Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - NINE GENERAL PATTERNS OF CONFLICT IN THE FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS

Georgia/Abkhazia: Violations of the Laws of War and Russia's Role in the Conflict - NINE GENERAL PATTERNS OF CONFLICT IN THE FORMER SOVIET REPUBLICS

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Ethnic War

Most obvious is the brute fact of ethnic war. In the Abkhaz fighting, people have been killed, hostages taken, property looted and destroyed, and whole populations forced out of their homes on the basis of ethnicity. This is true as well for many other conflicts in the former Soviet republics. What the Abkhaz war has in common with these other conflicts is that it is rooted in part in the rise of ethnic nationalist sentiments – on both the Georgian and Abkhaz sides – coincident with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Contemporary Politics, Not Ancient Ethnic Hatred

Yet the fact of ethnic war does not explain very much either about the Abkhaz conflict or about ethnic wars elsewhere in the former Soviet republics. Ethnic conflict is not a sui generis phenomenon. The turn from ethnicity as a cultural fact in Abkhazia during the Soviet era to ethnicity as a reason for war is directly rooted in three closely linked contemporary phenomena. First was the rise of the late Georgian leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first popularly elected president of the Republic of Georgia since Soviet rule. Having won the 1991 elections with 86 percent of the vote, he sought to build a strong state on a patriotic-nationalist platform which proved frightening to non-ethnic Georgians.

Second was the collapse of virtually all modern state structures and authority into the anarchy, gangsterism, and lawlessness that have characterized Georgia in recent years. This social breakdown was rooted in many causes, but one of them was surely Gamsakhurdia's tendency toward dictatorial rule, exemplified by systematic abuses of human rights during his tenure as head of state.[8]

Third, as a consequence of the second, was the rise of independent armed groups, some with political pretensions and some simply armed bands. These utterly undisciplined bands of armed men, some with loyalty to a warlord, had sufficient firepower in early 1992 to turn against what remained of the Gamsakhurdia state. The two most important armed militias, Tengiz Kitovani's National Guard and Jaba Ioseliani's "Mkhedrioni" ("Horsemen"), became the de facto armies of Eduard Shevardnadze's government (which replaced Gamsakhurdia's government following the latter's ouster in a coup in 1992) in the Abkhaz war.

In the vacuum left by the collapse of state controls, other loyalties were able to come to the foreground: loyalty to a militia leader, for example, or loyalty to one's ethnic group. Ethnic sentiment was then mobilized and whipped up even further by the militias and other paramilitary groups, who pursued ethnic agendas of the worst chauvinist sort to serve their own private ends.

The Lack of Democratic Legitimacy and the Rule of Law

It thus cannot be said whether, absent the breakdown of state and civil order in Georgia and the rise of militias not answerable to any civil authority, Abkhaz demands for expanded autonomy would have resulted in armed conflict or not. Nor is the breakdown of civil order the only way in which ethnic strife is catalyzed; strong states, too, are capable of unleashing and provoking ethnic war for state purposes. But it can be said, in many situations of the former Soviet republics, that among the direct causes of ethnically motivated war are the collapse of the state structures of the communist era coupled with the failure to erect democratically legitimate structures founded on the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights (including those of members of minorities).

Indiscipline and Lawlessness of Armed Units

In many armies of the world, human rights abuse goes hand in hand with the strictest military discipline. Not so with these fighters; their disregard for human rights and humanitarian law matters is compounded by their general pattern of indiscipline in all things military. Military leaders, in turn, exhibit an evident disinterest in imposing restraint on their forces. One of the principal abuses in the Abkhaz armed conflict, and a consequence of the conditions described above, is the destruction wrought by undisciplined, heavily armed bands, with or without political pretensions. Often the violence is directed according to ethnicity. Over and over again the pattern in the Abkhaz conflict has been the looting and sacking of "enemy" ethnic towns, villages, neighborhoods, and individual homes.

These fighters are not real soldiers in the professional sense. Typically, they serve in loose units out of personal loyalty, or for booty, or revenge on specific individuals, or a desperate hope of protecting or regaining their territory. These are, significantly, armed formations without noncommissioned officers, the disciplinary backbone of professional armies. There are no sergeants in these ranks, no one to insist on discipline among the ordinary soldiers even of a strictly military, prudential nature – to sandbag positions, dig trenches, safeguard bivouacs.

Lawlessness on the Georgian side has been both a cause and symptom of its military ineffectiveness. Outlaw tactics by the Abkhaz, by contrast, particularly the violence following the fall of Sukhumi, proved singularly effective in driving out remaining Georgians, the strategic goal of the Abkhaz side. In either case, it is enormously violent and appallingly abusive.

It is important to recognize, though, that where there is a predisposition to particular brutality, as in the highly charged context of ethnic-driven warfare, military or paramilitary leaders can be expected to build on this prior motivation. There is a real incentive to free their forces from restraint for tactical reasons, so long as the intent to terrorize and drive away civilians is there. Commanders of both Abkhaz and Georgian forces must therefore be held accountable for failing to restrain the forces under their command when it was obvious that these were engaged in practices that amounted to serious abuses of the laws of war.

Forced Relocation

The pervasive forced relocations of populations by ethnicity have been a principal characteristic of the conflict, but are unsurprising. The Abkhaz conflict is an especially striking example of this fact of conflicts in the former Soviet republics.

In the 1989 census, only 17 percent of the population of Abkhazia were Abkhaz, while close to 50 percent were ethnic Georgians. An inescapable result of this demographic reality is that the Abkhaz side has little incentive to permit Georgians to return to their homes, because they would once again dilute the proportion of Abkhazians to the general population.

There are also areas in Abkhazia where the Georgians have sought to drive out the Abkhaz population en masse. Still, it remains an objectively greater long-term strategic interest for the Abkhaz, which has been reflected in the pattern of Abkhaz fighting.

Disordered Warfare

Wars in the former Soviet republics typically feature the use of highly advanced land weapons systems from the Soviet arsenal. Yet they also typically feature improvised, poorly executed arrangements to cover endemic shortages of fuel, ammunition, spare parts, medical supplies and, sometimes, even food.

In the Abkhaz conflict, both sides have used heavy artillery, rockets, armored vehicles, and sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank portable missiles. Fixed-wing aircraft have been used only on relatively few occasions, compared with the amount of artillery fire; attack helicopters have not typically been used, except in the early days by the Georgians; use of transport helicopters has been more common. However, there is little so-called "C3" (command, control, and communications) capability, considered essential for modern conventional warmaking and the militarily rational use of these advanced weapons systems, except when supplied by Russian forces. For example, actual aiming of artillery, mortars and rockets in a standard military manner is minimal because neither side is known to have employed forward spotters or fire control systems – a major factor in the extraordinary indiscriminateness of this and similar wars in the former Soviet republics.

Shortages and logistical impasses have occurred regularly on both sides, particularly in the matter of fuel and spare parts, forcing fighters to improvise. In the Abkhaz conflict, shortages are compounded by the fact that Russia controls much of the fuel supply (oil and natural gas lines) to Georgia, and even the telephone lines to Abkhazia. It can exert considerable logistical pressure on any party if it chooses. The result is a "disordered warfare" that is the analogue of the lawlessness of the fighters and the disinterest of their leaders in imposing restraint on their actions: high technology coupled with improvisation, weapons of great firepower which yet lack adequate control mechanisms from both the military and humanitarian points of view. This disordered warfare is perhaps symbolized by the use of an advanced model armored personnel carrier – seen on the Abkhaz side of the front line along the Gumista river – as a stationary bunker simply for lack of fuel to drive it anywhere.

Indiscriminate Attacks

In Abkhazia, as in other parts of the former Soviet republics, war results in vast indiscriminate destruction and militarily needless and indefensible collateral damage. The situation is not improved by the readily observable lack of interest among the fighters themselves in controlling their fire. Moreover, if one of the principal objectives of the conflict is to move populations, the destruction of civilians and civilian objects, and consequent terror, is often not merely collateral, but firepower's true aim.

The Russian Presence

Russia's presence in the former Soviet republics is strong; yet it is also fluid, ambiguous, and appears to represent varied interests and commands. It may involve the supply of weapons, logistical, financial or planning support, intelligence sharing, or military intervention by Russian forces. Yet who gives the orders often cannot be determined. For example, it is unclear in the Abkhaz conflict, as in some of the other wars in former Soviet republics, whether Russian military involvement emanates from local base commanders, senior levels of the Russian government, or one or another faction within the defense establishment. The Russian government must, regardless, be held responsible for this involvement. Questions about the Russian role take on more importance since Russia sent peacekeeping troops to Abkhazia in June 1994 under the flag of the Commonwealth of Independent States (C.I.S.). Human Rights Watch takes no position on the deployment of peacekeeping forces, or outside forces generally, in these conflicts, except that it believes that appropriate measures must be taken to ensure that these forces themselves will respect human rights, and press the parties to the conflict to do the same, including through monitoring an reporting abuses. The international community has a responsibility to secure these measures.

"Outsiders" in the Conflict

The Abkhaz conflict, like many other wars in the former Soviet republics, has featured the participation of numerous "outsiders" – i.e., fighters who were not resident in Georgia before fighting broke out. Press reports have suggested that "outsiders" far outnumbered local Abkhaz fighters in the September 1991 fall of Sukhumi. Many of these fighters appear to have come from other parts of the Caucasus, primarily southern Russia. Whether they are "mercenaries" or "volunteers" has been a subject of debate.


The Human Rights Watch Mandate

Human Rights Watch, including its Helsinki and Arms Project divisions, seeks to monitor, prevent, and demand accountability for human rights and humanitarian law violations. The organization takes no position on justifications for or against secession, border or territorial disputes, historical claims to land, the rights of "peoples" rather than individuals, the legality or illegality of the presence of foreign troops (whether as "peacekeepers" or in any other role), or the use of armed force or armed intervention per se.

But it does report the human rights consequences of any of these situations. Human Rights Watch seeks to answer, consistent with this mandate, the question of who supplies weapons or security assistance to parties to a conflict known to be abusive. Its purpose is to demand accountability from the supplier for the human rights consequences of the use of those weapons or security assistance. The purpose of this inquiry is to press for human rights accountability on the basis of the documented facts. Human Rights Watch takes no position on whether Russia's interventions in the former Soviet republics in general and in the Abkhaz conflict in particular, are humanitarian, peacekeeping, imperial, or something else in nature. Human Rights Watch's sole preoccupation is whether these interventions involve human rights abuse or the provision of weapons or security assistance to human-rights abusing forces.

Standards Applied by Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch applies internationally accepted norms of civil and political rights as standards in its monitoring and reporting on human rights. In situations of armed conflict, it also applies international humanitarian law (the laws of war).

In the view of Human Rights Watch, the Abkhaz conflict is a non-international armed conflict within the meaning of Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the 1977 Protocol II Additional to the Geneva Conventions. At a minimum, both parties to the conflict are bound by Common Article 3. In addition, both parties are bound by Protocol II, as the conditions of Art. 1 of Protocol II have been met: Georgia acceded to Protocol II on September 14, 1993, while the Abkhaz forces have exercised such control over territory "as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations."

Moreover, those standards of humanitarian law that have achieved the status of customary international law also apply to the parties to the conflict, as do those standards that are recognized as an elaboration of standards that are described too generally in Common Article 3 or Protocol II. The right of displaced persons to return home at the end of the conflict (Art. 134 of the IV Geneva Convention) is one such standard: it applies to the parties to the Abkhaz conflict even though it is mentioned explicitly in neither Common Article 3 or Protocol II.

Finally, as a State, the Republic of Georgia is also bound by the norms of international human rights law. This includes norms of customary international law, as well as treaties signed or acceded to by Georgia.

As for the Russian Federation, it too is bound by the laws of war. Whereas actions by Russian forces during the Abkhazia war did not necessarily transform the conflict from a non-international to an international one, such actions risked internationalizing the conflict, and in the view of Human Rights Watch, the Russian Federation is bound, in those instances where elements of the Russian army acted outside the border of the Russian Federation, by the full range of international humanitarian law, and can therefore be held accountable for such actions.

Chapters 2-6 offer a detailed factual description of the Abkhaz conflict since it broke out in armed violence in August 1992 to the early part of 1994, set against standards of international human rights and humanitarian law. The purpose of this factual review is to establish culpability and complicity in human rights abuses and to demand accountability from both those responsible for abuse and the suppliers of weapons that have helped make the abuses possible.