On January 23, Human Rights Watch published a 200-page report, Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia, summing up its extensive findings regarding the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law that occurred during the conflict in South Ossetia and uncontested Georgian territories. The armed conflict as such lasted only one week in August 2008, but the consequences will indubitably endure for much longer. The conflict and its aftermath have seen lives, livelihoods, homes, and communities devastated in South Ossetia and bordering districts of Georgia. As the conflict broke out, Human Rights Watch researchers immediately began documenting the violations that were committed by all sides. All this data, including more than 460 interviews over several months of field research, formed the basis for the legal analysis presented in the final report.
Human Rights Watch's research documented a number of indiscriminate and disproportionate artillery attacks by Georgian forces on South Ossetia and other attacks, which were part of the ground assault. These attacks caused excessive harm to civilians with respect to the military advantage that was to be gained. In particular, Georgian forces made extensive use in civilian areas of multiple-rocket launching systems, known as Grad (Russian for hail), which cannot be targeted with sufficient precision to distinguish between civilian and military objects - thereby causing indiscriminate harm to civilians. The very use of Grad rockets in areas populated by civilians is just one way in which Georgian forces conducted attacks in South Ossetia disregarding the safety of civilians.
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 the Gori district in Georgia opened fire on civilian vehicles, killing or wounding civilians.
Russian and Georgian forces both used cluster munitions, causing civilian deaths and putting more civilians at risk by leaving behind unstable "minefields" of unexploded bomblets. The impact of cluster munitions on civilians in the conflict demonstrates why, in December 2008, 94 governments signed up to a comprehensive treaty to ban cluster munitions. This was negotiated just months before the conflict commenced: Russia and Georgia notably failed to sign.
South Ossetian violations
Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10. Over the following weeks South Ossetian forces 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. They killed several, on the basis of their ethnic and imputed political affiliations, with the express purpose of forcing those who remained to leave and ensuring that no former residents would return. South Ossetian forces also arbitrarily detained no fewer than 159 ethnic Georgians. They killed at least one detainee and subjected nearly all of them to inhuman and degrading treatment and detention conditions. They also tortured no fewer than four Georgian prisoners of war and executed at least three.
The role of the Russian forces
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. Instead of protecting civilians in the territories under its effective control, Russian forces allowed South Ossetian forces who followed in their path to engage in wanton and widescale pillage, the burning of Georgian homes and attacks on ethnic Georgian civilians. Such deliberate attacks are war crimes and, when committed as part of a widespread or systematic pattern, may also be prosecuted as crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch concluded that the actions of the Ossetian forces against ethnic Georgians in several villages in South Ossetia, coupled with their intent to ensure none returned, amounted to attempted ethnic cleansing.
In Georgian territory adjacent to the South Ossetian administrative border, which at the time was occupied by Russia, South Ossetian militias looted, destroyed, and burned homes on a wide scale. They deliberately killed at least nine civilians, and raped at least two. Russian forces were at times involved in the looting and destruction, as passive bystanders or active participants, or by providing militias with transport into villages.
More than 20,000 ethnic Georgians who fled the conflict in South Ossetia remain displaced. Ethnic Georgians in the 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, and as long as Russia remains in effective control it should publicly promote the right of all persons displaced by the conflict to return and live in their homes in safety and dignity. It also has an obligation to ensure that this right can be effectively implemented and provide security to all persons living there, regardless of ethnicity.
The Way Forward
Human Rights Watch stresses the need for both Russia and Georgia to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into abuses committed by their forces. Russia should also investigate the crimes committed by South Ossetian forces, since it exercises effective control over South Ossetia. Russia and Georgia should not only hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes, but also provide appropriate redress to the numerous victims of the conflict.
The report Up in Flames measures each party's compliance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, not against the conduct of the other party. Exposing violations committed by one party does not excuse or mitigate those committed by another party. Nor under international humanitarian law does a violation by one party justify or mitigate violations by another party. Which party started the conflict has no bearing on their obligations to adhere to international humanitarian law and to hold violators accountable. Those seeking answers to questions about who committed worse, or more violations, or who bears responsibility for starting the conflict, will not find answers in this report. Human Rights Watch is also concerned that focusing on who started the war or who committed worse atrocities, as some observers are, misses the point: the urgent need to hold all who are responsible accountable and to allow displaced people to return home safely.
See the whole Human Rights Watch report: