Since 2017, Georgia has tabled resolutions under agenda item 10 of the Human Rights Council with the aim of increasing international scrutiny of the human rights situation in the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupied by Russia since 1991-1993. Today, however, OHCHR reporting mandated through those resolutions, as well as Council debates held in response to the reports, are equally – if not more – focused on human rights challenges in the unoccupied parts of Georgia and on the actions of the Georgian Government, than they are on violations in the two occupied territories and on the behaviour of Russia. Why is this, and what might Georgia do about it?
The current situation in the Georgia’s occupied territories
The annexation of Georgian territory by the Russian Federation began after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was Georgia’s wish to free itself from Russian domination and become an independent sovereign State. However, independence came at a high price, as Georgia lost around 20% of its territory.
From 1991 to 1993, the newly constituted Russian Federation occupied and annexed two regions of Georgia: South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Fifteen years later (2008), following a further Russian invasion, the Russian Federation ‘recognised’ the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
These annexations, in clear violation of international law and the articles of the UN Charter, have had terrible consequences for the human rights of Georgians, especially those who were forced to flee their homes in the two occupied regions, but also those who remained. Regarding the former group, Russia’s forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Georgians led to thousands of deaths, including of women and children (many of those displaced were forced out in the depths of winter). Those who survived lost their property (including houses and agricultural land) and possessions, and were estranged from family and friends who stayed behind, with no right of redress and remedy, and no right of return. The new illegal borders between the occupied regions and the rest of Georgia have even prevented Georgians from visiting cemeteries where their loved ones are interned. Those Georgians who remained have been routinely discriminated against (for example, in the context of access to health, education and social services), and in some cases tortured, disappeared, and arbitrarily killed, in clear violation of their internationally guaranteed human rights. They have also suffered serious violations of their cultural rights. The Georgian language has been supressed, and cultural heritage monuments destroyed.
Information on these gross and systematic human rights violations, which have now been ongoing for 30 years, has been relayed to the UN Human Rights Council by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has a mandate to monitor the human rights situation in the occupied territories under annual Council resolutions (the latest of which is resolution 49/33 of April 2022). In its latest report to the Council (2022), the Office of the High Commissioner noted that it ‘continue[s] receiving allegations of human rights violations in and around Abkhazia and South Ossetia, including discriminatory restrictions of ethnic Georgians from access to education in their mother tongue, and access to personal documents necessary for the enjoyment of human rights. These concerns also include adverse effects of restrictions on freedom of movement, access to livelihoods and an adequate standard of living, pensions, markets, healthcare, the rights to liberty and security, family life, and property.’
Information has also been sent directly to the President of the Human Rights Council by the Permanent Representative of Georgia to the UN in Geneva. For example, in February 2020 the Ambassador sent a letter to the President informing Council members of multiple cases (in 2019-2020) involving the torture and inhumane treatment, arbitrary detention, and unlawful killing of Georgian citizens including Davit Basharuli, Giga Otkhozoria, Archil Tatunashvili and Irakli Kvaratskhelia.
In that same letter, Georgia’s Permanent Representative recalled that the Council has repeatedly expressed its grave concern ‘about various forms of discrimination against ethnic Georgians,’ and systematic violations of their fundamental human rights, including ‘the right to life.’
This raises the crucial question – especially at a time when human rights violations associated with Russian occupation of the territories of another former part of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, are receiving unprecedented levels of international political and media scrutiny – of what the Human Rights Council (and the wider international community) has done to address these serious human rights violations in line with its mandate under paragraph 4 of General Assembly resolution 60/251?
The short answer is almost nothing.
Not one resolution under agenda item 4 (situations requiring the Council’s attention) on the situation in the occupied regions of Georgia has been tabled or adopted since the Council’s creation in 2006. No special sessions or urgent debates have been convened. No Special Procedures mandates, fact finding missions, commissions of inquiry of other accountability mechanism have been established. In short, not one Council member or observer (save Georgia itself – see below), including Georgia’s European and American democratic allies, has taken steps to draw attention to the situation in Georgia’s occupied regions – let alone to hold those responsible for abuses to account. This shameful silence, which stands in stark contrast to Western responses to the human rights violations resulting from Russia’s 2022 invasion and illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine (yet echoes international ambivalence to the 2014 occupation of Crimea), constitutes a clear dereliction of the Council’s mandate under operative paragraph 3 of GA resolution 60/251.
In an effort to fill the vacuum, since 2017, Georgia has itself tabled resolutions at the Council under item 10 (capacity-building) on ‘Cooperation with Georgia.’ This broad title and the placement of the resolutions under item 10 instead of item 4 reflect the paucity of support for more robust Council action.
Notwithstanding the broad framing, the focus of the resolutions, and that of the OHCHR monitoring reports requested in the texts, is very much on the human rights situation in Georgia’s occupied territories.
For example, with the latest iteration of the text, resolution 49/33, the Council:
- Reaffirmed ‘its commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognized borders.’
- Called on those in effective control of the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia to grant immediate and unimpeded access to OHCHR and relevant human rights mechanisms, and expressed serious concern at the repeated denial of access to international and regional monitors.
- Expressed ‘serious concern at the continued […] installation and advancement of barbed wire fences and different artificial barriers.’
- Expressed ‘serious concern at various forms of […] discrimination against ethnic Georgians, cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, infringements of the right to life, the right to liberty and security of person, the right to the highest attainable standard of health and property rights, kidnappings, restrictions on education in one’s native language in both Georgian regions, and the continued practice of demolition of the ruins of houses belonging to […] displaced persons, […] and alteration of […] Georgian cultural heritage monuments.’
- Expressed ‘serious concern further at the arbitrary detentions and kidnappings, which in some cases involve shooting, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment.’
- Expressed ‘serious concern at the lack of accountability for unlawful killings of Georgian citizens committed in the period from 2014 to 2020.’
- Expressed ‘concern that internally displaced persons and refugees continue to be deprived of the right to return to their homes.’
- Recognised the continued need for ‘periodic reports of the Office of the High Commissioner for an objective and impartial assessment of the situation of human rights in both Georgian regions.’
Regarding the last point, it is noteworthy that in the resolutions, Georgia has not been allowed (mainly under EU pressure) to refer to the two regions as ‘occupied territories.’
Notwithstanding Georgia’s efforts to adopt a relatively ‘soft’ strategy under item 10, its initiative has secured only lukewarm support at the Council – a point evidenced by relevant voting patterns. Of five draft resolutions presented, only one (in 2019) has been adopted by consensus. Of the rest, while there has tended to be few ‘no’ votes (with a low of two in 2020), there have nearly always been more abstentions than ‘yes’ votes (except in 2021, when the text was adopted by 19 in favour, 8 against, and 19 abstentions). ‘Yes’ votes have tended to be delivered by Western/EU States and some democracies from Africa and Latin America; ‘no’ votes by allies of Russia (e.g., Cuba, China, Venezuela); and abstentions by the rest (including some surprising votes from the likes of Argentina, Malaysia, and the Republic of Korea).
There are, moreover, other indications that Georgia’s current strategy is not working. That strategy has several objectives, but two key ones are: to generate Council, OHCHR and wider UN scrutiny of the human rights situation in the two occupied regions; and to provide a stage to demonstrate wide international support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, in line with international law, and to isolate Russia.
Regarding the former, largely because it has not been granted access by Russia to the occupied regions of Georgia, OHCHR has inexplicably decided to focus much of its reporting under the ‘Cooperation with Georgia’ resolutions not on the human rights situations in South Ossetia and Abkhazia (where it does not have access), but rather on human rights developments in the rest of Georgia (where it does). This means, in effect, that the UN is scrutinising the victim of Russian aggression, rather than the perpetrator.
For example, the most recent OHCHR written report (presented to the Council at its 51st session in September 2022) consists of 16 pages, only six of which are devoted to the human rights situations in the occupied regions of Georgia. When an official orally presented key conclusions and recommendations from the report to the Council, this imbalance was even more pronounced.
Regarding the second key objective (to rally support behind Georgia’s position), the results at the 51st session were equally unsatisfactory. While many Eastern European Group States (Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, and Ukraine) did take the floor during the debate in response to OHCHR’s report, probably because of their close proximity to Russia and their own experiences of occupation, very few of Georgia’s Western friends and allies took the floor at all. Neither France, Germany, Italy, or Spain, nor any other Western member of the EU (save Sweden) spoke during the debate (though the EU as a whole did deliver a statement). Two other Western powers did speak: the UK and the US. However, the latter did not address the human rights situations in the occupied regions, or express support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, but rather (like OHCHR) focused on human rights in the rest of the country. Even civil society organisations like Human Rights House Foundation, usually extremely critical of Russia, used their statements to scrutinise (and in some cases criticise) human rights developments in Georgia.
It is difficult to avoid the twin conclusions, therefore, that the Council is failing to fulfil its mandate to address situations of serious human rights violations in the case of the occupied territories of Georgia, and that Georgia’s attempt to change this reality by adopting resolutions under item 10 and by asking OHCHR to monitor the situation and report to the Council, is not achieving the hoped-for results. In all of this, Georgia is being let down by its democratic friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere.
So, what should Georgia (and the Human Rights Council) do next?
Time for a change
When Georgia tabled its first resolution in 2017, it opted to do so under agenda item 10 (capacity-building). This counter-intuitive decision was made with one simple goal in mind: to maximise support amongst Council members (and powerful observers). This was a time when the West’s policy towards Russia was one of appeasement – essentially to ‘downplay’ Russian aggression towards its neighbours in the (forlorn) hope of ‘keeping channels open with Moscow.’ Only three years after the West had reacted meekly to Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, this same policy meant that key Western powers (including the US, the EU, and the UK) were keen on a ‘soft’ approach to alleged human rights abuses in Georgia’s occupied territories – one that would not anger President Putin’s government. Hence, Georgia was encouraged to table its annual texts under item 10 rather than the more appropriate item 4 (situations requiring the Council’s attention).
As well as being less appropriate than item 4, the decision to table under item 10 also created considerable confusion. Item 10 resolutions are typically focused on providing technical assistance and capacity-building support to a State in its entirety. Along with Russia’s refusal to grant OHCHR access to the occupied territories, this helps explain (though not excuse) OHCHR’s unfortunate tendency to focus its reporting on human rights in Georgia as a whole. Key partners of Georgia, such as the EU and US, in turn took their lead from OHCHR’s reports, and chose to focus their Council interventions on human rights challenges in both the occupied and unoccupied parts of the country.
Whether or not Georgia was right to pursue this strategy in 2017 (in a sense it had very little choice considering its reliance of alliances with the EU and the US, and its aspiration to join the former as well as NATO), it is clear that today the geopolitical situation is very different. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Western stance has hardened considerably. Georgia should therefore correct course and move its resolutions to either agenda item 4 or agenda item 2.
On balance, perhaps the latter option would best serve Georgia’s interests. Item 2 has increasingly been used, over the past ten years, as an alternative way for States to bring situations of concern to the Council’s attention. The use of item 2 in this way began in 2012 when the US tabled a draft resolution on Sri Lanka. The US did so for purely tactical reasons (to prevent Sri Lanka tabling its own resolution and having it considered under an ‘earlier’ agenda item than item 4). Since then, however, Western, Latin American, and even OIC States have increasingly used item 2 to address situations that have both capacity-building and ‘addressing violations’/accountability elements, and/or to address situations in a way (in the minds of the main sponsors) that is perceived to be less aggressive or less confrontational than tabling under item 4. In other words, item 2 is seen (or at least, is portrayed) as a kind of ‘halfway house’ between item 10 and item 4, and/or as a ’softer’ or more palatable version of item 4.
Curiously, considering the hardening of their stance towards Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and occupation of Ukrainian territory, Western powers continue to pursue an appeasement strategy in the case of human rights in the occupied regions of Georgia. Specifically, Georgia continues to be told, in private, that the West does not support a shift away from item 10.
Notwithstanding such warnings, it is difficult to imagine a situation in which Western allies of Georgia would, in the current climate, fail to support a resolution on human rights abuses caused by Russia’s illegal occupation of a fellow democratic State’s territory, whether that be Ukraine or Georgia. Georgia’s delegation to the Council should therefore be bold and shift its resolutions from item 10 to item 2. .
A shift to agenda item 2 (or 4) would help focus the Council’s attention more squarely on the situation of human rights violations in the occupied regions of Georgia (rather than on the human rights situation in Georgia as a whole) and open the possibility of stronger monitoring, reporting, and accountability measures. But what, concretely, might the ‘ask(s)’ of an item 2 (or 4) resolution be?
There are different options open to Georgia in this regard, from the strongest reporting-accountability mechanisms such as commissions of inquiry (COI), to relatively weaker mechanisms such as OHCHR reporting (though this time – in theory, at least – more robust ‘item 4’ style reporting on abuses in the occupied territories). The former options (e.g., COIs, fact-finding missions) are unlikely to fly in the case of Georgia. Nor is there likely to be appetite amongst Council members for a new Special Procedures mandate on human rights in the occupied territories of Georgia (though Georgia should reach out to the new Special Rapporteur on human rights in Russia to encourage him/her to cover annexed territories under Russia’s effective control). The latter options (e.g., OHCHR reporting) also carry risks, particularly that OHCHR might once again stray from its mandate.
Georgia should therefore be creative. The Universal Rights Group (URG) has long called for the tabling of more ‘hybrid’ resolutions at the Council – texts with both country-specific and thematic elements or, seen another way, texts that address certain thematic concerns in a particular geographical context. The Council has occasionally reverted to such methods in the past (e.g., resolutions on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan, the rights of Rohingya Muslims and other religious minorities in Myanmar, and addressing attacks on school children in Afghanistan). However, this has been highly infrequent. URG therefore proposes that future item 2 resolutions tabled by Georgia, perhaps under the title, ‘The situation of human rights in the occupied regions of Georgia,’ should combine a focus on the overall human rights situation in the two occupied regions with, each year, a specific focus on a different human right (e.g., the right to education, or the right to be free from torture) or group (e.g., the rights of children). Specifically, these new item 2 resolutions could contain a number of elements:
- Preambular paragraphs (as now) reaffirming the international community’s commitment to the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Georgia within its internationally recognised borders.
- Preambular paragraphs affirming that Russia, as the occupying power, bears the primary responsibility for promoting, protecting, and respecting the rights of all those residing in the occupied territories, and that it should provide access to UN monitoring mechanisms.
- Preambular paragraphs addressing the overall situation of human rights in the occupied regions – Abkhazia and Tskhinvali/South Ossetia.
- Preambular paragraphs (to change with each annual resolution) on a particular thematic topic, such as the right to education, cultural rights, torture, the right to health, the right to housing, or the right of return, arbitrary detention, and extrajudicial killings.
- An operative paragraph requesting OHCHR to monitor and submit an annual report on the overall human rights situation in the two occupied regions, as well as on the particular focus on the human right or group covered by that year’s resolution (e.g., the right to education, or children’s rights).
- An operative paragraph encouraging the relevant Special Procedures mandate for that year’s thematic focus (e.g., Special Rapporteur on the right to education) to visit the occupied regions and report (it is more difficult for States to refuse access to thematic mechanisms than country-specific mechanisms).
Such a strategy would by no means be guaranteed of success. It would though stand a good chance of shifting the Council’s (and OHCHR’s) gaze onto what really matters: drawing international attention to, and helping secure accountability and justice for, the victims of human rights violations resulting from Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
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