New battle looms over S Ossetia

Russia and Georgia are now set to face off in the international courts.

Russia tanks Georgia conflict near Gori
Thousands of civilians were caught up in the conflict in Georgia [EPA]

Long after the guns fall silent in the Georgia-Russia conflict, the two countries’ legal artillery is still likely still be firing away in an attempt to have the each other publicly judged guilty of war crimes, even genocide.

On September 8th, the International Court of Justice begins hearings in a case filed by Georgia.

The case seeks to halt Russian military action in Georgia, and accuses the Kremlin of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing there.

Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, has called the Russian forces in his country “21st century barbarians.”

Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, has had even harsher words for Georgian forces, accusing them of perpetrating “genocide,” in attempting to re-take the breakaway region of South Ossetia and causing tens of thousands of residents to flee over the border to Russia.

This week, Russia’s foreign ministry called for Saakashvili to face war crimes charges at The Hague.

But both sides will need strong evidence to build a case.

Rights violations

The initial reports from the ground in Georgia, and Russia, is that the Kremlin could have more to worry about in any future court proceedings.

Russian forces have been accused of human rights violations [AFP]

“I don’t think there is a balance,” says Jane Buchanan, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The organisation has several researchers looking in to possible war crimes on the ground in Georgia, its breakaway South Ossetia region, and in Russia.

“What we have seen is the indiscriminate use of force from both sides, but from the Georgian side it was very limited to military action on the 7th and 8th of August,” she said.

“On the Russian side the military action started on August 8th, and continued certainly for several days, and everything we have seen since then, both the attacks by militia and the growing humanitarian crisis, and the refusal by the Russians to allow access of humanitarian aid, is a violation of humanitarian law.”

Tanya Lokshina, one of the five Human Rights Watch investigators in the area, spent more than a week in South Ossetia and in other parts of Georgia, as well as in Russia where she interviewed South Ossetian refugees who fled Georgian shelling.

She said gathering evidence was difficult.

“Naturally, when you first hear stories, everyone says children were thrown under the wheels of tanks, and women were raped, and were teenagers shot.

“But when you ask the specific question: ‘Did you see it with your own eyes?’ the answer is ‘no’.”

She also says that Russia’s 58th Army, accused of carrying out a number of human rights abuses in Chechnya, was actually doing a good job of keeping South Ossetian militias away from Georgian civilians, after the “heartbreaking” looting and burning of homes she saw for herself.

“I have to acknowledge that the Russian military was immensely helpful, they have put up roadblocks to stop the militias and have offered some help to people.”

Legal difficulties

The legal background to the conflict is also complicated.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo says the ICC is
monitoring the conflict [EPA]

The alleged crimes are both international – Russian troops on Georgian civilians – and internal – Georgian troops against South Ossetians, who reside in an unrecognised breakaway republic of Georgia.

There are also the alleged crimes against Georgian civilians by South Ossetian militia members who were allied with, but not necessarily controlled by, Russia.

What is more, both armies use much of the same Soviet-designed equipment, making it harder to designate possible guilty parties by gathering up spent shells, for instance.

Then there is the question of which court the parties should go to.

The International Court of Justice in The Hague resolves cases between states, and is already dealing with the Georgian complaint.

The relatively new International Criminal Court, also located in the Hague, prosecutes individuals when countries cannot, or will not, prosecute, on charges including war crimes and genocide.

It announced on Wednesday it was conducting an “analysis” of the situation in Georgia, one step shot of a full investigation which could lead to war crimes charges.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s chief prosecutor, said in a statement that his office had been “closely monitoring all information on the situation”.

Triple accusations

Whatever the jurisdiction, human-rights advocates say there is a long list of evidence to point to possible crimes on both sides.

Georgia is alleged to have used Vlad rocket-launchers on Tskhinvali as its troops attempted to re-take South Ossetia.

Russia has been accused of using RBK-250 cluster bombs in civilian areas.

South Ossetian militias’ are also reported to have taken part in the looting and burning of Georgian villages, and of carrying out summary executions of men of fighting-age.

For any court proceeding to be seen as fair, independent investigators will need to be given access to the areas where war crimes are alleged to have taken place, in order to interview survivors, and to document violations of international human rights law.

Lokshina said: “Our findings have revealed very serious violations of human rights law, things that do constitute war crimes, but to really determine what happened would require more investigation by the United Nations or other bodies.”

Source: Al Jazeera