Human Rights Watch & Georgian Daily – 2009-01-23 08:36:03
All South Ossetia Parties Violated Laws of War
Both Governments Should Ensure Accountability and
Voluntary Returns of Those Displaced
Human Rights Watch
NEW YORK (January 23, 2009) – Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces committed numerous violations of the laws of war in the conflict in August 2008 over South Ossetia and its aftermath, causing many civilian deaths and injuries and widespread destruction of civilian property, Human Rights Watch said in a comprehensive report released today.
The 200-page report, “Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia,” details indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by both Georgian and Russian forces, and the South Ossetian forces’ campaign of deliberate and systematic destruction of certain ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. It also describes Russia’s failure to ensure public order and safety in areas of Georgia that were under its effective control. The report is based on more than 460 interviews done over several months of field research.
“The war over South Ossetia lasted only one week, but will have devastating consequences for civilians for generations to come,” said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Focusing on who started the war or who committed worse atrocities, as some observers are, misses the point, which is the urgent need to hold all who are responsible accountable and to allow displaced people to return home safely.”
South Ossetia is a breakaway region of Georgia that shares a border and has very close ties with Russia. The armed conflict started on August 7, 2008, and lasted until a ceasefire on August 15, with Georgian forces in retreat and Russian forces occupying South Ossetia and, temporarily, undisputed parts of Georgia. In the week of open conflict, and the many subsequent weeks of rampant violence and insecurity in areas under Russia’s effective control, hundreds of civilians were killed, and tens of thousands were displaced. Many of them have not been able to return home.
Human Rights Watch’s research showed that in a number of instances Georgian forces carried out indiscriminate and disproportionate artillery attacks on South Ossetia, and in some cases during their ground assault carried out attacks that had an excessive impact on civilians with respect to the anticipated military advantage. In particular, Georgian forces carried out indiscriminate attacks by their extensive use in civilian area of multiple-rocket launching systems, which cannot distinguish between civilian and military objects. The rockets, known as Grad, are believed to have been used by Russian forces as well.
“The use of Grad rockets – weapons indiscriminate by their very nature – shows that Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia with blatant disregard to the safety of civilians,” said Denber.
Human Rights Watch found that, in a number of instances in South Ossetia and in undisputed Georgian territory, Russian forces used indiscriminate aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes, killing and wounding many civilians. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which Russian forces occupying Gori district in Georgia opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing or wounding civilians.
After Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10, South Ossetian forces over a period of weeks deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that had been administered by the Georgian government. The South Ossetians looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained numerous ethnic Georgian civilians, and killed several, on the basis of the ethnic and imputed political affiliations of the residents, with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return.
As an occupying power in these areas, Russia failed in its duty under international humanitarian law to ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety in areas under its effective control.
“Instead of protecting civilians, Russian forces allowed South Ossetian forces who followed in their path to engage in wanton and widescale pillage and burning of Georgian homes and to kill, beat, rape, and threaten civilians,” said Denber. “Such deliberate attacks are war crimes, and if committed as part of a widespread or systematic pattern, they may be prosecuted as a crime against humanity.”
More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the conflict in South Ossetia remain displaced. Ethnic Georgians in the in Akhalgori district – a remote area in the east of South Ossetia, currently occupied by Russian forces – face threats and harassment by militias and anxiety about a possible closure of the district’s administrative border with the rest of Georgia. Both factors have caused great numbers of people to leave their homes for undisputed Georgian territory.
“The permanent forced displacement of thousands of people cannot be countenanced,” said Denber. “Russia should publicly promote and oversee the right of all persons displaced by the conflict to return and live in their homes in safety and dignity, and provide security to all persons living there, regardless of ethnicity.”
The report also documents how, when Russian forces occupied Georgian territory adjacent to the South Ossetian administrative border, Ossetian militias looted, destroyed, and burned homes on a wide scale, deliberately killed at least nine civilians, and raped at least two. Russian forces were at times involved in the looting and destruction, either as passive bystanders or active participants, or by providing militias with transport into villages.
The report details how South Ossetian forces, at times together with Russian forces, arbitrarily detained at least 159 ethnic Georgians. South Ossetian forces killed at least one detainee and subjected nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and detention conditions. They also tortured at least four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three. Georgian forces beat and ill-treated at least five of the 32 Ossetians detained in August in the context of the armed conflict.
“Both Georgia and Russia should undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into abuses committed by their forces,” Denber said. “Russia should also do so for the crimes committed by South Ossetian forces, since Russia exercises effective control over South Ossetia. Russia and Georgia must ensure that those who committed these crimes are brought to justice and provide appropriate redress for numerous victims of the conflict.
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Georgia, Russia ‘Violated’ Laws of War in S. Ossetia
Helena Bedwell and Torrey Clark / Georgian Daily
(January 23, 2009) — Georgia and Russia both violated the laws of war, killing civilians, torturing prisoners and looting villages during an August conflict over the breakaway region of South Ossetia, Human Rights Watch said.
“All parties in the conflict violated international humanitarian law, and both Russia and Georgia used banned cluster munitions,” Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch’s director for Europe and Central Asia, told reporters in the Georgian capital Tbilisi today.
Georgian forces attacked South Ossetia with “blatant disregard to the safety of civilians,” and Russia attacked civilians in the region, Denber said. The New York-based organization prepared a 200-page report on the conflict, based on more than 460 interviews.
The five-day war caused $1 billion of damage to Georgia’s economy and forced about 130,000 people from their homes, according to the Georgian government. The conflict helped spur the withdrawal of $200 billion from Russia’s economy from August to the end of the year, according to BNP Paribas estimates.
“Russian forces allowed South Ossetians to engage in wanton and wide-scale pillage and burning of Georgian homes and to kill, beat, rape, and threaten civilians,” Denber said. “This was a systematic and deliberate act based on the ethnicity of those villages.”
Giorgi Gogia, a regional representative for Human Rights Watch, said Georgia and Russia should investigate any crimes committed by South Ossetian forces and prosecute the guilty. Both Georgia and Russia should rejoin a treaty that bans the use of cluster bombs, he said.
A cease-fire was declared on Aug. 15. Russia later recognized the independence of South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, a move condemned by the U.S. and many countries in Europe.
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