Arrest warrants issued on June 30, 2022, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed during the 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia are the first public results of the court’s six-year investigation, Human Rights Watch said today. ICC judges approved the prosecutor’s application for warrants for three members of the de facto South Ossetia administration on charges of unlawful confinement, torture, inhuman treatment, outrages upon personal dignity, hostage taking, and unlawful transfer.
In August 2008, an international armed conflict took place between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia, a breakaway region of Georgia that has very close ties with Russia. The conflict cost hundreds of lives on both sides, forcibly displaced tens of thousands of civilians, and caused extensive damage to civilian property. The ICC prosecutor opened an investigation into the Georgia situation in January 2016.
“The 2008 conflict over South Ossetia took a terrible toll on civilians, many of whom continue to pay the price,” said Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. “The ICC warrants are an important step, which has been a long time coming, to hold individuals implicated in the campaign of violence that forced nearly 20,000 ethnic Georgians from their homes to account.”
The three warrants are for: Mikhail Mayramovich Mindzaev, de facto internal affairs minister of the South Ossetia administration until at least October 31, 2008; Gamlet Guchmazov, head of the de facto Preliminary Detention Facility of South Ossetia at the time of the conflict; and David Georgiyevich Sanakoev, de facto ombudsman of South Ossetia at the time of the conflict. The prosecutor’s application also included information on the alleged responsibility of Vyacheslav Borisov, a major general in the Russian armed forces and a deputy commander in Russia’s airborne forces, now deceased.
Human Rights Watch research found that during the conflict, over a period of weeks after Georgian forces withdrew from South Ossetia on August 10, the Russian-backed South Ossetian forces deliberately and systematically destroyed ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia that had been administered by the Georgian government. The forces looted, beat, threatened, and unlawfully detained numerous ethnic Georgian civilians, and killed several, on the basis of the residents’ ethnicity and imputed political affiliations. The express purpose was to force those who remained to leave, and to ensure that no former residents would return. From this, Human Rights Watch concluded that South Ossetian forces attempted to ethnically cleanse these villages.
Human Rights Watch also documented indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks by Georgian and Russian forces during the conflict, which may have amounted to violations of the laws of war. This included indiscriminate attacks by Georgian forces on South Ossetia through their extensive use of multiple rocket-launching systems in civilian areas. In a number of instances, Russian forces used indiscriminate aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes, killing and wounding many civilians. Hundreds of people from all sides were killed.
Human Rights Watch also found that as an occupying power, Russia overwhelmingly failed in its duty under international law to ensure public order and safety in areas under its effective control. Russian forces were implicated in the looting and destruction, either as passive bystanders, active participants, or by providing militias with transportation into villages.
The ICC has jurisdiction over crimes committed on the territory of member countries, like Georgia, regardless of the nationality of those who committed the crimes. As a matter of international law, South Ossetia is a part of Georgian territory. This means that the ICC’s jurisdiction over crimes in Georgia extends to crimes for which Russian nationals bear responsibility in South Ossetia though Russia has not joined the ICC.
The ICC prosecutor has indicated that the suspectsare believed to be currently in territory controlled by South Ossetia or Russian authorities. Since Georgia is an ICC member, Georgia’s authorities are obligated to cooperate with the ICC, while Russian authorities are not bound by this same obligation. As at least two of the three people subject to warrants hold Russian nationality, this can be expected to intensify the difficulty of their being brought into custody. In absentia trials are not permitted at the ICC, and all ICC members should work to see that the suspects are arrested, Human Rights Watch said.
It is unclear whether the ICC prosecutor’s office is pursuing cases beyond those related to the three arrest warrants. In its 2022 program budget, the Office of the Prosecutor indicated that it plans to conclude the Georgia investigation: “The Office is aiming to conclude the investigation phase, resulting in either pretrial activities or wrap up the investigation.”
The ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims, which is mandated to provide psychosocial – mental health -, medical, and material assistance to communities affected by crimes under investigation at the court, is scheduled to start an assistance program in Georgia during the first half of 2022. The program will last three years and was approved in 2020 following years of advocacy by nongovernmental organizations calling attention to the needs of victims.
Delays in setting up an ICC presence in Georgia, the limited public results of the investigation, and the politically charged nature of the 2008 conflict, along with the continued, contested status of South Ossetia have contributed to limited public awareness about the court in the territory effected. The ICC’s Registry, together with the Office of the Prosecutor, will need to accelerate their efforts to explain the arrest warrants and provide neutral information about the court’s work.
“Almost 14 years after the South Ossetia conflict, people are still waiting for justice for abuses by all sides,” Denber said. “Victims of serious crimes are entitled to see those responsible held to account and fair, credible prosecutions will be important to building respect for a rules-based order over the longer-term.”