January 23, 2009

2.7 The Issue of Civilian Casualties in South Ossetia

From the very beginning of the conflict, controversy has surrounded the issue of the numbers of civilian casualties resulting from the Georgian forces' assault.

Early Figures from Russian and South Ossetian Officials not Borne out

From August 8, 2008, the day after the conflict started, Russian and South Ossetian officials repeatedly cited figures of civilian deaths ranging from 1,400 to more than 2,000. For example:

  • On August 8 President of South Ossetia Eduard Kokoity said that "slightly more than 1,400 people have been killed," claiming that the figure was based on reports from relatives;
  • On August 9 Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko said that "at least 2,000 residents of Tskhinvali have died";
  • On August 10 Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Grigory Karasin said that "according to the latest data, as a result of Georgia's assault against South Ossetia at least 2,000 people, most of them Ossetians, have died";
  • On August 11 Russian Foreign Ministry official Boris Malakhov said that "as a result of Georgia's armed assault on South Ossetia about 1,600 civilians were killed";
  • On August 20 Irina Gagloeva, a spokesperson for the de facto South Ossetian authorities, said that "according to refined data, 1,492 residents of South Ossetia died as a result of Georgia's assault."[200]

These early, high casualty figures grounded the genocide claims Russia adduced to justify its military intervention. They also significantly influenced public sentiment in South Ossetia. For example, some of the local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch justified the torching and looting of the ethnic Georgian enclave villages by referring to "thousands of civilian casualties in South Ossetia," as reported by Russian federal TV channels.

To date, neither Russian nor South Ossetian officials have made clear how these figures were compiled and what evidence supports them. Nor have they acknowledged that later assessments by Russian officials and international monitors are far lower than these early estimates. The various later figures include the following:

  • The Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation Prosecutor's Office (SKP) announced on August 21 that it had documented the deaths of 133 individuals,[201] increased the figure to 159 as of October 12,[202] and to 162 as of December 23, 2008.[203]
  • Following his visit to the region, Luc Van den Brande, the chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee established by PACE to study the situation in Russia and Georgia, stated on September 29, 2008 that "independent reports put the total number of deaths at between 300 and 400, including the military," adding that "these figures are far lower than those initially advanced in particular by Russia," and suggested that "all sides agree that the initial high numbers were inflated."[204]
  • Christos Pourgourides, the rapporteur of the PACE's Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, also reported on October 1, 2008 that "the number of Ossetian (civilian) victims of the Georgian assault ('thousands' according to early numbers cited by the Russian authorities relying on 'provisional data') seem to be much exaggerated."[205]
  • The Public Commission for Investigating War Crimes in South Ossetia maintains a list of people killed in the conflict that, as of November 8, contained the names of 365 individuals.[206]

Civilian versus combatant unclear in Russian figures

It is not clear whether the SKP's investigation is distinguishing between civilians and volunteer Ossetian militias, and if so, how (Ossetian peacekeepers and servicemen of the South Ossetian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Defense and Emergencies, and Committee for State Security are explicitly excluded). According to Olga Kostina, the key spokesperson for the Public Investigation Commission on War Crimes in South Ossetia, the commission list does not distinguish between civilian and combatant casualties.[207]

During our research in South Ossetia, Human Rights Watch found that witnesses often referred to the members of the militias as "civilians," meaning that they were volunteer fighters, as opposed to servicemen of the South Ossetian Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry for Defense and Emergencies, and other agencies.  However, under international humanitarian law, they are combatants and not civilians.

The Public Commission's list contains 74 women (including elderly women), 37 elderly men (age 60 or over), and seven minors (under age 18). One can reasonably conclude that many of these individuals were individuals who did not take part in the hostilities. The status of the remaining 247 needs to be verified. The list does not contain dates and times of death, place (in most cases), and includes very limited information regarding the cause of death (for example, "killed during hostilities," or "killed by shrapnel").

Erroneous Georgian Figures for South Ossetian Civilian Casualties

The Georgian government, for its part, inaccurately and repeatedly stated that a total of 44 civilians had been killed during Georgia's military assault. Georgian officials, including President Saakashvili, incorrectly attributed this figure to a Human Rights Watch press release (see below). These attributions ceased after Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Washington Post (where one such attribution appeared) and to President Saakashvili explaining that we had made no such assessment.[208]

Human Rights Watch and Casualty Figures

Human Rights Watch does not have the capacity to make a definitive estimate as to the number of civilian casualties. Moreover, though the number of civilian dead and injured in a conflict is an issue of great importance, Human Rights Watch's major concern in any conflict setting is to establish whether and how civilians have been killed or injured and, more particularly, whether this was the result of violations of international humanitarian law.

During our first investigation in South Ossetia Human Rights Watch collected some figures on individuals killed and wounded as a result of the conflict-both through interviews with relatives of the victims and by obtaining data from hospitals and local officials.

For example, in August Human Rights Watch interviewed a doctor at Tskhinvali hospital who said that the hospital received 44 bodies, of fighters and civilians, between August 6 and 11, all from Tskhinvali. The hospital had the only morgue in the city.[209] The doctor told us that between August 6 to 12 the hospital treated 273 wounded, both militias and civilians, brought from the city and some neighboring villages. She said her hospital was the only medical facility treating the wounded in Tskhinvali. The doctor said there were more South Ossetian forces than civilians among the wounded, and added that all of the wounded were later transferred (to North Ossetia). As of August 13, there were no wounded left in Tskhinvali hospital.[210]

The 44 figure became the subject of controversy as some mistakenly characterized this as Human Rights Watch's definitive figure on civilian casualties, and others used this as evidence of bias. We were fully aware and noted in media statements that the figures provided from Tskhinvali hospital were not a comprehensive tally. Some of the residents killed in Tskhinvali and especially in the outlying villages were never brought to the hospital; instead, a number of people were buried beside their homes.[211]

At the same time, Human Rights Watch continues to question the initial 1,400-2,000 figures and the methodology used to arrive at them. We have emphasized that these were not reliable figures because it was not clear how such figures were compiled so quickly, as early as August 8 and 9, under chaotic circumstances. We also expressed concerns about the effect these announcements had on public sentiment in South Ossetia.

Finally, and most importantly, Human Rights Watch believes that this issue requires further research, as new information might reasonably come to light about whether deaths were the result of humanitarian law violations, about deaths not reported previously (including deaths in the intervening period from wounds inflicted during the conflict), and might also identify people who were assumed dead but were in fact missing and resurfaced, and people who were inadvertently counted twice.

It is the obligation of the Russian investigative authorities to ensure transparency on this matter and provide both the Russian public and the international community with the latest accurate information-if necessary, by correcting the statements made by government officials at the beginning of the conflict.

[200]The first four quoted statements were reported by Interfax news agency. The fifth is cited in "South Ossetian Authorities Reported that 1,492 People Have Been Killed as a Result of Georgia's Assault," Kavkazskii Uzel, August 20, 2008.

[201]Bogdanov, "The Investigation Has Established That…," Rossiikaya Gazeta. For unclarity as to whether these are all civilians, see the next section of this chapter.

[202]Sonja Zekri, "Im Auftrag des Kreml," Suedeutche Zeitung, October 12, 2008, http://www.sueddeutsche.de/politik/746/313652/text/ (accessed December 4, 2008).

[203] "Identities of 162 People Killed in South Ossetia have been established," RIA Novosti, December 23, 2008, http://www.rian.ru/society/20081223/157895855.html (accessed January 12, 2009). 

[204]PACE, Ad hoc Committee of the Bureau of the Assembly, "The situation on the ground in Russia and Georgia in the context of the war between those countries," Memorandum by Luc Van den Brande, chairperson of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Bureau of the Assembly, Doc. 11720 Addendum II, September 29, 2008.

[205]PACE, Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, "The consequences of the war between Georgia and Russia."

[206]Public Commission for investigating war crimes in South Ossetia, "List of the Killed Residents of South Ossetia," http://www.osetinfo.ru/spisok (accessed November 8, 2008). The commission uses figures and names provided by the prosecutor's office of the de facto South Ossetian government. According to a leading member of the public commission who met with Human Rights Watch, the prosecutor's office received information from individuals about 1,692 "missing people" who may have been killed in hostilities. As of November 8, the prosecutor's office had verified that 365 of these 1,692 were deaths. The public commission member noted that the figure could be expected to change as more information gradually became available about the remaining 1,327. The commission also receives information updating its list through calls to its hotline. Human Rights Watch interview with Olga Kostina, representative of the Public Commission for investigating war crimes in South Ossetia and member of the Public Chamber of the Russian Federation, Moscow, November 11, 2008.

[207]Human Rights Watch interview with Olga Kostina, November 11, 2008.

[208]Mikheil Saakashvili, "Answering Russian Aggression," Washington Post, September 23, 2008, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/09/22/AR2008092202581.html (accessed December 21, 2008). Saakashvili also inaccurately stated in a television interview that Tskhinvali had been "flattened" by Russian forces, incorrectly citing Human Rights Watch as a source.

[209] Human Rights Watch interview with a doctor (name withheld) in Tskhinvali hospital, August 13, 2008.

[210] Ibid.

[211]Human Rights Watch documented a number of such cases. For example, the relatives of Alan Sipols and the father of Dzarisa Dzhagaeva, whose interviews are quoted in Chapter 2.2, were initially buried in their respective yards.