(Geneva, October 14, 2008) - The European Union should emphasize the right of all people to return to their homes in Georgia at this week's talks on the recent conflict over South Ossetia, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also urged the EU to expand the mandate of its observer mission in Georgia to include the protection of civilians.
International talks on security and stability in the region following the August armed conflict between Russia and Georgia are to take place on October 15 in Geneva, hosted by the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Human Rights Watch said they should focus on protecting civilians and holding both sides to account for their abuses of human rights and violations of the laws of war.
"Civilians bore the brunt of this conflict," said Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Tens of thousands had to flee, and now they need safe and secure conditions so they can return to their homes."
In a letter to EU foreign ministers, Human Rights Watch highlighted the plight of ethnic Georgians from villages north and east of South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, which were systematically looted and burned by Ossetian militias after the conflict ended. The letter said that the villagers have no homes to return to and no guarantees of protection and security should they attempt to go back and rebuild.
"Authorities in South Ossetia have sent mixed messages about the right of ethnic Georgians from these villages to return, and it isn't clear what Russia's message is," said Denber. "The EU should make sure all sides unequivocally acknowledge the right to return and insist they work on getting people home again."
According to the Russian human rights organization Memorial, most Ossetians who fled to Russia to escape the fighting in South Ossetia have returned to their homes, many of which were damaged or destroyed.
Human Rights Watch also said that Georgian, Russian, and Ossetian forces committed violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch urged the EU to press all sides to hold credible and transparent investigations into serious violations by forces and groups under their control or in areas under their control, and to hold those responsible to account for their abuses.
Human Rights Watch also called on the EU to add protection of civilians to the mandate of the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia (EUMM), so the mission's monitors can ensure security as people displaced by the conflict return to their homes in Georgia's Gori district, which is adjacent to South Ossetia and had been occupied by Russian forces. During the nearly two months when Russian forces had control over the area they failed to ensure protection for civilians, creating a security vacuum that allowed Ossetian militias and criminal elements free reign to attack people. As a result, thousands more fled even after the fighting ended. After Russian forces completed their withdrawal from the adjacent territories on October 9, 2008, displaced people began to return from other areas of Georgia.
The EU mission's mandate is to monitor and report on the situation in Georgia to promote confidence-building, stabilization, and normalization. EU monitors are deployed in all areas of Georgia affected by the conflict, but they do not have access to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, due to Russia's objections.
"The EU monitors' deployment to the ‘buffer zone' improves prospects for the security of ordinary people," said Denber. "However, the situation remains very fragile, and the task of restoring law and order is enormous. An expanded EU mandate is the best way to ensure the protection of civilians who return home."
Human Rights Watch emphasized the importance of the EU monitors gaining access to South Ossetia to ensure protection to ethnic Georgians there and help create security conditions that will promote the return of all who fled.