The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that following the 2008 August War, the Russian Federation has exercised ‘effective control’ over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
In the hotly awaited verdict in the Georgia v Russia case, the Grand Chamber of the European court found Russia in breach of a number of articles of the European Convention of Human Rights in connection to the war.
These included violations of the right to life, the prohibition of torture, right to liberty and security, freedom of movement, and the obligation to cooperate with the Court.
Georgia submitted the case to the ECHR in August 2008, in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Strasbourg Court did not accept the complaint until December 2011, beginning hearings and going through evidence and witness and expert testimonies in June 2016. The Grand Chamber public hearing was held in May 2018.
The court’s judges found by sixteen votes to one that Russia was responsible for human rights violations on the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from 12 August. ‘The strong Russian presence and the South Ossetian and Abkhazian authorities’ dependency on the Russian Federation indicated that there had been continued “effective control” over South Ossetia and Abkhazia’, the judgement said.
However, the court found that Russia was not responsible for violations committed by Abkhazian and South Ossetian forces during the phase of active hostilities from 8 August to 12 August.
The Russian Justice Ministry celebrated this fact, claiming victory in the case while conceding that they did ‘not agree with a number of conclusions of the ECHR’.
‘We managed to convince the European judges that the legal assessment of Russia’s armed forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia during 8–12 August was outside their jurisdiction’.
The court also suggested that Georgia started the war on the background of ‘ever-mounting tensions, provocations and incidents between the two countries’.
‘In the night of 7 to 8 August 2008, the Georgian forces launched an artillery attack on the city of Tskhinvali, the administrative capital of South Ossetia’, the court’s ruling states. ‘From 8 August 2008 Russian ground forces penetrated into Georgia by crossing through Abkhazia and South Ossetia before entering the neighbouring regions in undisputed Georgian territory.’
Hours before the ruling, Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and Tea Tsulukiani, who was Lortkipanidze’s predecessor for eight years until last October, expressed their faith in the ECHR to rule in favour of Georgia.
Gakharia said on Thursday morning that it ought to lay the ground for a ‘new stage in the fight for the country’s de-occupation’ and vowed to unveil a ‘new plan for de-occupation in the nearest future’.
Georgia considers Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied by Russia, and frequently describe the local authorities there as directly controlled by the Russian Federation.
The ruling coincided with the European Parliament’s annual report on the implementation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy where MEPs expressed concern over Russia’s ‘military forces [...] still occupying large parts of Ukraine and Georgia’ and that Russia continued destabilising ‘peace and security in the region’.
Several days before the ECHR ruling on Georgia v. Russia case, the Strasbourg Court found complaints by Ukraine against Russia over alleged human rights violations in Crimea in 2014 partly admissible to consider.
Rulings against Russia
The court ruled in favour of a majority of Georgia’s claims against Russia.
It found Russian authorities responsible for ‘official tolerance’ of the killing of civilians and looting and burning of houses belonging to ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia and other areas taken by Russian forces during the war.
The ECHR also found Russia responsible for the actions by South Ossetian authorities leading to inhuman and degrading treatment of ‘some 160 Georgian civilians’ in a detention centre of the South Ossetian Interior Ministry.
The Court rejected the Russian government's justification of their failure to intervene against these detentions that caused detainees ‘undeniable suffering’. Russia had argued that their detention was, in the ECHR's words, allegedly ‘for their own safety owing to potential attacks from South Ossetians’ following the hostilities.
The court found that Russia was responsible for the inability of ethnic Georgians displaced by the war to return to their homes following the conflict up until 23 May 2018, the date of the hearing on the merits of the case.
The court found that Russia had failed to investigate human rights violations committed both during and after the war.
The court dismissed other claims by Georgia, including that the looting and destruction of schools and libraries and intimidation of ethnic Georgian pupils and teachers violated the right to education.
Vindication for the ruling party
Throughout recent years, the formerly ruling United National Movement (UNM) party, the European Georgia Party, as well as a number of other opposition groups have remained critical of the Georgian Government's efforts to spearhead the case in Strasbourg.
This was not least due to President Salome Zurabishvili blaming former President Mikheil Saakashvili for ‘starting’ or escalating the conflict that was followed by a large-scale Russian military response.
In September 2009, an independent fact-finding mission set up by the European Union issued a report which was selectively used by both Russian and Georgian authorities to argue their positions.
The report questioned the legality of Georgia’s military advance into South Ossetia and the shelling of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, as well as Russia’s invasion deep into the Georgian-controlled territory beyond South Ossetia. The mission found that all sides violated international humanitarian laws.
The Tagliavini Report identified ‘indiscriminate attacks in terms of the type of weaponry used and their targeting’ as well as a ‘lack of adequate protection of civilians by both Russia and Georgia’. The list of violations of international humanitarian law also included the ‘widespread campaigns of looting and destruction of ethnic Georgian settlements by South Ossetians, as well as ill-treatment, gender-related crime including rape, assault, hostage-taking and arbitrary arrests’ which Russian forces failed to prevent.
For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.