Georgia turned to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) almost exactly three years after Russian forces invaded its territory in August 2008, accusing Russia of violating eight articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, including those affecting the right to life relate, prohibition of torture, freedom and security, protection of private and family life as well as the rights to property and free movement.
In its statement, the Georgian government said Russian planes carried out more than 100 attacks on Georgian targets in five days. There was overwhelming evidence that Russian bombs were dropped on civilian areas, killing and injuring innocent people. Evidence included testimony, satellite footage, and video and telephone tapping.
In a landmark judgment, the ECHR ruled that Moscow was responsible for violating six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights and for numerous serious violations during and after the war. The Russian Federation has been found guilty of ethnic cleansing, burning of their houses and evictions from their homes in the Tskhinvali region (the so-called “South Ossetia” area of Georgia, which Russia continues to occupy). Russia has also been held responsible for ill-treatment and torture of prisoners of war and for prosecuting “acts of humiliation” against 160 Georgian civilians detained. These acts had to be “viewed as inhuman and degrading treatment”.
The ECHR ruled that Russia intentionally prevented Georgian nationals from returning to their homes in occupied regions. In addition, Moscow has not investigated the series of events that preceded the active phase of the 2008 war or the events that occurred after the August 12, 2008 ceasefire agreement.
The legal victory in this case is historic. It is only the fourth time that the ECHR has ruled an intergovernmental case in its entire and rather long history. And his decision also makes it clear that Russia is fully responsible and accountable for the events during and after the war that caused so much damage and human loss to Georgia. Such conclusions may seem obvious and have not been very doubtful.
Nevertheless, the ECHR ruling represents a new chapter and a historic moment for Georgia that the government should use to their advantage. Because despite the West’s support for Georgia, the reality remains that Russia has so far got away without paying a price for its atrocities in 2008. This was only a prelude to a policy that still seeks the gradual occupation of the Georgian territories. And it is evident that the lack of international pressure in response to the August 2008 war encouraged the Kremlin to continue annexing Crimea in 2014 – another action that the ECHR recently ruled illegal.
Georgia now has legal backing to work with strategic partners and allies to ensure the Kremlin pays a price for its war crimes. Imposing sanctions on Russia for its continued aggression against Georgia would be one way to punish Moscow for its systemic human rights violations. In addition, the West must urge Russia to give the occupied regions full access to the EU surveillance mission, as the Kremlin remains fully capable of further serious human rights violations in its absence.
In addition to providing the necessary assistance to exert further diplomatic pressure on Russia, the ruling also set some precedents of even greater importance.
The Court found that from August 12, 2008, until the time when Russian forces allegedly withdrew and passed control of these areas to Moscow, Russia had “effective control” over the Tskhinovli region, Abkhazia and the “buffer zone” and passed control of these areas to Moscow, which were supposedly local civil authorities. However, the ECHR ruling states that the de facto authorities in these occupied regions have since been heavily dependent and dependent on Moscow, indicating that Russia is still present and “effectively controls” the occupied regions of Georgia. In practice, this means that the Russian trick has been rejected by the court.
Moscow has consistently rejected the idea of supporting local separatists. in fact, it does not even consider itself a party to the conflict over these Georgian areas. However, the ECHR ruling not only destroys these arguments, it also dismantles Russia’s attempts to portray itself as a neutral actor and mediator in the conflict.
For the past 12 years, the Kremlin has continued its war against Georgia in a different way. Russia is actively pursuing its border policy, which aims to gradually conquer more Georgian land. Forces backed by the Kremlin are systematically detaining, kidnapping or even killing Georgian citizens. The ruling of the court results in these acts being directly attributed to Russia and no longer allows the Kremlin the privilege of denying responsibility.
Russian aggression continues
On January 18, just three days before the ECHR ruling was announced, Russian-backed separatists illegally arrested three Georgian citizens near the Georgian-controlled village of Khurcha. All three have since been released. Yet few were lucky enough to regain their freedom. Another Georgian national illegally arrested by separatists on April 18, 2020 in Khurvaleti, a village near the Russian-occupied Tskhinvali region, South Ossetia, attempted suicide on January 19. The village is separated by barbed wire and fences that separate families and make everyday life for the citizens unbearably difficult. Those who dare to cross the border are imprisoned and treated inhumanely by de facto forces. Since 2008, Moscow has occupied 125 more villages while constantly violating the Sarkozy-brokered ceasefire agreement and stationing more than 11,000 soldiers on two of its military bases in occupied territories.
In response to the ECHR ruling, Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, claimed that Russia was just an outsider to what was going on in the occupied Georgian territories. She claimed that Russia was helping South Ossetia to become a modern and democratic state. She added that relations between Russia and the so-called Republic of South Ossetia “are based on the principles of alliance and integration and are not subject to temporary deliberations”.
It is desirable to believe that the Kremlin can abide by the ECHR decision. Indeed, the recent constitutional amendment in Russia has created legal grounds for Russia to ignore decisions made by international decision-making bodies or tribunals. And the Kremlin has already been shown to have violated international law and disregarded its international obligations.
Still, the ECHR ruling is a great victory for Georgia – a small country that found justice while facing ongoing Russian aggression. Tbilisi has a long and difficult road ahead of it to achieve the occupation of its occupied territories. But it is bolstered by the fact that its position has been legally upheld, a useful turn of events as the country seeks to work more closely with its allies and, most importantly, with the new Biden administration in Washington.
The views expressed in this comment are those of the author and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Destruction during the 2008 war. Courtesy of Leli Blagonravova