Condemning Russian Aggression in Georgia
On January 23rd the Human Rights watch released a 200-page report entitled “Up in Flames: Humanitarian Law Violations in the Conflict Over South Ossetia.” Based “on more than 460 interviews done over several months of field research” the report “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 New York Times reported:
Russia and Georgia had opposite reactions to [the] report. Moscow said it was “based on a series of shopworn and baseless theses actively discussed in foreign political and media circles.” Tbilisi called it “an objective and thorough picture.” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Human Rights Watch, based in New York, had said “practically nothing about the colossal damage” to South Ossetia “as the result of Georgian aggression.” Georgia said the report “unambiguously places responsibility on the occupation forces of the Russian Federation and its proxy regime for ethnic cleansing and war crimes.”
In other words, once again Russia has suffered a crushing defeat in the PR campaign over the war in Georgia and been exposed as the wanton aggressor. When a study finds that Russia is in the wrong, that study is “shopworn and baseless.” But if the study had found Russia was 100% in the right, the Kremlin would have praised it to the sky. Welcome to the through-the-looking-glass world of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
HRW has posted photographs documenting Russia’s use of cluster bomb weapons in the Gori region of Georgia, territory Russia has never claimed to be disputed, something Russia has shamelessly denied doing. It states: “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.”
HRW then goes on to document a litany of horror:
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.
None of this, of course, can come as news to readers of this blog. But it is time the wider world began to acknowledge that Russia’s naked act of wanton aggression in Georgia must not stand, that the world must stand together and face down this threat before Russia, like the USSR and Nazi Germany before it, concludes that it can get away with such actions and repeats them, this time perhaps in Ukraine.