Georgia celebrates ECHR’s verdict in 2008 August War suit against Russia
The European Court of Human Rights ruled on January 21 that Russia was guilty of violating six articles of the European Convention on Human Rights in the 2008 August war.
The case had been pending for 12 years.
Amongst the violations were violation of the right to life; torture; burning and destruction of private property.
The court, however, dismissed the part of Georgia’s claim related to the events that took place during the active phase of hostilities (from August 8 to 12, 2008), since it was unable to establish that Russia had ‘effective control’ over the territory during this period.
In Georgia, this decision has already been called a “historic document”.
On the Georgian-Ossetian conflict
The case “Georgia v. Russia” is connected with the war over South Ossetia in August 2008, in which Georgia and Russia participated. These events were called the “August, or five-day war”.
Georgia lost 412 civilians and military personnel in the 2008 August War. The Ossetian side reported 365 military and civilian losses. According to official data from Russia, the war also claimed the lives of 67 Russian military personnel. Around 20,000 residents of Georgian villages on South Ossetian territory became refugees.
The August War of 2008 was the first war in Europe in the 21st century.
South Ossetia was an autonomous region within Georgia during the USSR.
The modern-day history of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict dates back to the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s. South Ossetia wanted independence, and in response, Georgia abolished its status as an autonomous region and included the region into Shida Kartli.
The first armed confrontation and the first victims were reported in November-December 1989. Active military activity took place between 1991-1992 and ended in 1992 with the signing of the Dagomy agreement, which obliged both parties to cease fire and withdraw armed forces from the contact zone. The Russian Federation was also obliged to withdraw its military forces from the territory of South Ossetia.
Various sources report that during the period of armed conflict, up to 10,000 people died from all sides, and up to 100,000 people became refugees and displaced persons.
Until August 2008, the conflict was considered “frozen.”
After the 5-day war in August 2008, Russia recognized South Ossetia as an independent nation. Diplomatic ties between Moscow and Tbilisi were severed.
Most in the international community consider it a separatist region of Georgia.
Georgia’s suit against Russia
Georgia accused Russia of violating Article 8 of the European Convention during the August War over South Ossetia.
In particular, Georgia said Russia had violated people’s right to life during and after the war, used torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of Georgian citizens, violated the right to freedom and security, protection of personal and family life, the right to legal protection, the right property and the right to education. And also the right to freedom of movement.
Georgia’s position was as follows: Russia bears full responsibility for the massive violations committed against Georgian citizens during the hostilities and the post-war period, since the jurisdiction of Russia extends to the conflict zone.
The court’s ruling
The ECHR drew a clear line between the active hostilities that took place from 8 to 12 August and the events that took place after 12 August, when the ceasefire agreement was signed.
The ECHR almost completely satisfied Georgia’s claim regarding Russia’s actions after August 12.
The court found that Russia has been exercising “effective control” over the conflict zone since August 12 and that Russia is responsible for violations of six articles of the Convention on Human Rights, including the right to life, torture and inhuman treatment.
Moreover, the court ruled Russia was responsible for the ban on the return of Georgian citizens to South Ossetia and Abkhazia; for the killings of civilians; and the burning and looting of houses in the Georgian villages of the Tskhinvali region and in the “buffer zone”.
The court found that 160 civilians, ethnic Georgians, were detained and subjected to degrading treatment.
The court also unanimously ruled that the capture of Georgian soldiers by the so-called South Ossetian troops in the Tskhinvali region on August 8-17 were under the jurisdiction of Russia.
The court found that the Georgian prisoners were tortured.
It was established that Russia, as “exercising effective control”, did not investigate the killings of Georgians during and after the war.
The Court noted that while the Russian military formally intervened in the conflict to prevent violence against civilians, in fact, in many cases, Russian troops stood on the sidelines when Ossetian units burned houses of ethnic Georgians.
What did the European Court not satisfy?
The court dismissed the part of Georgia’s claim related to the events that took place during the active phase of hostilities (from August 8 to 12, 2008), since it was unable to establish that Russia had ‘effective control’ over the territory during this period.
“The confrontation and hostilities between the armed forces were aimed at establishing control over the territory, given the chaos (which took place), no one was able to establish control over it,” the court’s decision says.
12 years old, 33 witnesses and 700 items of evidence
This decision of the Strasbourg Court is final and not subject to appeal.
The European Court heard a total of 33 witnesses, considered up to 700 pieces of evidence presented by the Georgian side, including videos and photographs, radar data, expert reports, surveillance camera recordings, recordings of explosions by seismic stations, media reports. And also – reports of international organizations, recordings of secret wiretapping, reports on demining.
One of the main pieces of evidence in the case is a part of an Iskander missile that exploded on August 12 over the center of Gori, and the conclusion of the expert examination carried out on them. It was the explosion of the Iskander that killed the Dutch cameraman Stan Storimans, who covered the August war.
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Reaction in Georgia
The decision of the ECHR confirms that during the August war, Russia carried out ethnic cleansing of Georgians, and is also responsible for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment and other crimes, the Ministry of Justice of Georgia says.
The decision of the court was commented on by the third president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. He greeted it, claiming that it is a merit of Saakashvili and his associates from the former Georgian government.
“Despite the statements [of the leader of Georgia’s ruling party Bidzina] Ivanishvili that Georgia is to blame, despite all their [current Georgian authorities] efforts to prevent this from happening, we still succeeded,” Saakashvili said.
The court’s decision was greeted by incumbent President Salome Zurabishvili, who thanked the government and former Minister of Justice Teya Tsulukiani for “a great contribution to this victory, which is a victory for all of Georgia.”
According to the president, Georgia “is recognized as a victim of this war, and this is a great achievement for our country, our society, our history and our future.”
“Today is the most important day in the modern history of Georgia! The dispute – Georgia versus Russia, ended with Georgia’s victory in the European Court of Human Rights! This is a common victory!”, said the Prime Minister of Georgia Giorgi Gakharia.
Why is this decision important for Georgia?
Former Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli wrote on Facebook that although the Strasbourg court did not rule on the events of August 8-12, 2008, this decision is nevertheless important for the international criminal court in The Hague, which is investigating the war crimes of the August war.
“Of course this is a victory! The decision confirms: Russia kills, Russia tortures, Russia violates human freedom, Russia violates property rights, etc. But the most important thing is that Strasbourg has unequivocally stated that effective control after August 12 is in the hands of the Russian Federation. This is very important for the ongoing investigation in The Hague, because it was proved to us that Russia had nothing to do with it and we should deal with the Ossetians. It is bad that Strasbourg ‘ignored’ August 8-12, but it created an excellent guide for the Hague investigation!” wrote Khidasheli.
According to the Public Defender of Georgia Nino Lomjaria, this decision is an important tool for protecting the rights of victims:
“I congratulate our country on the recognition of the facts of Russia’s gross violation of the rights of Georgian citizens by the most just judge in Europe! This decision will become the most important instrument for protecting the rights of our fellow citizens affected by the conflict!”