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Isolation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia Complicates Defense of Human Rights

July 16, 2016
Aleko Tskitishvili

After August 2008 war the state of human rights worsened in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. First of all, the reason is the war, as a result of what thousands people had to flee from their homes from the villages of South Ossetia and Kodori Gorge, which were under the Georgian jurisdiction before August 2008. During military operations militants burnt and destroyed the houses of ethnic Georgians in the Georgian villages of South Ossetia. The people who still live in Abkhazia and South Ossetia still live under high risk of human rights abuses. 

Worsening of the human rights state was mainly caused by isolation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from the democratic world. Russia through violation of international norms and neglecting the international institutions, declared independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and supports the non-recognized republics financially and with military forces. Also, the Russian Federation sets up fences and wires to isolate the non-recognized republics from the territories under jurisdiction of Georgia.

The population of the isolated Abkhazia and South Ossetia has no access to international mechanisms of human rights like access to the European Court of Human Rights. The tools of the defense of human rights elaborated by the Council of Europe, EU, UN, OSCE and other international organizations are not applied in these republics. Rights of the people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are defended by the de-facto law enforcement bodies and courts in their respective communities; no reforms were implemented in their institutions since the collapse of the Soviet Union and there is high level of corruption. 

Civil society is weak in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Several nongovernmental organizations and civil activists, who really work on the defense of human rights, on the one hand permanently face threat of being closed down and on the other hand they lack financial sustainability because support from the western donor organizations rarely reaches them. For that reason, part of the organization prefers to “co-exist” with the de-facto authority or gets support from the Russian funds.

Situation is particularly hard in South Ossetia. There, NGOs have the same problems as their colleagues in the Russian Federation – they are registered as foreign agents. It automatically means unpleasant stigma which claims that the organization works against its own country. Recently, several NGOs suspended functioning in South Ossetia.

Abkhaz and Ossetian human rights defenders are particularly concerned with the restricted right to movement. Citizens living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, who hold citizenship of the non-recognized republics, can travel only to Russia and to those few states, which have recognized their independence. However, they can travel to Europe or other continents of the world only with the passport of the Russian citizen. Consequently, many people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia hold dual citizenship and are thankful to the Russian Federation, which allows them to break through the isolation and travel across the iron curtain.

Head of the International Center for Conflict and Negotiation Nino Tsikhistavi-Khutsishvili believes the Government of Georgia also bears part of responsibility for the restricted rights to movement of the people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Government of Georgia is obliged to find solution to the problem, though it is too difficult but shall defend the rights of its citizens. She added that Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become ghettos for its residents and it is time that Georgian, Abkhaz and Ossetian human rights defenders unified for the defense of the right to movement.

With the support of donors, Georgian, Abkhaz and Ossetian human rights defenders meet in “third” countries, where human rights have become main topic of their discussions for the past few years. Abkhaz human rights defenders speak about the violation of fundamental human rights like prohibition of abortion in Abkhazia based on the resolution of the de-facto parliament of Abkhazia; they believe it is blatant violation of women’s rights. However, being citizens of non-recognized republic, Abkhaz human rights defenders cannot apply legal mechanisms of the international human rights law. International institutions and human rights organizations do not have representations in Sukhumi and consequently almost nothing is mentioned in their reports about the state of human rights in Abkhazia.

Abkhaz human rights defenders are looking forward to the visit of the famous human rights defender Thomas Hammarberg in Sukhumi. Reportedly, Mr. Hammarberg plans to assess the state of human rights in Abkhazia by the instruction of EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus and the crisis in Georgia Herbert Salber. Hammarberg will pay next visit to Abkhazia in autumn, after what he will prepare a report and relevant recommendations to the EU Special Representative about the state of human rights in Abkhazia. 

The reports may have little impact on the change of the situation in Abkhazia, because Abkhazia, like South Ossetia, are not parties of the international conventions and do not bear relevant obligations before any human rights institution but Abkhaz and Ossetian human rights defenders believe the reports of authoritative organizations are very important for them to advocate the human rights abuses in their respective communities.

Can Abkhaz and South Ossetian citizens apply to the European Court of Human Rights, when their rights, guaranteed under the European Convention, are breached? Theoretically it is possible but the point is who should be an applicant state? In accordance to the international law, the applications can be submitted on behalf of the State of Georgia, which has lost its jurisdiction over Abkhazia and SO. If the application is sent on behalf of Abkhazia or SO, and if the Court asks the representative of Georgia why the state failed to defend the rights of its citizen, Georgian representative’s argument will be absence of Georgian jurisdiction in the territories of Abkhazia and SO. It was the argument of the Government of Georgia, when the International Criminal Court (ICC) inquired why the alleged war crimes of 2008 August War were not investigation on the national level.

It is fact that citizens of Abkhazia and SO have not submitted any applications to the ECtHR although Georgian colleagues have offered them to assist in preparation and submission of the applications to Strasbourg. Case of three young disappeared Ossetian men was an exception, whose families have applied to the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association for help and the GYLA sent application to Strasbourg against the state of Georgia. However, the case is about the crime allegedly committed on the Georgia controlled territory and responsibility of Georgia in this case is clear. But there has not been any precedent, when application was sent to ECtHR about the crimes committed in Abkhazia and SO.

Before 2008 war, different monitoring missions worked in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ossetian human rights defenders state that OSCE observation mission in Tskhinvali was very active. They even supported human rights activities of local NGOs with small grants. Nowadays, local NGOs lost this opportunity too because almost all observation missions stopped working in non-recognized republics after the war.

EU Monitoring Mission (EUMM) is stationed only in the territory under Georgian jurisdiction and observes the situation alongside the ABL. Their representatives tell Georgian NGOs that restoration of confidence and trust between the peoples is particularly important for the solution of the current deadlocked situation. It will become a milestone for reconciliation and peace. EUMM even started issuing small grants to the NGOs which work on confidence and peace building.

The Government of Georgia has little chances of negotiation with the de-facto authorities. Main topics of negotiations in Ergneti and Geneva, now in Gali too, are human rights. However, participation of Russia in those negotiations hinders agreement on very simple questions too, because confrontation between us is more acceptable for Russia than our cooperation. Big politics often forget ordinary people, who sometimes await the politicians to resolve elementary problems for them.