Part 2 of Our 3-Part Series of News, Review & Analysis
[continued from Part 1 appearing on 10 August 2021]…
by Miceál O’Hurley
Inhumane Conduct, Lack of Rule of Law, Kidnappings, Detention and Russia’s Refusal to Engage with International Monitors
In the midst of America’s war in Vietnam it was often said by President Lyndon Johnson that America needed to “Win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people in order to win the peace.” Still, the use of the cancer-causing defoliant agent orange, dropping of napalm, ‘clean and sweep’ or ‘search and destroy’ missions, indiscriminate use of landmines in agricultural areas and incidents like the Mỹ Lai massacre or the carpet bombing of Hanoi ordered by President Richard Nixon, all served to daily undermined America’s theoretically noble goals. The Americans, it turned-out, didn’t understand nation building in the midst of conflict (a lesson that remained as illusive in Afghanistan and Iraq decades later as it did in the rice paddies or streets of Saigon then). Eventually, the ‘Peace with Dignity’ engineered by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger proved little more than a mediocre sound-bite for Americans attempting to draw a line under a horrific war that marked a severe blow to the United States’ moral stature in the world.
Putin, unlike Johnson or Nixon, has not even pretended that he had the interest of Georgia or its people at heart. Russian policy was never one of protecting Georgia but rather one of undermining it in the hopes that it would become a reflection of the dysfunctional state that is Belarus whereby Georgia would willingly submit to integration with Russia in exchange for loans and subsidies. Nor did Putin care about the Georgian people. Russia’s passportisation efforts forced people in the occupied territories to self-identify as either Russian or Georgian and, if they remained true to Georgia, they were persecuted, prosecuted, forced to flee or killed as in Putin’s eyes, only Russian lives matter. Consequently, the warfare, violence and thuggery unleased by Russia in Georgia always tended towards the criminal and invariably devolved into the inhumane.
According to Amnesty International, Russia’s aggression in the South Ossetia/Tskhinvali and Abkhazia regions of Georgia resulted in widespread civilian displacement with an estimated 26,000 people (mostly ethnic Georgians), having to flee their villages for their safety. The extent and conditions under which Georgians became (and continue to become) displaced persons, refugees or evacuees (DPREs) to escape Russian aggression remains difficult to measure. Russia’s refusal to cooperate with international bodies and monitoring mechanisms in the occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali regions of Georgia make the true extent of their criminality and abuses almost impossible to quantify.
After the United Nations brokered a cease fire in 2008, Russia has remained recalcitrant in their relations with Georgia, the European Union, United Nations and monitoring bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). As a result, the OSCE has not been able to continue its mission in Russian occupied territories. Russia’s refusal to be cooperative with international monitoring bodies was made abundantly clear in 2009 when Russia used its Veto power in the United Nations on a resolution to continue the United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) – a key mission that was widely hailed as having prevented a resumption in hostilities.
Because they have prohibited external monitoring, Russia operates de facto governments in their occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali regions of Georgia that lack any semblance of justice, protection of fundamental rights of the accused, recognition of human rights or right of appeal. The fruit of such a system is lawlessness carried-out by the Russia regime of occupation or a feigned ignorance of criminal gangs whose operations and existence further Moscow’s goals and objectives. At all times, the Russian Federation maintains effective control – a fact that has not escaped the attention of the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (UCHR).
One of the more menacing aspects of Russia’s enduring assault upon Georgia and her people has been the widespread use of arbitrary detentions and kidnapping. Russian FSB (secret security service replacement of the KGB) and the irregular forces they direct and control, routinely engage in ‘kidnapping for ransom’ as an ominous tool to repress and cower Georgians in Russian occupied territories (even at times crossing the contact line to conduct kidnapping operations). Georgians in Russian occupied territories routinely report the specter of kidnapping, detention or abuse has had a profoundly deleterious effect on their mental health in areas where mental health care resources are virtually non-existent under the Russian regime. In the case of kidnappings, people are released after paying some ransom, no matter how nominal, to the Russian FSB or the henchmen they use in the occupied territories. Under an economy that has been ravaged because of the war they inflict on the Georgian people even the poorest of people are subjected to kidnapping for ransom – no matter how little their family might be able to cobble together to pay. For civilians subjected to this not uncommon criminal act, appealing to the occupying authorities is simply not an option as it is the very occupying authorities themselves who either carry-out these acts, authorise them or knowingly condone them.
Arbitrary detentions have also continued to be continuingly problematic, even 13 years after Russia invaded and occupied parts of Georgia. The arbitrary and capricious nature of Russia’s criminal justice system in occupied territories of Georgia fails to meet even the most rudimentary expectations of Russia’s treaty obligations, or membership expectations in the Parliamentary Council of Europe (PACE), adherence to the Hague Conventions, observation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights or basic international law. Russia, and their puppet regimes in the territories of Georgia they occupy by force, seemed to have missed school on the day when the Enlightenment and John Locke’s Second Treatise on Civil Government was taught, “The end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings capable of law, where there is no law, there is no freedom.”
13 years after they commenced their full-scale invasion of Georgia, Russia continues to employ arbitrary detention and long detention sentences (even for the most minor of offenses – real or imagined) without the right of appeal or judicial review as a means of controlling the Georgian populations in the territories they occupy. In the first-half of 2021 alone, the Government of Georgia registered the detention of some 39 Georgians (29 in the Tskhinvali region and 10 in the Abkhazia region) who have been illegally and arbitrarily detained by the de facto Russian regime in the occupied territories. The numbers grow by the month, as do kidnappings and killings, demonstrating that this is no ‘frozen conflict’, as people too often believe, but remains an active act of aggression by Russia even if it does not appear on the 24-hour news cycle daily.
Locke, we can see, was almost preternatural in his understanding of law and civil governance as where law is the creature of Russian occupying forces and not the servant of justice – as it is in Russian occupied Georgia – there exist no freedom.
Lawlessness by the Russian Occupation Regimes with No Regard for Legal or Human Rights
The case of Zaza Gakheladze is exemplar of the lack of due process and absence of the rule of law in the occupied territories where Russia asserts affective control. In violation of the United Nations brokered Ceasefire Agreement of 12 August 2008, Gakheladze was shot, wounded and illegally detained by the Russian occupation regime in the Tskhinvali region. Denied access to a lawyer, with family kept from visiting him for months, and a denial of any information about his health, welfare or conditions of detention (of note, the International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC] was continually denied access to him in violation of Russia’s obligations), Gakheladze’s detention was arbitrarily extended, without due process, by another 12 years and 6 months. Owing only to the unceasing efforts of Georgian diplomats, negotiators and legal experts, working with the full support of the international community and human rights activists, Gakheladze was eventually released.
For Davit Basharuli, Giga Otkhozoria, Archil Tatunashvili, Irakli Kvaratshkhelia and others, their fate under Russian occupation proved mortal. While unlawfully detained at an illegally established Russian military base in occupied the Abkhazia region of Georgia, Kvaratskhelia died in Russian custody under uncertain circumstances. The same was true for Tatunashvili in 2018. It took months of pleas from the Government of Georgia, his family and the international community before his body was finally returned and even then, not in whole. His body bore the telltale signs of prolonged, brutal, painful and merciless torture. For Otkhozoria, the circumstances of his death in May 2016, clearly demonstrated the Russian regime’s utter disinterest in the rule of law. Shot to death, Otkhozoria’s murderer was captured on CCTV, in the act, and yet remains free and unimpeded in the Russian occupied territories. In 2014, Basharuli was found dead after being illegally detained in the Russian occupied Tskhinvali region. To this day, neither Russia nor its stooge occupation regime will answer questions about Basharuli’s detention or how he met his death. These are not the acts of a civilised government. Russia’s conduct is diametrically opposed to European values and ideals.
Georgia’s attempts to bolster any chance their citizens have to avail of the rule of law in the Russian occupied territories have been met with little if any success. Attempting to make the 2009 Geneva Discussions brokered Incident Prevention and Response Mechanism (IPRM) work (a process designed to discuss issues, identify risks, enact a follow-up of incidents and the exchange of information, as well as address daily problems affecting the communities on an ongoing basis) the Russian regimes have proved wholly uncooperative, rebuffing Georgia’s good faith efforts. Despite the IPRM providing a hotline that functions within its framework to ensure the goal of creating a rapid response on concrete and specific incidents, the Russian regime in the Abkhazia region unilaterally suspended its participation in the IPRM in 2012. In the Ossetia and Tskhinvali regions the Russian controlled regimes have proved uncooperative and obstructive with any of Georgia’s attempts to make the mechanism work.
Russia’s refusal to abide by international law, implement the rule of law, allow for access to lawyers, cooperate with international monitoring or provide access to appeal and judicial review ensures they, and their de facto regimes in the occupied territories under the Russian Federation’s effective control, remain unaccountable, holding themselves above the law. Unsurprisingly, the lack of a functioning law enforcement and judicial system in the Russian occupied territories fulfils the axiom “whatever you subsidise you get more of….” that historian, and later United States Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, highlighted in his famous 1965 report demanding social change, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Russia’s subsidy of lawlessness only serves to promote more lawlessness leaving Georgian victims without recourse and Russian perpetrators without fears.
Violence Against Women and Children Particularly Problematic Following Russian Aggression and Occupation
The European Union Report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Conflict in Georgia (2009) highlighted Russia’s failure to meet its international law obligations to protect non-combatants. The European Union’s chilling report details, amongst other evils, “… ill-treatment, gender-related crime including rape, assault, hostage-taking and arbitrary arrests, together with the failure by Russian forces to prevent and stop violations by South Ossetian forces, armed irregular groups and armed individuals before and after the ceasefire in South Ossetia and the adjacent territories.”
One of the most disappointing yet telling aspects arising from the European Union’s report (no matter how damning of Russia and her minions where Russia asserts effective control) was that it indelibly documented the utter lack of cooperation from Russia and its de facto regimes. In light of attempts to frustrate the Fact-Finding Mission, however, the European Union Reporters were still to verify enough facts to conclude the aforementioned multitude of abuses by Russia. In all, non-cooperation with the European Union, the United Nations or other international monitoring and reporting mechanisms is Russia’s overall modus operandi. Russia’s no-holds-barred attempts to conceal facts-on-the-ground was and should remain alarming. As put by one human rights organisation spokesperson, “It is like an iceberg – we only see its tip and the real menace is hidden under the water. The EU wrote about the horrible truths they confirmed but what we all fear is what Russia works so hard to hide in the territories they occupy by force.”
European Court of Human Rights Rules in Favour of Georgia (2021)
Earlier this year, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) highlighted the dastardly crimes committed against the Georgian people in their decision In RE: Georgia v. Russia (II), concerning the armed conflict between Georgia and the Russian Federation in August 2008 and its consequences adopted on 21 January 2021. The decision by the Grand Chamber of the ECHR painted a chilling tale of vulnerable civilians being rounded up and taken away – not to a detention centre, police station or even a military base – but the basement of the so-called ‘Ministry of Internal Affairs of South Ossetia‘, the basement of a Government Ministry not designed for detention, but administration. There can be no question in light of this that violence against the vulnerable civilian Georgian population was government policy as the abuse occured in one of its highest centres of Russian occupation administrative power.
The ECHR decision opined, “The Court noted that it was not disputed that 160 Georgian civilians, most of whom were fairly elderly and one-third of whom were women, had been detained by South Ossetian forces in the basement of the “Ministry of Internal Affairs of South Ossetia” in Tskhinvalie between around 10 and 27 August 2008… in indecent conditions…. and some of the detainees had also been ill-treated amounting to violations of Article 3 and Article 5 (right to liberty and security) of the Convention… the fact that the Georgian civilians fell within the jurisdiction of the Russian Federation meant that the latter had also been responsible for the actions of the South Ossetian authorities. Although they had been present at the scene, the Russian forces had not intervened to prevent the treatment complained of… There had therefore been a violation of Article 3 of the Convention, and the Russian Federation was responsible for that violation.” The facts demonstrate that Russians were present and were at all times the master of their servants abuse of elderly Georgians, many women, and did nothing. Clearly, this was Russian policy – so much so – the facts as reported were “not disputed.”
The Russian narrative of blaming unruly locals, or blaming the victims themselves, is simply repugnant. After all, Moscow, who fancies itself the Third Rome and inheritor of the Roman Empire, should be well acquainted with a Latin phrase every law student learns in the first week of their studies, Qui tacet consentire videtur (silence equals consent).
The Grand Chamber of the ECHR’s opinion is particularly chilling for students of European history. The use of a de facto government (in this case South Ossetian) under the responsibility of an occupying authority (in this case the Russian Federation) is eerily reminiscent of the cases heard before the Nuremburg Trials where the Generalgouvernement (occupying Nazi regime in Poland) under the responsibility of an occupying authority (Hitler’s Third Reich) was found to have engaged in some of the worst of human atrocities to be recorded in the annals of human history. The ECHR’s particular use of “fairly elderly” and “one-third of whom were women” evocatively recalls scenes where upon arrival at concentration camps brutal Nazi SS Guards separated humans considered unfit to continue living from those who were destined for the exploitation of their labour prior to their eventual ‘liquidation’ in the gas chambers and ovens of another evil regime that like Russia, threw the world into chaos and misery as they began invading and occupying their European neighbours.
Despite the similarities of the past, and the conclusions that should be drawn from the facts, Europe and the United Nations have yet to prove they have learned from the lessons of the past.
Will the World Continue to Straddle the Fence and End-Up on the Wrong Side of History?
A reasonable analysis of the facts, and what has transpired over the past 13 year in Georgia, would lead any sane person to wonder how the authors of such aggression and evil (visited upon the people of Georgia only to be repeated anew in Ukraine) to wonder “Why was the unreformed Russia re-admitted to the Council of Europe (PACE)?”
This is not Europe’s only failure to forcefully confront the totalitarian and lawless regime that over which Putin reigns. From poisoning opponents using internationally banned nerve agents to extraterritorial execution of its foes, to imprisonment of dissenters to the murder of journalists in broad daylight, as well as the constant undermining of European States by subterfuge and computer hacking directed against financial institutions and criticial infrastructure necessary for safety, security and stability, Russia continues to to demonstrate that it refuses to be guided by the rules of civilised societies and laws. At each event arising (and there have been a plethora) Europe’s response has habitually been tepid at best and lackluster or non-existent altogether. None the less, Russia is on the verge of actually being rewarded by Germany (whom is dictating European Union energy and foreign policy by insisting on the opening of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline against stated European Union opposition). Nord Stream 2 will fill Russia’s coffers with money thus ameliorating the sanctions imposed for their continued hostile occupations and enduring bad acts. A more inconsistent policy and morally bankrupt posture towards a perpetual bad State actor could hardly be imagined.
Europe, and the world, stand at the precipice in determining if it will continue to placate a country whose Gross Domestic Product in 2018 was only $1.28 trillion (the State of Texas was at $1.7 trillion during the same period – and despite its size and population Russia does not even rank amongst the top 10 economies in the world and would be far lower in the rankings if it were not for Russia devastating its environment to strip it of fossil fuels to quench Germany and Europe’s unquenchable thirst for cheap energy). The Russian GDP per capita languishes at an anemic $8,735 (while the tiny Netherland’s GDP per capita was by comparison $53,044 in 2018 and even Cuba’s grotesquely dysfunctional economy saw its GDP per capita surpass that of Russia’s at $9,099).
The world must resolve that treating Putin and Russia differently from other ‘State Sponsors of Terror’ solely because they own a nuclear arsenal and continue to prove themselves prone to violence and disinformation, is not a sustainable policy. Russia can no longer be considered a ‘super power’ by any reasonable measure. Nor is Russia an economic driver of the world as is China, the European Union, India, the United States and emerging markets in Africa and South America. Unrelenting sanctions that truly target Putin and his oligarch supporters should remain until such time as Russia joins the ranks of civilised nations, demonstrates its ability to abide by its obligations under treaties and by law, return occupied lands to their sovereign States of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and cease undermining the very European Union that is on the verge of entrusting Russia with their vital energy security. Moreover, reform of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which would entail Russia losing its permanent seat and Veto power (an archaic remnant of their standing at the end of World War II), and the expansion of the UNSC to include evolved States more representative of modernity, is a remedy long overdue. Stopping Nord Stream 2 from completion without compliance on several key issues by Russia is imperative.
The Present May Shout – But the Future Whispers
Moral authority is an imperative of all good governments. Speaking on the the evils of racial segregation, lynchings, burnings, bombings, murders, illegal detentions and discrimination against black Americans in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King (winner of the Nobel Peace Prize), spoke both eloquently and presciently on the subject of indifference in the face of evil, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
If not contemporaries, assuredly historians will soon harshly judge those countries and leaders who have facilitated if not condoned Russia’s abhorrent conduct by virtue of their indifference and inaction — all while Russia continues to occupy parts of Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine and making no secret of their designs on the Baltic States. The world will have to decide on consistent moral policy decisions or collaborating with an aggressor regime for the sake of ease and cheap gas.
Part III in this Series — Destruction or Theft of Georgia’s Cultural, Historic and Artistic Heritage; Russia Rebuffs Peace Efforts, Russia’s Gift to Georgia – A Legacy of Unexploded Ordinance, Landmines, Artificial Barriers, death and dismemberment as well as concluding news and analysis.