On Russia's border, impunity drives further violence

Two new reports about human right violations in Russian-occupied regions of Georgia underline that the EU needs to increase support for the International Criminal Court.

Aage Borchgrevink Ucha Nanuashvili
15 April 2019, 1.35pm
Russian BMP-2 in South Ossetia, August 2008
CC BY-SA 3.- Yana Amelina / Wikipedia. Some rights reserved

Trouble seems to haunt Russia’s long European border from the Barents Sea to the Caspian. In Northern Norway, local authorities complain that Russia is jamming GPS-signals, thereby jeopardising possible search and rescue operations on land and sea in the high north.

Further south, Estonian officials claimed that GPS-jamming on the border in 2014 was followed by smoke grenades and an incursion by Russian special services. The unit kidnapped an Estonian intelligence officer and brought him across the border where he was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. The officer was eventually traded returned to Estonia in exchange for a Russian spy.

All pales in comparison with Ukraine, where armed conflict still simmers in the east and Crimea remains under Russian occupation. United Nations and rights groups have documented torture, abductions and willful killings of civilians during the armed conflict and occupation. As has been typical for wars in the post-Soviet sphere, there have been many crimes and little justice.

Indeed, the climate of impunity is a driver behind the armed conflicts along Russia’s border. If crimes are not punished, but instead rewarded with political and financial dividends, the threshold for starting new conflicts is perilously low.

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While the Ukrainian section of Russia’s border with Europe is the current hot spot, serious problems remain in Georgia where armed conflicts have carved up the country. After the short 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, Abkhazia and South-Ossetia declared independence. The two regions are recognised by Moscow, but not by the international community, which considers them to be occupied by Russia.

Russia’s tendency to treat borders more like guidelines has not only violated international law, but lead to human rights abuses, war crimes and probably crimes against humanity. In Georgia in 2008, Russian military control was followed by systematic and widespread attacks on civilians, such as thousands of ethnic Georgians who were expelled from their villages in South Ossetia.

This could amount to persecution, a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute, which is the legal basis of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Georgia is a state party to the Statute, hence the Court has jurisdiction over international crimes committed on Georgian territory if the parties themselves are unable or unwilling to investigate crimes.

In January 2016, in a landmark decision for international justice, the Court opened an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated under and after the war in Georgia. It was the Court’s first case outside of Africa, and a potential game changing intervention. If the investigation of crimes and prosecution of perpetrators, are effectively and successfully carried out, it could teach European leaders a lesson about accountability and serve to keep the peace, not only along the Russian border, but across the continent.

However, three years on, the Court’s investigation proceeds without outward signs of progress while crimes continue in the conflict zones in Georgia. Obviously, investigations are by nature closed and confidential processes, yet the lack of information and outreach activities from the part of the Court, makes its involvement in Georgia vulnerable to misunderstandings, unrealistic expectations and misleading information.

Moreover, the wounds from the 2008 war are still open. Two recent reports by local rights groups, Georgia’s Human Rights Center and Truth Hounds, detail on-going mass human rights abuses against the Georgian population who live near the Administrative Boundary Lines and in the Abkhazian district of Gali.

Citing figures released by Russia’s border guards, they report that around 14,000 people were detained on the Abkhazian ”border” in the years from 2009 to 2016, almost all, one must assume, in contravention of international law. The illegal detentions often resulted in fines, sometimes in ill-treatment and in a few cases in death. Currently the fine imposed on persons detained for illegal ”border-trespassing” in South Ossetia is around 300 Euros.

In Gali, the Georgian population receives “residence permits” from the Abkhaz authorities, yet remain vulnerable to extortion and illegal detention. Children’s right to education in their native language is violated, as Georgian has been replaced by Russian language in the schools in what looks like an attempt at suppressing the Georgian identity of the mostly Georgian local population.

Not only have Russian border guards assumed control over the unilaterally declared new border, but the border itself creeps slowly forward as Russia erects new barbed wire fences and border posts in Georgian territory. In the villages near the conflict zone, we have witnessed how over the years pastures, fields, yards – and even houses – of the remaining civilian population gradually have disappeared behind the expanding border and ended up in South Ossetia.

”The on-going human rights violations,” says the Human Rights Center, ”represent the direct continuation of those crimes that were committed during the war (and) carry the signs of the crimes against humanity envisaged by the Rome Statute.”

This is not a local problem in Georgia. It is a European security issue. In essence, however, it is a question of rule of law and respect for international law. The International Criminal Court is the proper institution to deal with the climate of impunity that drives conflict, but in order for it to succeed it needs to step up its engagement in Georgia.

Perpetrators on all sides must be held accountable.

The Court should assess the current human rights violations along the administrative border lines in the light of its definitions of crimes against humanity. It should also step up outreach activities, to manage expectations and counter propaganda, and the Courts Trust Fund for Victims should have a meaningful program in place, so as to address some of the imbalances created by the war.

However, the Court cannot manage these tasks without political support and more resources. The European Union and other state parties to the Rome Statute should dedicate more attention and assistance to the Court.

If it succeeds, it can be an important tool for justice, peace and international law in Europe. If the Court fails, it will be an example of toothless international institutions in the face of grave international crimes.

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