COUNCIL OF EUROPE: Report on Human Rights in Areas Affected by the South Ossetia Conflict

Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg and his delegation visited Vladikavkaz, Tskhinvali, Gori, Tbilisi and Moscow from 22 to 29 August 2008 in order to assess the human rights situation in the areas affected by the South Ossetia conflict.

His mission was about human rights and humanitarian protection and he did not go into other political issues. He talked with a great number of displaced persons and other victims. He also met leading representatives of the governments and international organisations and cooperated closely with the Ombudsmen.

Though the death toll resulting from the warfare was lower than first reported, the Commissioner concluded that a very large number of people had been victimised. More than half of the population in South Ossetia fled, the overwhelming majority of them after the Georgian artillery and tank attack on Tskhinvali and the assaults on Georgian villages by South Ossetian militia and criminal gangs. Lawlessness spread in the ‘buffer zone’ controlled by Russia between Tskhinvali and Karaleti and forced many to leave even from there. When several houses and apartment buildings in Gori were hit by Russian rockets, a further wave of displacement took place.

The return of displaced persons has now started but is delayed for the majority of them as safety has not been guaranteed. The ‘policing vacuum’ in the ‘buffer zone’ is still unresolved. Large areas must also be demined from cluster bombs, mines and unexploded ordnance devices which now threaten ordinary people, including those who normally work in the fields.

Though there is certainly a need for political solutions and clear decisions on effective and durable security arrangements in order for human rights to be protected, several important steps can be taken already now by the parties themselves and by the international community to meet the most urgent human rights requirements.

The Commissioner presents six principles for urgent protection of human rights and humanitarian security:

1) The right to return of those who fled or were displaced must be guaranteed. This requires that their safety is protected and that their homes are made liveable again. The repair of damaged houses is an urgent priority. Affected persons have the right to be informed about relevant developments, their different options, and no one must be returned against their will.

2) Those who fled or were displaced must be ensured adequate living conditions until they can return home. This requires competent coordination of the assistance from both governmental and intergovernmental actors. Not only material needs but also psychological and psycho-social damages must be addressed.

3) The whole area affected by the warfare must be demined. Cluster bombs, mines, unexploded ordnances and other dangerous devices must be located, removed and destroyed. Until this is done the targeted terrain must be marked and the population clearly informed about the dangers. The parties to the conflict need to declare what type of weapons and ammunition were used, when and where. International contribution to this effort will be required and should be welcomed by both parties.

4) Physical assault, torching of houses and looting must be totally stopped and persons responsible for such crimes apprehended and held to account. The problem of the ‘policing vacuum’ in the so-called ‘buffer zone’ between Tskhinvali and Karaleti must be resolved urgently.

5) Prisoners of War, other detainees and persons stranded in unsafe situations must be protected and rescued through continued humanitarian efforts. The established mechanism for dialogue and mutual exchanges of such cases – which the Commissioner assisted during his visit - should be kept in place and fully supported, also by the international community. There is a need to establish a coordinated system for assembling and acting upon information on missing persons.

6) International presence and assistance are needed in the area affected by the conflict. The programs of UNHCR, UNICEF, ICRC and other agencies should be supported and the OSCE be given authority and resources to expand its mission. Apart from cease-fire observers and police presence, there is a need for specialised human rights monitors who could also operate in coordination with the domestic ombudsmen. The protection of minorities must be a key priority and positive inter-community relations must be encouraged.

Read the full report, in which there is considerable attention paid to the effect of the conflict on children, at the link above.

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