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How to address human rights challenges in Europe’s grey zones

Across Europe, unrecognised states and conflict zones are home to impunity. A new report holds important recommendations for future work.

Adam Hug
1 October 2019
Frontline of Talish village after one year the April 2016 escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan
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(c) NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

If the defence of human rights is truly to be seen as universal, it is essential to examine whether and how these rights can still be protected even in spaces that fall at the margins of the international system. This includes examining the human rights situation in and around some of Europe’s most contested but least well known places – Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Crimea – which are the subject of new research by the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Foreign Policy Centre.

These unresolved conflicts were born when the patchwork of ethnicities and territories that existed during the Soviet era swiftly unravelled following the Soviet Union’s collapse, amid the re-emergence of national identities and competing attempts to consolidate power and legitimacy. Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke away from the control of Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia respectively in the early 1990s, with the 2008 Georgian-Russian war further consolidating the situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Crimea was occupied and subsequently annexed in the more recent 2014 Russian invasion.

Recent years have seen deterioration of the already challenging human rights situation in South Ossetia, and a more gradual but still noticeable decline in the traditionally freer civic space in Abkhazia. In Nagorno-Karabakh the closing of civic space that had previously been underway seems to have reversed over the last year as a knock-on effect of the Velvet Revolution in Armenia. Transnistria remains restrictive but stable, while the situation in post-annexation Crimea has deteriorated significantly, especially for those who oppose the Russian takeover.

The disputed territories share certain similarities in the types of human rights challenge they face, though in different mixes and to varying degrees, with strong local dynamics and different levels of involvement by their political patron/occupying power (delete as appropriate depending on your point of view): Armenia for Nagorno-Karabakh and Russia for the other four.

Challenges identified include the need for reform of detention facilities and tackling corruption in law enforcement and the judiciary, limiting political influence over both. Pressure on ethnic minority groups has been on the rise (particularly for Georgians, Ukrainians, Moldovans and Crimean Tatars), with their ability to travel increasingly restricted and their language rights repressed: for example with schools in South Ossetia and Abkhazia being barred from teaching in Georgian. Minority faith groups are particularly at risk, including Jehovah’s Witnesses in South Ossetia and Muslim groups in Crimea.

Political pressure and bureaucratic hurdles for civil society are on the increase in all of the disputed territories, with a Foreign Agents Law in South Ossetia and onerous registration rules in Transnistria. The media freedom environment is mixed, with some overt state pressure combining with a culture of self-censorship, particularly around anything that could be seen to threaten the nascent national projects. Despite these problems, the electoral environment in the four disputed territories can be competitive within the local power elites, as shown in the most recent de facto election in Abkhazia which was won by less than 1% of the vote.

Our publication has three central recommendations. Firstly, that much more must be done to support the work of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and lawyers operating in and with the disputed territories, supporting collaboration efforts between them and expanding their capabilities to hold the de facto institutions to account and where appropriate help deliver services. The international community should also find ways to put pressure on the de facto regimes to prevent the closing of civic space and the restrictions on NGO activity.

Secondly, there is a need to improve access to international law and to international monitoring processes. The European Convention on Human Rights continues to apply in the unrecognised states as Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan are all signatories. The international community must therefore do more to support lawyers in the disputed territories, in the states with de jure sovereignty (Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova), in those that exercise effective control in the territories (Russia and Armenia), and internationally to help bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights, to access third country courts that use universal jurisdiction, and to build the evidence needed to trigger the use of “Magnitsky”-type personal sanctions in the USA, UK and other jurisdictions. International human rights monitoring missions must not be blocked due to wrangling over “status” issues.

Thirdly, the rights of internally displaced persons (particularly the very large Azerbaijani and Georgian IDP populations) and the human rights of ethnic Georgians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and Moldovans who are still trying to live in the disputed territories or who live in areas near the de facto borders, must be at the heart of both human rights and conflict resolution work. There is more the international community can do in supporting Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine in their efforts to protect their IDP populations and ensuring that IDPs’ property rights remain on the agenda in any conflict resolution process.

Attention must be paid to the recent developments around the Administrative Border Lines (ABLs) where, in the absence of any long-term conflict resolution, the Russians working with the South Ossetian and Abkhazian de facto authorities have been attempting to create and enforce a physical border, closing checkpoints and running barbed wire barriers through villages and homes. This creates significant problems both for the ethnic Georgian populations living in the disputed territories who regularly cross into the territory controlled by Tbilisi for family and work reasons, and for those living on the Georgian-controlled side of the ABLs.

So, despite the absence of meaningful progress in the protracted attempts to resolve the conflict, the de facto authorities, the recognised states in the region and the international community must do more to protect the human rights of people living in these unrecognised territories, and those on or outside their de facto borders who are still impacted by these unresolved conflicts.

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