Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict

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On August 14, 1992, a fratricidal war broke out on the resort beaches of Abkhazia, a small territory located on the Black Sea coast of the newly independent Republic of Georgia. A sixteen-month conflict ensued between, on the one hand, Abkhaz forces aided by local civilians as well as fighters from other countries, primarily neighboring areas of the Russian Federation, and, on the other hand, the central government of Georgia, in the form of National Guard, paramilitaries and volunteers. The Abkhaz fought for expanded autonomy and ultimately full independence from Georgia; the Georgian government sought to maintain control over its territory. Intensive battles raged on land, air and sea. Several thousand were killed and many more wounded on both sides[1]; hundreds of thousands were displaced from their homes.

Human Rights Watch takes no position concerning the causes of the conflict or the status of Abkhazia. It has, however, documented that both sides of the conflict showed reckless disregard for the protection of the civilian population, and are responsible for gross violations of international humanitarian law - the laws of war. Combatants both deliberately targeted and indiscriminately attacked civilians and civilian structures, killing hundreds of civilians through bombing, shelling and rocket attacks. Combatants deployed and used major weapons in civilian areas, recklessly endangering peaceful residents by situating legitimate military targets close to their homes. They also used weapons like the Grad rocket, although these were notoriously inaccurate. Troops on the ground terrorized the local population through house-to-house searches, and engaged in widespread looting and pillage, stripping civilians of property and food. We have received countless reports on both sides that combatants captured during combat were killed and abused, primarily by the Georgians, and that combatants raped and otherwise used sexual terror as an instrument of warfare. Human Rights Watch believes these allegations to be credible.

The combination of indiscriminate attacks and targeted terrorizing of the civilian population was a feature of both sides' deliberate efforts to force the population of the other party's ethnic group out of areas of strategic importance.[2] The practice was adopted first by the Georgian side, in the second half of 1992, and later, more effectively, by the Abkhaz side. The parties terrorized and forced the enemy ethnic population to flee, or took members of the enemy population hostage for leverage in later bargaining over population swaps. The Abkhaz conflict stands out in that in some cases entire villages were held hostage on the basis of the ethnicity of their population. Once Abkhaz forces had gained control of Abkhazia and the fighting died down, they prevented the free return to Abkhazia of displaced persons, who are overwhelmingly Georgian.[3]

Victims and eyewitnesses to atrocities in Abkhazia recounted that techniques used to terrorize people on the basis of their ethnic identities were similar. In a typical scenario, reportedly practiced by both Georgian and Abkhaz forces against civilians, a man would be stopped on the street by armed men and asked his identity or place of residence. If he identified himself as from an enemy group, the men would humiliate, threaten and beat him with fists and rifle butts. Then they would force him to take them to his home, where they would beat and intimidate the family, including children, and sometimes subject one or all to mock executions in front of the others. They would then typically rob the family, and sometimes take the male members, sometimes to terrorize them and their families, and sometimes to torture and execute them. Often these visits were repeated. Such ethnically-oriented abuse forced much population displacement.

Warfare in the Abkhaz conflict was characterized on both sides, most particularly in the beginning months and in rural areas, by a lack of formal, central military control over the operations of the rival forces. The command and control structures vital to military discipline and accountability were all but absent. Volunteers, mercenaries and other "outsiders" involved in combat in notable numbers collaborated with, but operated outside traditional military structures. At the same time, regular military commanders involved in joint operations with such forces or who otherwise acted in conjunction with irregular forces bore a high degree of responsibility for their acts. No serious measures to curb the abuses of their irregular allies have been documented. Individual combatants, both irregulars and those in traditional or formal structures, were allowed to commit atrocities and violate the laws of war largely without fear of punishment from senior military staff. Nor were orders setting out minimum humane standards given to these forces. In some conversations with combatants, it became apparent to Human Rights Watch that often there was no understanding of even the most elementary laws of war, such as the need to protect civilians.

A result of the lack of effective command and control is that it complicates the process of establishing personal responsibility for war crimes. That notwithstanding, military commanders have shown little evidence of efforts to impose restraints on either their own troops or those irregular forces allied with and effectively lent authority by them. This represents at best acquiescence in the abuses committed. The pattern of the abuses committed over time by all sectors of the opposing forces during the conflict, however, suggests that abuses were not casual or sporadic or unintentional; nor were they a consequence purely of individual initiatives. This raises the question of whether the pattern of abuse by the disparate forces fielded by each side was more a consequence of a lack of control, or of a considered intent to go beyond the limits of the law in the waging of the war. The evidence suggests a combination of both.

Russia's extensive involvement in the Abkhazia conflict brought with it certain responsibilities for the human rights and humanitarian law violations that occurred there. Russia was in various ways responsible for escalating human rights abuse: members of its armed forces made available weapons to groups or individuals known or likely to use them to commit atrocities, and members of its forces indeed carried out a large number of attacks against Georgian targets, which resulted in civilian casualties.

This report documents war crimes in order to determine responsibility for them, and to inform the international community about events in the region so as to mitigate and prevent additional abuses. The roughly 200,000 displaced persons who fled the conflict zone[4], mostly in a mass exodus at the end of 1993, are being deprived of their unconditional right to return home. Once returned, they may either perpetrate or be the victims of discrimination and physical abuse. Perpetrators of war crimes on both sides of the conflict are not, by and large, being prosecuted and punished, and there is a near certainty that individuals accused of war crimes will not receive fair trials.

A sustained cease-fire has been in force, with some lapses, since December 1993, enforced by some 136 military observers of the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (U.N.O.M.I.G.), and, since June 1994, by 1,600 Russian peacekeeping troops, nominally under the flag of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.), the successor body to the Soviet Union. After more than two years of difficult Russian- and U.N.-mediated negotiations, as of this writing the parties are only marginally closer to a lasting peace settlement. The primary point of difference is over the political status of Abkhazia. The Abkhaz authorities seek full independence from Georgia or, at a minimum, confederative status within it; the Georgians seek to restore the full territorial integrity of the Georgian Republic.

No political settlement has been reached; only a handful of individuals have been prosecuted for war crimes; hostages reportedly continue to be held; about half of the pre-war population of Abkhazia, overwhelmingly Georgian, is living in temporary housing outside of Abkhazia, prevented from returning home safely; and the movement of arms into the region and among its people is uncontrolled. Even since the introduction of peacekeepers, violations have persisted. Several Abkhaz policemen reportedly have been killed in skirmishes, nine Georgian sailors were reported to have been taken prisoner in Sukhumi in September 1994, and several houses belonging to Georgians reportedly have been burned down in the Gali region, apparently as an act of collective punishment intended to deter the return of ethnic Georgians to the town.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (U.N.H.C.R.), which has been supervising the repatriation of some 200,000 displaced persons to Abkhazia since the fall of 1994, suspended the repatriation process in late 1994 to show its dissatisfaction with the progress made (only 311 displaced persons had been formally repatriated as of December 1994), raising further doubts about the efficacy of a negotiated resolution to the conflict.[5] On November 26, 1994 the Abkhaz Supreme Soviet adopted a new constitution proclaiming Abkhazia an independent state, slowing progress to date in resolving political differences. The Abkhaz leader, Vladislav Ardzinba, was inaugurated as president on December 6. The outbreak of hostilities in the neighboring regions of Russia, Chechnya and Ingushetia, in December 1994 has further eroded the security situation in Abkhazia. On January 13, 1995, armed formations from Georgia headed for Abkhazia in buses, ostensibly to expedite the stalled repatriation process; they were stopped by government officials. All of these highly destabilizing developments raise fears that abuses will continue in the conflict.