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Daniel Hamilton: The International Court of Justice must investigate the ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Daniel Hamilton is Director of the civil liberties group Big Brother Watch

Screen shot 2011-04-02 at 10.56.45 Late yesterday evening, the International Court of Justice rejected a case brought by the Government of Georgia against Russia for an immediate investigation of their claims that Georgians have been subjected to ethnic cleansing in the separatist enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  

The ruling is both disappointing and, given the overwhelming weight of evidence accumulated over the past two decades to support the Georgian government’s position, nonsensical. The ruling did, however, reject Russia’s central claim that no "dispute" exists between their country and Georgia, with court justices calling on both parties to conduct further negotiations before the Republic of Georgia’s case can be examined in detail.

The Russian Federation will surely champion the ruling as a victory for its ongoing campaign to wrench 20% of Georgia’s sovereign territory from the control of Tbilisi.  Short term celebrations on the part of the Kremlin aside, the ruling does nothing to either strengthen the case for the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or weaken the evidence of Russian-backed ethnic cleansing in the provinces.

In Abkhazia alone, the total number of Georgians who have been expelled from their homes since the outbreak of conflict in 1992 is estimated by the International Crisis Group to stand anywhere between 200,000 and 250,000.  The formal position of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, as adopted at its Budapest, Lisbon and Istanbul summits in 1994, 1996 and 1997, is to recognise such mass expulsions as "war crimes" on the part of Russian-backed separatists.  In a clear violation of a May 2008 resolution of the United National General Assembly, nothing has been done by the occupation in the region in order to preserve the property rights of those expelled, with many of their homes being bulldozed to make way for housing complexes funded by Moscow. 

In South Ossetia, the situation is just as stark with an estimated 123,000 people having been forced to leave their homes since the early 1990s.  As in Abkhazia, the international community’s position is clearly and unambiguously in accordance with the claims of ethnic cleansing made by the Government of Georgia.  A 2009 resolution in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe slammed the “ethnic cleansing and other human rights violations” in the province and criticised the Kremlin for its failure “to bring these practices to a halt”. 

In respect of the August 2008 conflict, the evidence of ethnic cleansing cannot be starker.  Of the 17,500 Georgians who remained in South Ossetia after the hostilities of the early 1990s, less than 2,000 still remain in their homes.  The majority have been re-housed in Georgia itself, in complexes such as the Tsevorani refugee camp – a home to more than 7,000 people.

The position of the British government in respect of the territorial integrity of Georgia remains entirely unchanged.  The Foreign Secretary William Hague has personally travelled to the town of Gori which was occupied by Russian forces for several days in August 2008 to restate the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s long-held policy of refusing to “recognise the unilateral declarations of independence” issued by Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Furthermore, NATO’s position on the issue remains clear, with the body recently issuing a statement reinforcing its “continued support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders”.

Following Russia’s brief invasion of Georgia in August 2008, a six point ceasefire was agreed with Georgia under the leadership of the French President Nicolas Sarkozy.  Each of the six provisions has been violated by the Kremlin.  There has, for example, been no concrete effort on the part of the Russian Federation to “end hostilities” between the two parties, nor have their “military forces withdrawn to lines held prior to outbreak of hostilities”.

Given the stated commitment of Russia to withdrawing its forces “to lines held prior to outbreak of hostilities” and promise to “not to resort to force” in respect of disagreements about the constitutional status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it is curious to note remarks from the likes of Abkhazia’s “President” Sergei Baghapsh describing recent discussions with President Medvedev as having covered the “development of Abkhaz-Russian cooperation in a number of directions, including... [of a] defensive character”.

Similarly, the Russian government’s own website makes reference to a Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance between Moscow and the South Ossetia which allows for thousands of Russian troops to remain in the province under the auspices of “peacekeeping”.  At the end of January, I saw the manifestation of this “cooperation” with my own eyes in the form of a vast Russian military base being constructed no more than a few hundred metres from Georgian-controlled territory.

Georgia has, however, honoured its part of the bargain, scaling back troop deployments close to the Line of Occupation with South Ossetia and issuing repeated invitations to the Russian Federation to find a peaceful solution to the dispute.  President Saakashvili, for example, pledged in a speech to the European Parliament in November “never use force” to restore its territorial integrity and sovereignty and that was clear that his country would “only resort to peaceful means in its quest for de-occupation and reunification”.

Clearly, it is important that both Moscow and Tbilisi are given time to fully assess the implications of the ICJ’s judgement. Both sides deserve a chance to respond to the ruling.

In the absence, however, of clear and immediate efforts on the part of the Kremlin to engage in full, frank and open discussions with Georgia in a timely manner, the ICJ must launch an investigation into the allegations of ethnic cleansing at the earliest opportunity.  It could not possibly come a day too soon.


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