Waiting on the ICC in South Ossetia
By Janet Anderson
A decade after the short but deadly conflict that tore Georgia and South Ossetia asunder, victims on either side are still no closer to getting justice. Some 850 people died and more than 100,000 were internally displaced. The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation and, most recently, agreed to open an office. But a recent report by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) details the continued impact of the war. And the lack of justice for victims of these alleged crimes against humanity.
To get an impression of where things currently stand from those working on the ground, Justice Hub spoke to Nino Tsagareishvili, of the Human Rights Center, Georgia, and Varvara Pakhomenko, a Russian human rights expert on the Caucasus. Tsagareishvili also chairs the Georgian Coalition for the ICC (GCICC). The two interviews, “Waiting on the ICC in Georgia” and “Waiting on the ICC in South Ossetia” are part of our long-running #MyJustice series.
This is Varvara Pakhomenko, and you can read the Georgian perspective here.
Justice Hub: For the sake of members our audience who may not know about it, what is South Ossetia and how did it come into being?
Well, it's a very small place. It is located on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains. South Ossetia used to be very much integrated into Georgia until the 1980s when there was a big tunnel built which burrowed through the Caucasus Mountains connecting South Ossetia with Russia. When the Soviet Union collapsed, around that time, a lot of conflicts started all across the former Soviet Union, very often ethnically motivated. That's also what happened in South Ossetia which at that time wanted to stay within the Soviet Union, unlike Georgia. A conflict erupted which resulted in a significant number of victims and refugees from all sides. You had Ossetians fleeing from Georgia-proper and Georgians fleeing from South Ossetia to Russia and Georgia. It was such a mix.
Then you had this small territory which used to be populated by a hundred thousand people before the collapse of the Soviet Union which was basically a patchwork of different ethnic villages. You had a Georgian village next to an Ossetian village. Sometimes you would find them arranged one after the other in one valley because it is a mountain area. It was quiet after the first conflict in the early 90s basically because people started trading with each other. Then came the conflict in 2008. It was very short conflict but very dramatic.
Justice Hub: What happened from the South Ossetian perspective?
The escalation was ongoing for almost a month starting early July of 2008. I was there a month before the war and could see this was a very tense situation. From the South Ossetian perspective, trouble began on the night of the 7th to the 8th of August. Many said that for first the time they didn't go the basement to sleep because they were sure nothing would happen that night, because the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had said that it was not going to end in war.
For the first two days when the Georgian troops were advancing into the territory of South Ossetia, it was mostly local militia operating until the Russian troops got there. It took the Russian troops quite a while to get through the mountains. By that time there was a lot of speculation and a lack of verified information. There was a quite a lot of manipulation of information and numbers from the Russian and South Ossetian authorities. People were convinced that 2000 people had been killed in the first two days. This, later on, turned out not to be true but it created this belief among local people that Georgians just stormed in and killed a lot of people among South Ossetia’s population of about 30,000 people.
Justice Hub: What's the situation for South Ossetians now?
It is pretty abandoned, especially from the economic perspective. The best road connecting Russia, the Caucasus and Turkey goes through South Ossetia. Trade with the biggest market in the South Caucasus was on the border of South Ossetia and Georgia. All these opportunities for income generation have disappeared. The republic is completely dependent on Russia in terms of funding for military, political support and everything else.
Justice Hub: Do people in South Ossetia feel the ICC will help them in any way or they suspicious?
Majority of them don't know. There's little that has been done in terms of outreach to South Ossetian people or even Russia from the court's side. Since Russia refused to cooperate with the ICC and South Ossetian authorities did the same, the official position is that the ICC is some institution working in favour of Georgia and doing something anti-Russian and anti-Ossetian. That's how probably those who have heard about the court in South Ossetia perceive it. I think it is a very big challenge for the court and something that it has to work on. Whatever decision it makes or wherever it goes it should be seen as attempting to restore justice and not just going against one side. People in South Ossetia definitely feel a lack of justice and accountability.
Justice Hub: What would justice or accountability look like for people there?
There are several hundred people who have been killed. There are still some people that are missing since the war. Their relatives are actively seeking to know their fate. It's not so much even about prosecution but getting an acknowledgement that they are victims. There was a lot of hope pinned on the European Court of Human Rights but, I have to say, it has been 10 years and we are nowhere.
It is quite frustrating. That's why it is a bit hard to talk about the ICC now. It is another international institution which is not clear when it will come to any decision. But there has been no justice delivered on a national level as well which I believe it is very important for any peacebuilding process.We can see now, 10 years on, that people's connections or relations on a personal level have started to be restored. People, especially those from South Ossetia, travel to Georgia to visit relatives, to buy things and to get medical treatment. It's pretty easy for them to go if they have a Russian passport. A majority have to go to Georgia via Russia.
Unresolved, undiscussed issues persist. That's why the ICC is important. It can be the institution that will show that we are trying to find the truth. The court is going to be very important especially for many families that are situated further away from the centre of South Ossetia. The war split families. Very often people had to make a choice whether to stay in South Ossetia or go to Georgia. For them, the situation they are living now is next to nowhere.
Justice Hub: How difficult is it to work in this region?
It is super challenging to work in South Ossetia. The access is very limited. But I believe that as NGOs, diplomats and organisations working in this space we have to be creative and try to increase our knowledge about this region. From what I can see now, everything is just in a kind of limbo.
I understand why people are afraid to touch this region because it is so complicated. But it is important to acknowledge that there are victims on the South Ossetian side as well. The FIDH report is about the ongoing impact on the Georgian side. The war had the same impact on the other side as well, we just don't know about it.
Photo: Janet Anderson/Justice Hub