The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights on Thursday held Russia responsible for several breaches of the European Convention of Human Rights following its 2008 five-day armed conflict with Georgia.
Georgia and Russia have a history of tensions between them, which escalated on August 7, 2008, when Georgia claims it sent its troops to Tskhinvali, the capital of its breakaway region of South Ossetia, as the latter did not comply with a ceasefire agreement that Russia had mediated. This prompted Russian forces to launch airstrikes the next day and enter into Georgia through South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another breakaway region, before occupying the neighboring undisputed Georgian regions.
Georgia brought the case to the court on August 11, 2008, and the next day hostilities ceased and Russian troops withdrew as a ceasefire agreement was signed. Georgia had argued that Russia’s administrative practices violated the Convention during, as well as after, the cessation of hostilities, but the court made a distinction between military operations during and after the active phase of hostilities. It then determined jurisdiction, holding that the events that occurred following the signing of the ceasefire agreement fell within Russia’s jurisdiction, as Russia exercised “effective control” over South Ossetia, Abkhazia and the “buffer zone” between August 12 and October 10, 2008, on which date Russian troops officially withdrew, due to its “strong presence” and the regions’ dependence on it. Due to this effective control, the court held that Russia was responsible for South Ossetian authorities’ actions even though the Russian troops’ direct involvement had not been demonstrated, noting that they had not tried to stop atrocities against the civilians. Russia was not held responsible for the events between August 8 and 12, 2008, as the court determined that neither of the countries could have been said to have exercised effective control during the period of the hostilities.
The court held that Russia was responsible for the killing of civilians by summary executions, burning and looting of houses in South Ossetia and the buffer zone in a systematic campaign, saying that the victims had been targeted as an ethnic group. Russia was also held responsible for the torture and ill-treatment of more than 30 Georgian prisoners of war detained by the South Ossetian forces, “inhuman and degrading treatment” of 160 Georgian civilians who had been illegally detained in Tskhinvali in poor conditions for over two weeks, and preventing thousands of forcibly displaced ethnic Georgians from returning to their homes in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. The court also held that Russia was obligated to conduct an “adequate and effective” investigation into the events that occurred during and after the active phase of hostilities.
The landmark judgment opens the door for Russia to be prosecuted for human rights abuses in South Ossetia. Last week, the court partly admitted Ukraine’s complaint against Russia for its rights violations in Crimea.