Russian Use of Force in Grozny

Frederic L. Kirgis
December 14, 1999
Following the recent bombing and shelling of Grozny and other parts of Chechnya in an attempt to quell the resistance there to Russian authority, Russia has urged residents of Grozny to leave the city or face loss of life and property in Russia's "counter-terrorism operation." (New York Times translation of leaflets dropped on Grozny on December 6.) It has been reported that some civilian residents are too elderly, sick or injured to leave the city. The current Russian operation is aimed at defeating the remaining Chechnyan resistance forces in the city.
Russia is a party (called a "High Contracting Party") to the four 1949 Geneva Conventions on the law of war and to Protocol II to those Conventions. Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions and Protocol II deal with protection of victims of non-international armed conflicts. The conflict in Chechnya is non-international, since Chechnya is a part of Russia and there appears to be no significant participation in the conflict from sources outside Russia.
Common Article 3 provides in part:
In the case of armed conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum, the following provisions:
(1) Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.
To this end, the following acts are and shall remain prohibited at any time and in any place whatsoever with respect to the above-mentioned persons:
(a) violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture; * * *
(c) outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment; * * * .
(2) The wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.
Protocol II, which supplements Article 3, applies "to all armed conflicts which are not covered by [Article 1 of Protocol I]* and which take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol." It does not apply "to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence and other acts of a similar nature, as not being armed conflicts." (Article 1 of Protocol II.)
Article 4(2) of Protocol II is similar to common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, but it adds some prohibitions-including a prohibition against collective punishments and one against acts of terrorism. Other provisions include:
Article 7
1. All the wounded, sick and shipwrecked, whether or not they have taken part in the armed conflict, shall be respected and protected.
2. In all circumstances they shall be treated humanely and shall receive, to the fullest extent practicable and with the least possible delay, the medical care and attention required by their condition. There shall be no distinction among them founded on any grounds other than medical ones.
Article 13
1. The civilian population and individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this protection, the following rules shall be observed in all circumstances.
2. The civilian population, as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.
3. Civilians shall enjoy the protection afforded by this Part, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.
Article 17
1. The displacement of the civilian population shall not be ordered for reasons related to the conflict unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. Should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition.
2. Civilians shall not be compelled to leave their own territory for reasons connected with the conflict.
It is not always clear to what extent these provisions have been violated or may in the future be violated. For example, the killing of civilians in wartime is not murder if the primary target is a military one and the civilian harm is unintended. Shelling of civilian areas does not necessarily amount to an outrage upon personal dignity, depending upon whether or not particular civilians or groups of civilians may be taking a direct part in hostilities. Article 17(2) clearly prohibits deportation or forced expulsion of civilians from their own country; it is less clear whether it prohibits deportation or forced expulsion of civilians from their territory within a country to another territory within the same country-as would be the case if Chechens are forced to leave Chechnya for Ingushetia.
Even though these uncertainties exist, the treaty provisions set out above provide the standards under international humanitarian law for assessing the Russian assault on Grozny.
   *Article 1 of Protocol 1 applies to international armed conflicts, including those in which "peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist régimes in the exercise of their right of self-determination." 
About the Author:   
Frederic L. Kirgis is Law School Association Alumni Professor at Washington and Lee University School of Law. He has written a book and several articles on United Nations law, and is a member of the Board of Editors of the American Journal of International Law.