Central Asian energy or militant Islam simply outweigh humanitarian principles. When Western NGOs speak out about what they have seen in Chechnya, they are fobbed off with platitudes and political gimmickry.

Partly in response to the kidnap of MSF volunteer Kenny Gluck, the UN has been persuaded to travel into Chechnya only as part of Russian armed convoys. This means that the Russian military command in Chechnya determines when and where aid providers move, and to whom they deliver their assistance. Almost all UN agencies and NGOs simply agree to the new conditions, arguing that the delivery of material assistance is the least we can strive for. But, in the words of Kenny himself, ‘we are trying to do a little bit more’. We cannot give out humane and compassionate assistance under the guns of one of the parties to the war. We cannot give out assistance simply to those we are allowed to see in the areas where the Russians do not fear to tread. We must give assistance to those who need it most, wherever they live and under whichever warlord’s authority. And we must support the efforts of Chechnya’s doctors, nurses and civic leaders, who struggle to care and to heal – and talk to these people as human beings. We must be able to touch, as a means to heal as well as to express compassion. We must be able to travel freely, so as to know what is going on – not just see what we are allowed to see.

Kenny’s kidnapping, like the murders of six ICRC workers in 1996, presents an organisational dilemma. The Chechen people and MSF’s national staff and medical colleagues do not understand why foreign agencies leave so quickly after a kidnap event. After all, we espouse universalist values that say that all human beings are valuable – and aren’t many thousands suffering and dying in Chechnya? Why should the life or abduction of one or two workers hinder such an important and life-saving action? But such a kidnapping wounds the organisation, and makes it reluctant to take risks. An organisation and its managers may have little power to resolve kidnap cases, but they feel acutely responsible. At the same time, such a kidnapping makes clear the lack of respect for the targeted organisation’s humanitarian presence. Although Kenny’s abduction has been resolved, this does not mean that we have the same freedom to offer assistance as we did before it happened. There are basic conditions for successful humanitarian action; free access directly to people in need and free passage of our workers is essential.

Reasserting humanitarianism

Humanitarian action is inspired by the revulsion felt by ordinary citizens in the face of needless suffering, particularly when this suffering is the direct and wilful fault of other human beings, as in war. The abandonment of norms of respect is a major attack on our common humanity. The laws of war dictate that neutral, independent and impartial actors should be given freedom of passage to help human beings suffering and dying as a consequence of crisis and war. This demands responsible action by those groups active in the war. It is clear that a humanitarian agenda may at times be at odds with a military strategy, and the presence of humanitarian groups can be a constraint on the conduct of war; it may even contribute to conflict. Allowing humanitarian actors freedom of movement and action therefore requires considerable political maturity and understanding of its importance – and considerable political and military discipline and control.

This is not a manifesto for one side or the other in the conflict; in Chechnya, all sides are making humanitarian action impossible. Some might say that the nature of the conflict makes this inevitable – but this does not undermine the importance of continuing to demand the space in which to undertake humanitarian action. We must reassert the rights and meaning of humanitarian action: the right to travel freely, assess needs, deliver assistance and monitor the effects of our assistance without harassment. The degree to which we are able to offer such assistance is surely a mark of concern and accountability in the conduct of war. If there is no accountability, then more and more wars will be fought like Chechnya’s. This is surely unacceptable. MSF’s expatriates are safe, but MSF is failing by not being present in Chechnya, and working with local medical staff at a time when this is most needed.

Austen Davis is General Director of MSF-Holland.



The MSF report Chechnya: The Politics of Terror, November 2000, is available at < chech-rep/index.htm>

Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998)

Carlotta Gall and Thomas De Waal, Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus (New York: New York University Press, 2000)

Greg Hansen, Humanitarian Action in the Caucasus: A Guide for Practitioners (Providence, RI: Watson Institute, 1998). Also available in Russian

Human Rights Watch < russia/chechnya>

Amnesty International <>

The Forum on Early Warning and Early Response <>

The Humanitarianism and War Project, < H_W/Chechnya.shtml>

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting <>