Side Event – “10 Years After the War: Victims of the Georgia Situation” (co-hosted by Georgia, the Netherlands, and Justice International)

Overview by Kathryn Gooding, Research Associate PILPG NL

This side-event was held by the Open Society Georgia Foundation, Justice International, The Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, and Georgian Coalition for the ICC.

Nika Jeiranashvili of Justice International introduced the ICC’s Georgia Situation, which concerns the alleged crimes committed in the course of the international armed conflict between Georgia and Russia in 2008 over South Ossetia. He noted that this conflict resulted in the torture and death of civilians, and the ethnic cleansing of 28,000 Georgians. It also led to the annihilation of their villages, and has led to the occupation of 20% of Georgian territory. The ICC carried out a preliminary investigation for eight years and in October 2015, the prosecutor requested authorisation proprio motuto lead an investigation. 

The scope of the Prosecutor’s investigation is to look into crimes allegedly committed during the 2008 conflict. The investigation is looking into allegations of murder, forcible transfer of populations, persecution, sexual violence and the arbitrary detention of civilians which could constitute crimes against humanity. The investigation is also looking into allegations of attacks against civilians, willful killing, pillage, destruction of property, attacks against peacekeepers, and the torture of prisoners of war which could constitute war crimes. These allegations concern the territory in and around South Ossetia, involving Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian forces. 

Nika Jeiranashvili continued by noting a number of the challenges facing the ICC investigation. First, no one knows what is happening on the ground, because there is an informational vacuum as to what steps have been taken in the investigation. Also, there is the non-cooperation of Russia, which means a lack of access to the conflict zone, the non-execution of arrest warrants, political pressure, and interference. There has also been a significant time-delay between the cessation of hostilities and the commencement of the investigation, of about eight years. The security situation on the ground is also precarious, with allegations of continued cases of torture and murder, which creates difficulties for the security of victims and witnesses. There is also a lack of international support for NGOs involved in the investigation efforts. 

A number of Georgian NGOs created a report, “August Ruins” to explore violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law to submit to the European Court of Human Rights. Specifically, the report looks at the socio-economic issues of the victims, and also it aimed to raise awareness among victims about the ongoing legal processes, as victims have no information regarding the ICC and the ongoing investigation. The NGOs visited internationally displaced persons camps (IDP), and estimated that there are about 20,000 victims. They met with the victims in the camps and distributed leaflets to provide information regarding the ICC to the victims. They carried out many investigations with victims for the report, and many victims expressed that they did not think that the ICC would be able to hold Russia to account for the crimes committed against them.

Major socio-economic problems were indicated by the report, such as problems related to housing conditions in IDP settlements, lack of clean water, lack of access to medical services, and a lack of employment opportunities, which has left the IDPs in dire living conditions and poverty. 

The Georgian Coalition for the ICC also created a report to support the investigation for the Office of the Prosecutor. Half of the victims interviewed had not heard of the ICC, and  any information that they had about the ICC was extremely limited. Only 3% of the victims had actually met with ICC staff, therefore the NGOs emphasise that more work is needed in terms of awareness-raising activities and public information activities on the part of the ICC. Also in terms of the expectations of the victims of the ICC investigation, a large number of victims did not believe anything would come out of the investigation, and that they do not believe that anyone from Russia will be punished as a result of this investigation. 

A number of recent developments are worrying the Georgian NGOs. The ICC investigation has been highly politicised by domestic Georgian politics, and there has been ‘fake news’ spreading regarding the investigation. The Georgian NGOs asked the court to make a statement to explain to the public what is actually happening, in an attempt to depoliticize the investigation, however the Court remained silent and ignored the developments on the ground. The Georgian NGOs claim that the ICC is at risk of losing legitimacy because of this.

In light of this, the NGOs strongly encouraged the Court to do effective outreach to Georgian society at large. The Court must closely monitor the process and developments on the ground. 

A number of questions were posed to the panel. One question concerned more concrete measures that the Court could take to effectively outreach to Georgian society, without being drawn into politicised debates. Nika Jeiranashvili mentioned problems with the ICC field office. He said that the head of the field office only speaks Russian and this is deeply problematic, as many of the victims have had crimes committed against them by Russian forces. Therefore, he advised that there should be a head of field officer that can speak Georgian to ensure sensitivity in meeting with victims and that victims feel that the ICC is acting impartially. He also argued that the ICC should have meetings with Georgian media, and appear on Georgian television shows to ensure that accurate, non-political, information is being spread to the population at large. He argued that at the moment, the fact that the ICC is ignoring the situation on the ground damages the situation in Georgia.