Utility of the UN Vote on Georgian IDPs

By David Iberi

On September 7, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution submitted by Georgia on the Status of the Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees from Abkhazia, Georgia and the Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, Georgia. Tbilisi promptly issued a statement hailing the UN decision on the inalienable right of “safe and dignified return of all internally displaced persons and refugees and their descendants, regardless of ethnicity, to their homes in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region” and expressing gratitude “to those 50 Member States, whose delegations, together with Georgia, supported the resolution.”

Despite Moscow’s continued efforts to isolate Tbilisi internationally, this year’s resolution gained more support than a similar one from last year. While 48 countries supported the Georgia resolution and 19 voted against it in 2009, this year’s vote was 50 to 17, which is a tangible achievement for a small country of five million struggling to survive as a sovereign nation against the background of Russia’s great power aspirations. Now the question is, to what extent can support from the United Nations help the Georgian internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees return to the Russian-occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia and, in a broader sense, minimize the fallout of Moscow’s strategy to dismember Georgia.

Along with the right to return clause, the UN resolution recognizes the need to respect the property rights of all IDPs and refugees, underlines unacceptability of forced demographic changes and calls upon all parties involved to take immediate steps to create favorable security conditions conducive to the “voluntary, safe, dignified and unhindered return of all IDPs and refugees to their places of origin.” Before the August 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, the UN Security Council (UNSC) regularly issued resolutions affirming the same principles, but since the 2009 Russian veto on the UNSC the General Assembly has become the only UN body through which Georgia could promote those principles.

Although a practical implementation of the resolution is difficult, if not impossible, given Russia’s heavy military presence in the occupied Georgian territories, it nonetheless has political and psychological importance for Tbilisi. First, the resolution explicitly calls Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia Georgian territories. Second, it addresses the humanitarian needs of Georgia’s IDP population, whose return to their homes is opposed by Russia. Third, the adoption of the resolution shows that a vast majority of the international community rejects the Russian claim to a sphere of influence and supports Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The resolution was endorsed by Western nations, while most of the states in the Third World either abstained or voted against it, which shows that Georgia has to intensify its engagement with countries and regional organizations in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, where Russia traditionally has significant political and economic influence. Another place where Georgia should become more active is the post-Soviet space. Several countries, including the United States, already call Russia’s illegal presence on Georgian soil occupation, but there is a clear lack of vision, let alone strategy, on how to end the occupation.