Will The Hague Tribunal Indict Abkhaz Separatists For Genocide?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 57

A new development in the Netherlands may influence efforts to settle the conflict between Georgia and its restive republic, Abkhazia. On July 8 prosecutors at the Hague-based UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) made the almost unprecedented decision to launch an investigation about genocide and crimes against humanity in Abkhazia. The decision was based on verbal information and files submitted by Paata Davitaya, minister of justice and deputy prime minister of the pro-Georgian Abkhaz government-in-exile, to the ICTY analytical group.

Davitaya received formal notification about the issuance of this recommendation on July 8, but he made the decision public only on July 16. Davitaya told reports that he had appealed to the Tribunal as a private person in March 2003, invoking a provision of the ICTY statute. Davitaya also confirmed that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been kept abreast of developments. Davitaya believes that an appeal to the ICTY on behalf of the Georgian government would receive even more attention than his own petition.

According to Davitaya, the ICTY Office of the Prosecutor will consider evidence crimes against humanity and genocide after July 1, 2002, based on the events of the 1992-93 Georgian-Abkhaz conflict.

Davitaya says that if the Tribunal finds just cause, the Chief Prosecutor may bring the matter before the UN Security Council and request that Russia be considered responsible as an accomplice in the genocide and other violations. In an interview with the Georgian newspaper Resonance, Davitaya admitted that ICTY employees had encouraged him to take action (Mtavari Gazeti, July 17; Resonance, July 19; Media News, Interpress, July 16-17).

Davitaya provided the ICTY with documents selected from the 300 volumes of evidence about the genocide of Georgians in Abkhazia. These materials were collected by the Georgian Prosecutors’ Office beginning in 1993 and allegedly contain horrific accounts of atrocities committed by the Abkhaz fighters and mercenaries from Russia. Mtavari Gazeti has made public some of these reports (Mtavari Gazeti, July 19). According to the files from the Georgian Prosecutors’ Office, as many as 5,738 Georgians were killed in Abkhazia, 600 remain missing, and 267,345 have become either refugees or internally displaced persons.

Previous attempts by the Georgian side, including the leaders of the exiled Abkhaz government, to bring the Abkhaz conflict before the United Nations and its agencies were greeted with silence.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established on May 25, 1993, by UN Security Council Resolution 827. This resolution was passed in recognition of the serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991 and also as a response to the threat to international peace and security posed by those serious violations. The ICTY’s mandate is to prosecute and try four clusters of offences: grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions; violations of the laws or customs of war; genocide; and crimes against humanity.

The news from The Hague has irritated the Abkhaz separatists. It now is obvious that the Georgian government supports Davitaya’s move. But if Tbilisi presses to bring the Abkhaz separatist leaders to trial, the fragile negotiating process will be seriously undermined.

The Georgian establishment is also uncertain. Irakli Klimiashvili, a well-known Georgian political analyst, says that it is too late to bring a suit against the Abkhaz separatists because relations with Abkhazia have moved away from confrontation and now focus on negotiations and agreements. According to Klimiashvili the Georgian side, should have gone to The Hague earlier, when the hostilities were still underway. “However, President Shevardnadze either could not or did not make this step,” he said. Reliving this painful episode in the international courts would only “twist again a knife in the people’s old wounds.” Klimiashvili further pointed out that the Abkhaz side had also incurred serious losses in that war and could bring a counter-claim against the Georgians. “Today we have to seek common interests and not make noise about what had happened during the war,” he says (Week’s Palette July 19-25). The Russian media has not mentioned these developments so far.

The Georgian activity with regard to ICTY coincided with the ongoing debate over the terms for settling the Abkhaz conflict. The first option, prepared by a group of Georgian experts under the sponsorship of the British organization Resources for Reconciliation, implies granting Abkhazia the status of a sovereign unit with highly extended rights within the Georgian federated state. This scenario was also discussed at a scientific conference in early July in the town of Pitsunda to which the Georgian authors of the plan were invited. The plan is widely perceived as a message from the new Georgian government to the Abkhaz party; it has also incurred a shower of criticism and was labeled as “unworkable” by most of the conference participants. Another option drafted by Shota Malashkhia, a member of the pro-governmental parliamentary majority, supports the idea of bringing the Abkhaz separatists to international trial, which would help reveal Russia’s role in provoking the conflict and give the Georgian state legal grounds for demanding that Russia pay compensation for material and moral damage. This option has been discussed at a hearing held by the Georgian parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and resulted in the creation of an ad hoc parliamentary commission on the Abkhaz issue (Mtavari Gazeti, July 19).

However, the government is still reluctant to proceed with an appeal to the ICTY, perhaps because too many influential people have been involved with the Abkhaz conflict. But more importantly, so long as negotiations are productive, Tbilisi likely prefers not to resort to the Tribunal route for the time being.