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The August war- who is guilty?

August 9, 2012

Aleko Tskitishvili, 

Four years have passed since the armed conflict of August, 2008. Hundreds of people – including peaceful civilians -died during the Russian-Georgian hostilities. Thousands of Georgians were displaced and the territories of Akhalgori district and Kodori Gorge were occupied by Russian military forces. Georgia completely lost control over enclaves in South Ossetia which were previously inhabited by ethnic Georgian people.

The governments of Georgia and Russia have different answers to the question of who was responsible for the August armed conflict. The public expected the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia created by the EU to answer this question. Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini was head of the Fact-Finding Mission that published its report in September of 2009. However, the conclusion of the “Tagliavini Report”, as it is commonly referred to, allows the governments of Georgia and Russia to interpret its findings on the main question: who started the war?

On the one hand, the report clearly states that “the shelling of Tskhinvali by the Georgian armed forces during the night of 7 to 8 August 2008 marked the beginning of the large-scale armed conflict in Georgia.” On the other hand, it underlines that “any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali in the night of 7/8 August” and urges consideration of the years before the war – with increasing tension as precondition for the armed conflict.

When commenting on the Mission’s report, the minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgiastated that although Georgia disagreed with some aspects of the EU-commissioned August war report, overall the document would be helpful for Georgia. Russia and the de-facto government of South Ossetia had an almost similar reaction to the report. All parties to the conflict quote the passages from the report which are acceptable to them but prefer to stay silent on those parts of the report which contradict their allegations.

It is also interesting that there is no authorized or official Georgian translation of the report even three years after its publishing. The Press-center of the EU Mission in Georgia said they do not have information on the official translation of the report and they still rely on the original English version as a source of information. We were only able to find an incomplete unofficial Georgian translation of the Tagliavini Commission Report that was made by the South Caucasus office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation. It is noteworthy that according to our information, there is no official Russian translation of this important document either. It is unclear why the EU Missions in Georgia and Russia, that both fund multi-million Euro projects,  chose not to fund any translations of the 1000-page document.

The start of the August War has also become an issue of domestic politics in Georgia, with speculation on part of the Government of Georgia and the opposition coalition Georgian Dream in the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled in the fall of 2012. Immediately after entering Georgian politics, at his first press-conference, coalition leader Bidzina Ivanishvili quoted part of the Tagliavini Commission Report and said that armed conflict started with the shelling of Tskhinvali on the night of August 7 to August 8. Because of this statement, representatives of the government and the ruling United National Movement attacked Ivanishvili. Several days ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili declared, when meeting his supporters in the Shida Kartli village Karaleti, that those who allege that Georgia had started the war with Russia four years ago “do not love Georgia.”

After the Report of the Tagliavini Commission was published, the discussion on the issue - who launched the war and who was responsible for hundreds of casualties - subsided on the international level. This leaves the Georgian population without closure, with questions unanswered and perpetrators, despite their position and influence in the country, unpunished. However, human rights organizations are hoping for an investigation by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, which collects information about possibly committed war-crimes during the August armed conflict, to materialize.

On June 25 2010, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) publishedPress-Release entitled No Impunity for Crimes Committed in Georgia, part of which read: “The Court potentially has jurisdiction over ICC crimes allegedly committed on the territory of Georgia, including forced displacement of civilians, killing of peacekeepers and attacks against civilian targets.”

Luckily, Georgia is a party to the Rome Statute and the ICC has jurisdiction on its territory. “The Rome Statute ensures the end of impunity,” said ICC Prosecutor Moreno-Ocampo from The Hague, “states have the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute; the Court only steps in if there are no genuine national proceedings.”

Between 2010 and 2011, ICC representatives visited Georgia, interviewing government officials and conducting a preliminary investigation to answer the question: is the Georgian state willing and able “to conduct genuine national proceedings”? ICC officials stay in regular contact with the Georgian nongovernmental organizations that set up the Georgian Coalition for International Criminal Court in 2010.

On May 23, 2011, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) published a new report on Georgia - Unable or Unwilling? Georgia’s faulty investigation of crimes committed during and after the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008- which concludes that: “Overall, it would seem that the information provided by the survey of the ECHR applicants indicates that the Georgian authorities are at least both partly unable and partly unwilling to conduct an effective investigation into international crimes allegedly committed during and after the August 2008 war.”

Human rights defenders expect the ICC to take more active measures. Answering the questions surrounding the conflict and holding people responsible for war crimes is more important than ever, especially seeing as the results of the armed conflict have yet to be eradicated even four years later. 26,000 internally displaced people (IDP) still live in settlements rife with social problems. Their expulsion from their native villages was evaluated as ethnic cleansing by the Tagliavini Report.

So-called “gifts of war”, or mines, are no less serious problems. According to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), the people living in Shida Kartli region still find explosives from the Russian-Georgian war in the area. This is in spite of the humanitarian organization HALO Trust clearing the ground from mines in 22 villages of Shida Kartli region in 2008-2009. According to official data, they discovered and neutralized 1,706 cluster bombs and 2,031 unexploded ordinances in the frame of the program.

Shorena Latatia of IWPR commented on the organization’s findings: “IWPR actively observes the situation in the conflict zone villages. We try to pay maximum attention to highlighting problems of internally displaced people and the population victimized by the war. One of our most recent TV-stories was about unexploded mines remaining in the Shida Kartli region. We also monitor the meetings of the Working Group on Incident Prevention and Response whose members agreed at the last meeting that the mine clearing activities in several villages in Shida Kartli region will be renewed.”

Although fear, anger and other emotions decrease with every passing year, the wounds of the five-day war have not yet healed. The government of Georgia announced a Memorial Week on the 4th anniversary of the armed conflict. Based on an agreement with the opposition parties, the pre-election campaign was halted for one week. Just before Memorial Week, the bodies of two soldiers killed four years ago were identified through DNA testing. Senior Sergeant Gela Tigishvili and Sergeant Zurab Turashvili had been declared missing in action until now. There are other soldiers whose whereabouts are still unknown. Their family members wait endlessly, wondering – who is guilty?