Civilians in the line of fire: The Georgia/Russia conflict

Originally published
View original



The injured were taken to the basement; they arrived not one by one, but in groups of five or 15, fighters and civilians. The most serious cases we started to operate right in the corridor. Blood loss was the most serious problem. During the shelling, there had been no possibility to bring the injured here, they had been sitting somewhere for many hours, bleeding. Many people died because of this. We had space for two operating tables here in the corridor; the others were taken down to the basement. We had people dying, who had very complicated injuries, in one case the abdomen wall of the injured was torn, and he died from this injury. I remember the woman who came with her dead daughter. She had been looking for shelter but was hit by a shell. The daughter was supposed to get married this month.
-Amnesty International interview with a doctor, Tskhinvali, 29 August 2008

We were bombed. We came out of the house where we had been hiding in the cellar with relatives, got into the car and headed down the road that leads into the forest. We wanted to get to Tbilisi. That's when we were bombed. As we approached Eredvi village a bomb fell on the car in front of us. The four people inside were killed. From the car we could also see that the houses in the village had been bombed too.
-Georgian villager, speaking to Amnesty International in Tbilisi, 20 August 2008.

From the onset of the five-day war between Georgia and Russia in the self-proclaimed republic of South Ossetia in August 2008 the conflicting parties failed to take necessary measures to protect civilians from the hostilities. Villages and residential areas in towns were bombed and shelled, and some civilians reported being bombed while fleeing their villages. The overall number of civilian deaths outnumbered that of combatants, and in communities across the conflict divide homes, hospitals, schools and other mainstays of civilian life were damaged or destroyed. Extensive pillaging and arson by militia groups loyal to South Ossetia wrought large-scale destruction to several Georgian-majority settlements on territory controlled by Russian armed forces at the time. The conflict displaced nearly 200,000 people at its peak, and leaves a legacy of long-term displacement for tens of thousands unable to return to home in the foreseeable future.

Information collected by Amnesty International in visits to the region in August 2008, together with that from other sources, raises concerns that serious violations of both international human rights law and international humanitarian law were committed by all parties, both during the course of the conflict and in its aftermath. This report highlights these concerns.

International humanitarian law comprises legal obligations binding upon all parties to an armed conflict, be they states or armed groups. These obligations, which apply only in situations of armed conflict, serve to protect primarily those who are not participating in hostilities, especially civilians, but also combatants, including those who are wounded or captured. International human rights law applies both in armed conflict and peace time. This report presents the findings of Amnesty International's enquiries into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses by Georgian, Russian and South Ossetian armed forces.

In public statements published during the conflict and its aftermath Amnesty International sought to remind the conflicting parties of their obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law, to take precautions to protect civilians. Following the cessation of hostilities Amnesty International delegates visited the conflict zone in and around South Ossetia. This report is based on the research findings of four visits to the field by Amnesty International representatives. These visits took place in South Ossetia (24-28, 29-30 August), North Ossetia in the Russian Federation (21-28 August), the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, and surrounding areas (15-23 August) and the Georgian town of Gori, near to the conflict zone (29-30 August). Amnesty International was granted access to most areas, although the organization was not given access by the Russian military to the so-called "buffer zone" to the north of Gori on two consecutive days in late August. In the course of their research Amnesty International representatives met with those wounded and/or displaced during the conflict, representatives of international humanitarian organizations, government officials in Tbilisi, Tskhinvali and Vladikavkaz, non-governmental organizations, journalists and health workers. They also collected extensive photographic documentation of the damage caused by the conflict on the ground. The report also makes use of photographs collected by Amnesty International, news reports, official statements and communiqués, updates and reports issued by humanitarian and human rights organizations, as well as satellite imagery analysed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for Amnesty International.

The conflict was characterized from the outset by misinformation, exaggeration in reports of the scale of fighting and numbers of casualties and sometimes wildly conflicting accounts of the same events. All parties to the conflict have sought to justify the use of force and the way in which they have conducted hostilities. While the exact circumstances surrounding the onset of hostilities on 7 August remain the subject of dispute, all sides have declared their actions to be "defensive" even when civilians on the other side have born the brunt of their military operations. Wherever possible Amnesty International sought independent confirmation of reports and allegations made in order to minimize the margin of doubt. Nevertheless, numerous alleged facts and figures have been extremely difficult to independently verify. This report further reflects responses received from the Georgian authorities on 7 October and from the Russian authorities on 10 October to letters detailing Amnesty International's concerns.

Amnesty International takes no position on the broad political issues underlying the hostilities between Georgia and South Ossetia, or Georgia and Russia. The use of terms such as "South Ossetia" and "Georgia proper" in this report does not imply support for any political position in the conflict, but is aimed at clarity of language. However, from the outset of the conflict Amnesty International has urged all sides to respect international humanitarian law, the rules of which apply to both attackers and defenders, the armed forces of recognized states and organized armed groups without official state affiliation.

For this report Amnesty International has investigated the conduct of all sides in the light of their obligations under the rules of international human rights and humanitarian law. In the light of its findings Amnesty International is calling upon the conflict parties, and the international community, to ensure justice and reparation for the victims of violations of international law, accountability for those responsible for violations of these rules and the prevention of similar violations in the future.