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Parliamentary Assembly Session: 26 to 30 April 2010

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Statement by Ambassador Heidi TAGLIAVINI, Former Head of the International fact-finding mission on the conflict in Georgia

Strasbourg, 28 April 2010

Mr President, members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,

Let me take this opportunity to express my gratitude for your invitation to address this eminent body on a topic that, contrary to many expectations, continues to be of topicality whenever we talk about security and the current challenges to peace and stability in Europe.

As this is the first time I have been present in this forum, let me tell you how pleased and honoured I am to have this opportunity to share with you some of the considerations and findings from the report on the conflict in August 2008 in Georgia. It is well known that since the outbreak of the conflict in Georgia the Council of Europe has played an active and prominent role, showing interest and engagement at various levels and through various channels, not least through its highly respected Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, with whom we co-operated actively in the context of our fact-finding mission.

The debate today is another example of the Council’s continued engagement in trying to find ways to overcome the current unsatisfactory situation, not only on the ground but in relations between the conflicting parties and the other stakeholders. It is precisely in forums such as the Council of Europe that the international community can and has to display the necessary culture of discussion and debate that eventually may lay the foundations for better understanding, even on controversial issues such as the conflict in Georgia.

As you know, the report that I shall introduce today was submitted to the Council of the European Union more than six months ago. On the same occasion, the report was handed to the parties to the conflict, Georgia and Russia, to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and to the UN, as stipulated in the mission’s mandate. The report was also given to the conflicting parties, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. For a number of reasons, not least to avoid misquotation and misinterpretation, the report was made publicly available on the Internet immediately after its release.

The report attracted wide international attention. Reactions in the press and from the public have almost always been positive, or factual and neutral. The conflicting parties reacted, in an overwhelming majority, in a moderate way, although unfortunately we observed some rather selective reading, with both parties presenting the parts of the report that were to their liking.

Allow me briefly to recall the origins and the mandate for the report. By its decision of 2 December 2008, the EU Council commissioned an independent international fact-finding mission to investigate the August 2008 conflict in Georgia. The Council appointed me as head of the fact-finding mission, leaving to me all decisions on working methods and proceedings. The mandate’s terms of reference requested that the mission investigate the origins and causes of the conflict in Georgia in 2008, including with regard to international law, humanitarian law and human rights and the accusations made in that context, including allegations of war crimes. The geographical scope and the time span were to be sufficiently broad to determine all possible causes of the conflict – a very extensive task, for which the mission was assigned the relatively short time of about nine months.

The report contains more than 1 000 pages. It seems fairly voluminous; however, its main results are summarised in 25 pages at the beginning under the heading “The conflict in Georgia in August 2008”. They include the most substantial elements, facts and findings of the report, followed by a dozen of the most important observations – a sort of lessons learned – that emerged during the course of our work. Preceding the summary there is a short introduction explaining the context, methods and purpose of the mission’s work. The summary is followed by an acknowledgement of the efforts of all those who contributed to the mission’s work. Those chapters, together with a few additional pages of more technical content, such as maps and a list of the mission’s main visits and meetings, represent most of volume 1 of the report. It is followed by volumes 2 and 3.

Volume 2 includes about 450 pages of expert opinion and analysis that were among the most important but not the only foundations for the report’s facts and conclusions. Those 450 pages contain all the relevant information that in one way or another has to do with the conflict in Georgia.

Volume 3 is about 650 pages, containing mainly unabridged and unaltered statements, and answers to the mission’s questions as received from the different sides to the conflict and other sources. The total report comprises about 1 150 pages, divided into three volumes.

Let me point out some further elements relating to the mission’s work and its report, the first of which is the political context. It needs to be recalled that the European Union played an important role in stopping the fighting in Georgia in August 2008 and in negotiating the agreements necessary for a cease-fire. That was largely due to the persistent efforts of the then French EU Presidency, led by President Sarkozy. Even now, the European Union continues to be actively engaged in stabilising efforts, such as the EU monitoring mission and the Geneva talks. We understand that our mission was also part of the overall European policy that aims to secure a peaceful and lasting solution to the conflict in Georgia.

Although the overall situation in the conflict region is fragile and unsettled, the report must be seen as part of the European Union’s policy to endeavour to bring stability to the situation in the region and to bring the conflict nearer to a negotiated settlement. Another important point to stress is that our fact-finding mission was the first of its kind in the history of the European Union. Our aim was to prepare a fair and non-partisan presentation of the events and an equally balanced evaluation in terms of international and humanitarian law. Our hope was that the report would make a valid contribution to a negotiated solution to the conflict.

However, it is not enough to approach the conflict in terms of its political, legal and military aspects. It is even more a matter of minds. Those involved in the conflict usually focused only on their own truths. They were hardly ever sufficiently prepared to look at the truths of others. It must be understood, however, that no solution to the conflict is possible unless it comes from the principals themselves, and unless it reflects not only people’s own perceptions but those of the other side. The report wishes to encourage this process of reorientation. In that context, it should be underlined that the fact-finding mission was not leading an investigation relevant to judicial proceedings of any sort. It was a strictly fact-finding mission.In keeping with the mandate confirmed by the Council of the European Union, this report should not be seen as a tribunal – it was not preparing any legal actions in favour of or against any side or anyone. The mission’s task was to establish to the best of its knowledge facts and their relevance under international and humanitarian law. There is hardly any chance for a future peace without the facts being presented in a sober and impartial manner. This is the main purpose of the report.

If there is any basic message of the report, apart from drawing attention to the human dimension of the conflict and the tragedy of the events, it is a renewed call upon all conflicting sides to comply with the basic rules of international law, such as the respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and the non-use of force or the threat of force, as these principles are enshrined in the UN charter.

At the same level, there is a similar need for uncompromising observance of guidelines for international interaction and behaviour that is linked in a European context to the OSCE and its landmark documents, beginning with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, through to the Charter for European Security adopted in Istanbul in 1999, as well as the relevant documents of the Council of Europe. All these have suffered as a result of the August 2008 fighting in Georgia, and all sides to the conflict must do their utmost again to give these political and legal instruments their rightful place of decisiveness in international relations.

At the same time, it derives from these observations that this conflict has not only a local or regional relevance but a direct bearing on the security architecture of Europe. The report is summarised and condensed in about 25 pages under the heading, “The Conflict in Georgia in August 2008”, which immediately follows the introduction at the beginning of volume 1. This summary includes the main events that occurred and the underlying reasons in terms of their political, historical, military and legal relevance – the latter both in the context of international and humanitarian law, as well as human rights law. The crux of the report, however, is not of a political, military or legal nature; it is the human suffering and tragedy that is always and inevitably the result of armed confrontation. As a very first step in approaching its objectives, the mission wishes with this report to voice its deep sympathy to all those who have suffered losses of human life among their families and friends, to all those who were injured, beaten and humiliated, and to the thousands who lost their homes.

Much of the military and political action has been critically reviewed in the report, but nothing will touch upon the mission’s respect for individual faiths or the aspirations of the peoples of the region, large or small. While fairness and a non-partisan and even-handed approach are the pilots of the mission’s working methods, a similar effort has been made to provide clear-cut answers in the results of the mission’s work.

Let me start with the answer to the question that has been asked most frequently. In the mission’s view, it was Georgia that triggered the war when it attacked Tskhinvali with heavy artillery on the night of 7 and 8 August 2008. None of the explanations given by the Georgian authorities in order to provide some form of legal justification for the attack offered a valid explanation. In particular, to the best of the mission’s knowledge there was no massive Russian military invasion under way that had to be stopped by Georgian military forces shelling Tskhinvali.

That said, it needs to be stressed that the Georgian attack against Tskhinvali on 7 and 8 August 2008 was by no means an isolated event; it was the culminating point of months and years of mounting tension, armed incidents and a steadily deteriorating situation. All sides to the conflict bear a responsibility for these ever-more serious developments. Indeed, the conflict has deep roots in the history of the region and in people’s national traditions and aspirations, as well as in age-old perceptions – or, rather, misperceptions – of each other that were never mended and sometimes exploited.

The report on the conflict in Georgia has shown that any explanation of the origins of the conflict cannot focus solely on the artillery attack on Tskhinvali on the night of 7 and 8 August. Such an evaluation needs always to take into account the run-up to the hostilities during the years before, and the mounting tension in the months and weeks immediately preceding, the outbreak of hostilities. As stressed earlier, it must also take into consideration years of provocation, mutual accusations and military and political threats and acts of violence, both inside and outside the conflict zones. It must also consider the impact of the great power’s politics and diplomacy against the small and insubordinate neighbour, together with the small neighbour’s penchant for acting in the heat of the moment without careful consideration of the final outcome, not to mention its fear that it might permanently lose important parts of its territory through what it used to call creeping annexation.

The onus of having actually triggered the war lies with the Georgian side, but the Russian side, too, carries the blame for a substantial number of violations of international law. These include, even prior to the armed conflict, the mass conferral of Russian citizenship on a majority of the population living in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They also include, in terms of an additional violation of international law, the military action by the Russian armed forces on Georgian territory, far beyond the needs of a proportionate defence of Russian peace keepers in Tskhinvali who had come under Georgian attack.

In addition, the Russian recognition of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states must be considered as being not valid in the context of international law, and as violations of Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. As far as the contentious issues under international humanitarian law and human rights law are concerned, it is among the main conclusions of the fact-finding mission that Russian and Ossetian allegations claiming that Georgia was carrying out a genocide against the South Ossetian population are not substantiated. On the other side, there is a serious indication that ethnic cleansing did take place in many instances against ethnic Georgians and their villages and settlements in South Ossetia, as well as other violations of international humanitarian law, which must be attributed to all sides.

Furthermore, there are serious question marks about the attitude of the Russian armed forces, which would not or could not stop atrocities committed by armed groups or even individuals fighting on the South Ossetian side against the civilian population in territories controlled by the Russian armed forces.

In our report, we noted with regret an erosion of the respect for established principles of international law such as territorial integrity. We noted an increased willingness on all sides to accept the use of force as a means to reach one’s political goals, and to act unilaterally instead of seeking a negotiated solution, as difficult and cumbersome as such a negotiation process might be. Finally, we have seen the long trail of human suffering and misery in the wake of armed action.

As the independent international mission was created as a fact-finding mission and not as a political consultative body, the mission has abstained from laying out a political road map on how to handle, and possibly to resolve, the still ongoing conflict.

While describing events and their causes, the mission has noted that a number of elements contributed to the steady escalation of tension and, finally, to the armed conflict of August 2008. The mission has tried to identify the elements in the report’s chapter on observations, and has inserted brief suggestions about all of them.

First and foremost, I would recommend abstaining from assigning overall responsibility for what happened in Georgia in 2008. The conflict in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is rooted in a profusion of causes, comprising different layers in time and various actions. Although it is possible to identify the authorship of some important events and decisions marking the course of that process, there is no way of assigning overall responsibility for the conflict to one side alone. All parties to the conflict have failed, and it should be their responsibility to make good those failures.

Secondly, preventive diplomacy and international conflict management were not successful in the 2008 conflict, partly because of what I would call a gradual erosion of previously negotiated and agreed common parameters, as well as an increasing disrespect for international commitments. In order to keep the peace – or even just maintain the effectiveness of cease-fire agreements – we do not need any new commitments or provisions, just those that already exist: they just need to be respected.

We seem to have forgotten the provisions of the UN charter and the Helsinki Final Act. Article 2(4) of the UN charter clearly states that all states should “refrain…from the use and threat of force”. Paragraph 3 states that all disputes should be settled exclusively by peaceful means. All parties to the conflict in Georgia – not only Georgia and Russia, but South Ossetia and Abkhazia – have violated the principles laid out in those provisions. The outbreak of hostilities was preceded by several years in which there were threats to use force, by biased and incendiary media reports, and verbal attacks intended to frighten and dissuade other parties to the conflict. This created an atmosphere of animosity and growing frustration and, eventually, a lack of readiness to address the conflict in a constructive way or search for a solution acceptable to all parties involved.

Let us also consider Article 51 of the UN charter, on legitimate self-defence. In the August 2008 conflict in Georgia, all sides invoked Article 51 to justify their actions, but our inquiry has shown numerous inconsistencies with these declarations. Most of the military actions were far from legitimate instances of self-defence, and this is contrary to international law.

Principle 1 of the Helsinki Final Act, gives a clear understanding of the principles that need to be respected to achieve a peaceful and respectful international environment. The 10 sub-headings of Principle 1 lay out the rules of peaceful cohabitation and coexistence for the international community. They speak about refraining from the threat or use of force, the inviolability of frontiers, the territorial integrity of states, the peaceful settlement of disputes, non-intervention in internal affairs, equal rights and self determination, and the fulfilment in good faith of obligations undertaken under international law.

Another important point concerns existing provisions on the supply of arms and military equipment and military training in conflict regions, even when done within the limits laid down by international law or non-binding commitments, such as the relevant OSCE and UN commitments, or the Wassenaar Arrangement. Military support must remain within the limits set by common sense and due diligence. Providers of military aid must take the utmost care to refrain from giving their support, even unintentionally or indirectly, to any actions or developments that are detrimental to stability in the region.

Another point concerns the virtually passive and non-innovative approach to the peace process adopted by the international community in the area – I refer to the OSCE in South Ossetia and the UN in Abkhazia, which did not help to bring about peaceful settlement to the conflict. In early spring 2008, the international community eventually realised the seriousness of the situation and deployed intense, high-level diplomacy, involving US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, EU High Representative Javier Solana and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier presenting one initiative after another, but not doing enough to prevent the forthcoming crisis. There was a series of misperceptions, missed opportunities and mistakes on all sides, which accumulated to the point where the danger of an explosion of violence became real.

The events of August 2008 were without doubt complicated by the decisions on Kosovo’s independence and its international recognition, together with NATO’s Bucharest Summit of April 2008, with its promise of Georgia’s future membership of NATO. These events complicated the international context within which the subsequent events unfolded. The 2008 decision of the Russian Federation to withdraw the 1996 Commonwealth of Independent States restrictions on Abkhazia and to authorise direct relations with the Abkhazian and South Ossetian sides in a number of spheres added another dimension to an already complex situation. This contributed to the lack of timely and sufficiently determined action by the international community, and, as mentioned, the non-innovative approach to the peace process in Abkhazia and South Ossetia adopted by international organisations also contributed to the unfolding crisis.

Another important point – this is a favourite topic of mine, which I have experienced in my many years of working in conflict zones – concerns the arrangements made to end open conflicts. It is my deep belief that any cease-fire agreement, as unsatisfactory as it may be for all sides, is still better than a war or open hostilities. However, it also needs to be said that all cease-fire arrangements are sooner or later worn out, or overtaken by events, as was the case for the UN in Abkhazia or the OSCE in South Ossetia. Mandates become inadequate or even instrumental in cementing uncompromising positions. What may have been an effective tool in ending hostilities – in this case, the conflicts of the early 1990s – can turn out to be obsolete 15 years later, or even lead to open hostilities.

Finally, it must be noted that there are no winners in this conflict. Everyone has lost – if not in life and property, at least in hopes and prospects for the future. This is true of relations between Tbilisi on the one side and Sukhumi and Tskhinvali on the other, where the August 2008 conflict has not settled any of the issues. The situation in the conflict region remains tense. Relations between Georgia and Russia have reached an all-time low. The international community is among the losers, too. The political culture of co-operation in Europe that has developed since the 1970s, on the basis of the landmark documents of the OSCE and Council of Europe that I have already mentioned, has suffered. The threat and use of force have returned to European politics. Established principles of international law, such as respect of sovereignty and the territorial integrity of states, have been ignored. Violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, such as ethnic cleansing, have resurfaced as elements of the political reality. Last but not least, relations between western powers and Russia have suffered.

The international community and other regional and non-regional actors in the conflict should make every conceivable effort not only to bring the sides to the negotiating table but to address the urgent political question of how to overcome the gap created by the conflict in Georgia in August 2008. The successful outcome of such negotiations could do much to mend relations between the western powers and Russia. I shall quote the conclusion of the report: “There is little hope, however, for a peaceful future in the conflict region unless the two main contenders, Russia and Georgia, make bilateral efforts themselves to solve their disputes. This needs to be done now.” It is our sincere hope that the report may contribute to a better understanding and, most importantly, to a sober assessment of the situation by the conflicting sides and, through that, to be instrumental in creating peace and stability in the conflict region and beyond. I thank you for your patience.