The Need for an Immediate End to Hostilities in South Ossetia
8 Aug 2008
The current fighting in South Ossetia represents a humanitarian threat to 75,000 civilians in the region and risks a larger regional conflict if it expands to other parts of Georgia including Abkhazia. All sides should immediately cease hostilities in South Ossetia, uphold humanitarian law, protect the civilian population and resume talks to stop an expansion of the conflict.
After weeks of low-level hostilities in South Ossetia, Georgia declared last night that it would restore constitutional order there and launched an offensive on the entity’s capital Tskhinvali early on 8 August. Georgian forces have taken control of much of the city and most surrounding villages. It appears that only the northern Java region remains outside Georgian control. Moscow has said it will protect Russian citizens living in South Ossetia. It has sent in large numbers of tanks and reportedly bombed locations in Georgia.
A united international position is essential to forestall further conflict and loss of life. Russia, the United States and the European Union should push for a statement by the UN Security Council that demands:
All sides immediately cease hostilities and withdraw all forces to prior positions.
Georgia abide by all laws of war, protect the civilian population and guarantee access to humanitarian assistance.
Russia refrain from taking steps outside its peacekeeping and negotiator mandate, and close its border to any paramilitaries attempting to cross into Georgia.
All parties work to ensure calm throughout the region, including Abkhazia.
It is particularly important that humanitarian assistance be immediately provided to the 75,000 civilians living in South Ossetia. Authorities need to ensure that there is full access to water, food and medical services. Roads should be open to emergency and humanitarian traffic. Persons who wish to evacuate should be allowed free passage, but no forced displacements should occur. All civilians and combatants should be assured protection according to international law and human rights obligations, and those who breach these obligations should be held accountable.
Crisis Group has repeatedly warned of the dangers of a resumption of intense conflict in South Ossetia in the absence of a substantive dialogue between the sides. Since hostilities resumed between Georgians and South Ossetians in summer 2004, confidence between the two has been low and the security situation volatile. While the South Ossetians have been demanding full independence from Georgia, Tbilisi has tried to encourage them to return to Georgia. All negotiations have been stalled since summer 2006 contributing to increasing tensions and the likelihood that any violence could quickly spiral out of control. Efforts were made on 7 August to hold talks between Georgians and South Ossetians in the presence of Russian representatives but failed.
There is a real danger that the conflict will expand beyond South Ossetia to Abkhazia and other parts of Georgia. Abkhazia has announced that it will deploy forces to its border with Georgia in the Gali region, in direct violation of the 1994 Moscow ceasefire agreement. Gali is predominantly populated by ethnic Georgians. All efforts must be made to assure their security and no extension of the conflict.
For several years, Georgia has accused Russia of supporting the South Ossetians with military aid and argued that it cannot be an honest broker in the conflict’s resolution. Tbilisi wants a change in the negotiations and peacekeeping formats in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. While this should be considered in principle, and with a greater role for the European Union, it is not the right time to insist on a change of negotiations format to restart talks. The immediate focus should be on ceasing hostilities and responding to the humanitarian crisis.