Meet our Members: Civil Society's role in Georgia: Interview with Ms. Nino Tsagareshvili

GCICC and CICC- Virginie Amato, Regional Coordinator for Europe & Naureen Khan, Communication's Officer
The Coalition for the ICC, Regional Coordinator for Europe, Virginie Amato interviewed Ms. Nino Tsagareshvili, Co-Director of Human Rights Center (HRDIC) and Former Chair of the Georgian Coalition for the International Criminal Court (GCICC) on the situation in Georgia and to know civil society's hopes towards international justice.

1. Can you remind us, what happened in Georgia in 2008 and the current situation in the region?

In August 2008, an international armed conflict took place in the South Ossetia breakaway region of Georgia. The conflict involved three parties – the Georgian armed forces, Russian armed forces and South Ossetian de facto forces.

During the conflict, crimes against ethnic Georgians were committed on a large scale including murder, wilful killing, forcible displacement, persecution, destruction and pillaging of property. Around 27,000 ethnic Georgians were forced to leave their homes in South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region and its nearby villages. The villages inhabited with mostly ethnic Georgians were torched and demolished.

The alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Georgia in 2008 are currently investigated by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC Office of the Prosecutor announced the opening of a preliminary examination of the situation in Georgia in August 2008. It took the Prosecutor almost eight years to complete the preliminary examination and request the judges’ authorization to open an investigation on the situation.

In January 2016, the ICC Pre Trial Chamber I authorized Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to open an investigation on the situation in Georgia, focusing on alleged crimes committed in the context of an international armed conflict between 1 July and 10 October 2008 in and around South Ossetia. The investigation has been ongoing for almost four years without any concrete or public results.

Places where crimes took place (documented by the member NGOs of GCICC)

2. What has been the role of civil society in 2008 in Georgia and in particular the role of the Georgian National Coalition for the ICC (GCICC) in the current scenario?  

Soon after the end of the armed conflict, Georgian human rights civil society organizations –including my organisation, the Human Rights Center, gathered to document the human rights violations committed during the 2008 August War. They interviewed thousands of victims and gathered documentation concerning human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against them. The analysis and information were compiled in the public “August Ruins” report which was submitted to OTP in 2009. Since 2008, civil society organisations have consistently called on the OTP to open an investigation in the situation in Georgia.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) also submitted applications to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on behalf of over 1,000 victims.

After the OTP requested authorisation to open an investigation, the NGO members of the GCICC assisted victims to submit “representations” to the Pre-Trial Chamber and provide their views, and expectations to the Judges who are considering the Prosecutor’s request. The vast majority of victims (99% of 6335 victims), who submitted views,  supported the opening of an investigation, which, I believe, was one of the factors that the Judges took into account when granting the Prosecutor’s request.

Since the opening of the investigation in 2016, NGO member organizations of the GCICC have actively engaged with different organs of the Court and raised awareness on issues related to the rights of victims, including activities to inform them about their rights in the process. The GCICC has also shared expertise and information with the Court about the current situation in Georgia, their views on the various risks and challenges for the ICC investigation. The GCICC has also urged the Court to be present and visible in Georgia, notably by setting up a Country Office and by implementing a fully resourced and targeted outreach strategy.

3. GCICC members recently published a report “10 Years after the August War: Victims of the Situation in Georgia”; can you share the main findings?

For this report, GCICC member organizations - Article 42 of the ConstitutionGeorgian Young Lawyers’ AssociationHuman Rights Center , Justice International,The Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT) - interviewed 2,417 internally displaced people (IDPs) families in 36 IDPs settlements in various regions of Georgia. We aimed to document and understand better what problems they were currently facing, in particular, the socio-economic problems, and gather information on the harm they suffered during and following the 2008 conflict.

Our research showed that the victims living in IDPs settlements are experiencing grave socio-economic problems, including inadequate housing conditions which pose threats to their health, critical lack of employment and income-generating activities, substantial lack of adequate medical services, clean water and functioning water supply system, as well as significant problems related to public transportation.

While there was more attention to the situation of the IDPs right after the 2008 events, we have noticed that the support assistance and development programs from the Georgian government or international organizations have been particularly lacking in recent years.

In our interviews with IDPs, we have heard that the majority were the victim of forced displacement, destruction of private property, physical violence, pillage and persecution. According to the majority of the people we spoke to, the economic harm and damage that resulted from the conflict was particularly devastating for them.

They lost their houses, property and their main source of income in that region which is agricultural land and thus also profits that derived from its cultivation. The people living in the IDP settlements are not able to live from agricultural activity, and they have never been properly compensated for this loss. 92.4% of the victims we interviewed are experiencing psychological/moral harm as a result of the crimes.

4. 11 years later, have the victims and affected communities received any justice?

11 years have passed since the 2008 August War, and victims are still waiting for justice and redress. 11 years later, we have not seen any international or national justice mechanism provide accountability for the crimes committed during the 2008 armed conflict. In such a situation of total impunity, crimes and human rights violations have been part of the daily life of people living near the occupation line.

On a regular basis, local residents are abducted from their gardens, agricultural land and pastures, while farming or following their herd, at graveyards and churches by representatives of the Russian Federation.

We have seen the situation worsen in the past years, with the continual expansion of the Administrative Boundary Line (ABL) inside Georgia’s territory by Russian and de facto South Ossetian authorities, an illegal process which involves mass human rights violations.

One of our main recommendations to the ICC-OTP is to ensure that the investigated crimes represent key aspects of victimisation with regard to the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer and persecution of ethnic Georgians during the 2008 armed conflict, as well as war crimes of attacks against the civilian population, wilful killing, destruction of property and pillaging. We also call on the OTP to show concrete progress of the investigation within a reasonable period. It is vital to respond to the victims’ thirst for justice now, as many of them are elderly. This can also contribute to fighting the syndrome of impunity and fear in our region by ensuring accountability for international crimes committed by Russia in particular.

Considering existing threats and challenges in relation to the ongoing ICC investigation in Georgia, including the non-cooperation of Russia and South Ossetia de facto authorities, we continue to recommend the ICC to develop a court-wide strategy on its engagement in Georgia, to ensure all organs have a vision of how to overcome challenges and safeguard effective implementation of the court’s mandate to deliver justice to the victims.

5. What are the challenges faced by the Georgian authorities and has the government taken any measures to improve the condition of affected communities and the people displaced in 2008?

We have been calling on the Georgian authorities to take concrete steps and measures to improve the living conditions in the IDP settlements.

We have not received any response from the Georgian government regarding plans to assist affected communities. The national authorities are unable to solve these issues alone, and need to work more actively with the relevant international organizations to implement support assistance and development programs there.

We now also expect that the ICC Trust Fund of Victims will implement its assistance mandate and projects in Georgia in the near future to help relief the harm suffered by victims.

As for domestic investigations of the crimes committed in the August war, we believe the government of Georgia must continue the investigation in accordance with the principle of complementarity. The ICC can only investigate those most responsible, but the government of Georgia has to continue investigative work in order to identify and bring to accountability middle and lower-level perpetrators. So far, we have not seen any concrete results in this direction. We have been relentlessly calling on the Georgian government to inform the public as well.

6. What are your and the GCICC’s expectations towards the ICC and International Justice?

The ICC organs need to be fully aware and informed of the local context in Georgia. The Court had finally set up a country office in Georgia in 2017, after persistent advocacy from civil society. It is crucial to have properly staffed and resourced local offices to provide support to various organs of ICC, to know the local context, by regular outreach programs with victims and affected communities and inform the population, media and other stakeholders. Today, the county office still significantly lacks resources which raise concerns as to how much the Office can actually do.

This year again, as we are preparing for the 18th session of the Assembly of States Parties (ASP), we ask States Parties to provide relevant financial support for the local offices which is fundamental for the effective implementation of the Court’s mandate.

As civil society, we will continue to raise awareness about the issues faced by the victims and bring their voices to the attention of the international community, including to the ICC.

We will continue to call for justice and for perpetrators to be held accountable, for all sides involved in the conflict.

Read more on Georgia here:

1- Creeping Borders and Abductions: "The Actions of Occupying Forces in Georgia Constitute Gross Human Rights Violations," Says Civil Society Organizations
2- 11 Years since the August War: Current Challenges
3- 10 Years after the August War: Victims of the Situation in Georgia