U.N. General Assembly Calls for Refugees’ Return to Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 166

Georgian refugees fleeing Gori in August 2008.

On September 9 the United Nations General Assembly condemned the "forced displacement" of the population from Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia territories, strongly upheld the displaced populations’ right to return there, and defined these territories as parts of Georgia.

Georgia had initiated the General Assembly’s resolution in the framework of debate on "Protracted conflicts in the GUAM area and their influence on international peace, security and development," an agenda item that Azerbaijan and Georgia have actively promoted at the U.N. in the last three years. The September 9 resolution is the first to address this issue since Russia’s August 2008 invasion, which resulted in another round of forced displacement, after that triggered by Russia’s 1993 military intervention in Georgia.

The resolution’s phrases "Abkhazia, Georgia and South Ossetia, Georgia," "Georgia including Abkhazia and South Ossetia," and "throughout Georgia," repeatedly underscore the international recognition of Georgia’s territorial integrity as legally continuous (notwithstanding its unilateral de-recognition by Russia in 2008).

The resolution registers "concern [over] forced demographic changes resulting from the conflicts in Georgia," as well as the "further forced displacement of civilians" in August 2008. It "recognizes the right of return of all internally displaced persons and refugees and their descendants, regardless of ethnicity, to their homes throughout Georgia, including in Abkhazia and South Ossetia." It "stresses the need to respect the property rights of all internally displaced persons and refugees" and to "refrain from obtaining property in violation of those rights" (this is an ongoing concern in Abkhazia in particular, whereas Georgian villages in South Ossetia have in many cases been simply destroyed). It "reaffirms the unacceptability of forced demographic changes." And it "underlines the urgent need for unimpeded access for humanitarian activities…in all conflict-affected areas throughout Georgia."

On a practical level the resolution "underlines the need for the development of a timetable to ensure a voluntary, safe, dignified and unhindered return of all internally displaced persons and refugees affected by the conflicts in Georgia to their homes;" and requests the U.N. Secretary-General to submit to the General Assembly’s next session a comprehensive report on this resolution’s implementation (Text in UNGA document A/63/L.79).

The Assembly adopted this resolution by a recorded vote of 48 -mostly Western countries- in favor, 19 against, and 78 abstentions. Presenting the case for approval, Georgia’s Ambassador Alexander Lomaia underscored how little progress had been made in helping Georgia’s displaced persons return to their homes over the past 15 years. Moreover, last year’s armed conflict and the new wave of displacement gave ample cause for the General Assembly to take a principled stand on this international legal and humanitarian issue.

The voting breakdown reflected some stable and some shifting international alignments. The United States, all European Union countries but one, and all NATO countries but one, and all GUAM countries but one, voted in favor. The exceptions are NATO member Turkey, E.U. member Cyprus, and GUAM member Moldova, all of which abstained. Turkey’s AKP government apparently bowed to its current "strategic partnership" with Russia, in preference to Turkey’s traditional strategic partnership with Georgia. The caretaker Moldovan government toed outgoing President Vladimir Voronin’s rapprochement with Moscow. And Cyprus -itself interested in upholding the principles of territorial integrity and reversal of ethnic cleansing- may have allowed its own non-transparent financial ties with Moscow to influence its foreign policy. For their part, the U.S.-protected governments of Afghanistan and of Iraq ducked the vote by registering as absent (UNGA, 63rd session, Status of Internally Displaced Persons resolution, plenary meeting 104, record of debate September 9).

Russia tried hard to resist the resolution’s adoption, but only managed to delay it by several weeks. In a last-ditch attempt Russia raised a procedural issue in proposing that the General Assembly’s debate be discontinued and no vote be taken; but this no-action motion lost when sixty-four countries voted against it -a setback of unusual proportions for Russia in this forum. Moscow then brought up 17 amendments to the draft resolution, but did not manage to affect its content. Russia’s permanent representative to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin, and the ministry of foreign affairs in Moscow took the position that the resolution was "politicized" (Moscow’s standard rejection formula when legal issues inconvenient to itself are actually involved). The Russian side also warned that the resolution’s adoption would jeopardize the ongoing Geneva talks on stability and security and undermine "confidence-building" -an implausible warning since the talks and "confidence" measures are deadlocked in any case by Russia itself (Interfax, RIA Novosti, September 10).

Moscow will undoubtedly continue stalling for as long as it can the return of the internally displaced refugees it has itself created through its 1993 and 2008 military operations. The September 9 resolution, inevitably, stops short of naming Russia as the responsible party and also stops short of using the term ethnic cleansing. Nevertheless, this resolution marks at least a conceptual breakthrough toward acknowledging the legal grounds for rectifying this situation.

The document defeats Moscow’s political and legal goal to have the "new realities" occupation/annexation and ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia -acknowledged even de facto at an international level. On the contrary, the resolution upholds Georgia’s legal title to its territorial integrity as well as the right of refugees to return home and their right to their property. The resolution lays the basis for a legal and political commitment to these principles and it introduces a reporting mechanism that can lead to practical actions to that effect.