This commentary is written by Nika Jeiranashvili, Executive Director of Justice International, and is a reflection of his prior years of experience working to bridge the gap between victims of the 2008 conflict in Georgia and the International Criminal Court. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Georgian political leaders are politicizing an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC), taking advantage of a lack of information from the ICC about its investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Georgia in 2008.
The ICC investigation stems from crimes that allegedly occurred during the 2008 conflict in South Ossetia – a region of Georgia that had been under the control of pro-Russian separatists since the early 1990s. A fresh outbreak of hostilities between South Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces led to Russian military intervention in August 2008, with Georgian troops forced to retreat after a week of fighting. During the conflict, hundreds of people were killed and both sides were accused of using disproportionate force that endangered civilians. Human rights groups reported that ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia were deliberately pushed out of their homes by a campaign of terror that included scores of murders and around 27,000 have been unable to return since. Georgian forces were also accused of attacking Russian troops who had been deployed in the region as peacekeepers under an earlier peace agreement with the separatists.
In the context of recent and highly contested presidential elections, Georgian politicians are trading accusations about who is responsible for a 2008 armed conflict with Russia and about improperly influencing the ICC’s investigation. Mikheil Saakashvili, the former President of Georgia, blames Bidzina Ivanishvili, the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party, and Thea Tsulukiani, the Minister of Justice, for intentionally directing the ICC process against the former Georgian officials, including the ex-president himself. In turn, the president-elect, from the GD party, Salome Zurabishvili, has blamed Saakashvili and his team for “starting the war with Russia.” Numerous other high-level politicians have echoed this accusation, including the chairperson of the Parliament, Irakli Kobakhidze, the Mayor of Tbilisi, Kakha Kaladze, and the chairman of the Parliament’s Defence and Security Committee, Irakli Sesiashvili.
Although a lack of information is a root cause of this situation, the ICC has repeatedly failed to provide updated, neutral information about the Georgian investigation. In the current, tense political environment, the ICC’s continued silence puts it at risk of becoming a delegitimized and politicized tool for destabilization in Georgia.
A Lack of ICC Outreach, Lack of Local Knowledge About the Process
In Georgia, discussions about the ICC have largely taken place outside the public domain. However, the presidential election and statements of high-level officials concerning the 2008 conflict have recently sparked intense public discussions about the ICC. Throughout the last several weeks, the ICC investigation has been a popular topic of public discussions on TV, radio, and social media. Everyone in Georgia is now talking about the process, including former and current government officials, opposition parties and, importantly, former and current army generals.
The recent discussions have revealed that the public is not well informed about the ICC proceedings in Georgia. The public does not know the details of the ICC process—not even basic facts, such as who is under investigation or for what acts. This ignorance of the ICC proceedings not limited to the general public, but also extends to government, academia, and legal communities.
For example, many, if not most, government officials have made statements excluding Georgian forces as part of the investigation. This is untrue, as Georgian forces stand accused of alleged war crimes against Russian peacekeepers and of alleged indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against civilian targets. Senior officials and politicians have also mixed up the ICC investigation with proceedings initiated at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) by the former Government of Georgia against the Russian Federation in 2008. The ICJ proceedings finished in 2011, when the ICJ found that it had no jurisdiction to decide the dispute. But the ICJ is also located in The Hague, and the ICC has not conducted any outreach to explain the difference between the courts and their respective proceedings. Therefore, the Georgian public confuses the two processes and often think there is an inter-state claim being discussed at the ICC.
Public information and outreach activities could help to avoid the spread of mis-information, and could fill in the informational vacuum and minimize misinterpretations of the process from various stakeholders. Unfortunately, the ICC field office has remained detached and appears to ignore local developments. There follows a similar pattern of silence from the OTP and the Trust Fund for Victims. This has contributed to extreme politicization of the ICC investigation, to the extent that the whole process now stands at the risk of losing legitimacy. There is a risk that this may be used to foment disagreement within the armed forces and destabilize the country.
Without outreach from the ICC, Georgian civil society has begun to engage in outreach in order to minimize the threats. We have participated in dozens of media programs and given daily interviews to ensure the public received neutral information about the ongoing process. Lately, we have called on all of the stakeholders to refrain from making any further comments, before the public hears from the ICC.
Nevertheless, everyone is waiting to hear from the ICC itself. But the court is failing to explain its work to the Georgian public. This failure is creating an informational vacuum which is being rapidly filled with incorrect and biased information. This creates false expectations and distrust towards the process.
Risks of Destabilization and Delegitimization
Georgian elites are taking advantage of this widespread ignorance about the ICC proceedings and using it to their political advantage. What’s more, there is a risk that the ongoing politicization of this issue may cause disagreement within Georgia’s armed forces. Several high-level army personnel—both former and current—have made statements about the process. It is the first time that army generals are breaking their silence on this issue. Some of them have raised concerns about the current government’s intentions of using ICC for political purposes. Several former members of the army, some of who are reportedly fighting in the Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists, have shared Facebook video and photo messages, disapproving of politicians’ statements about the 2008 war. Opposition parties have been sharing these messages, calling on the public not to vote for the GD-supported presidential candidate who “blames Georgia for starting the war with Russia.” Others worry that recent statements by politicians can be used as evidence in the trial.
Senior officials from the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) and the ICC Registrar, Peter Lewis, made statements during their visit to Tbilisi in late October. OTP representative Phakiso Mochochoko has assured Georgians that “the process will be free from political influence and the evidence collected by the OTP is aimed at revealing responsibility of individuals, and not on who started the war.” According to Mochochoko, “political opinions are not relevant for the OTP’s aims.” According to the Registrar, statements made politicians must be verified before being considered evidence during the trial.
Despite these comments, the statements of politicians have an enormous effect on the ongoing process and need to be taken seriously by the court. There is a critical need for information as the discussions continue and the way the investigation proceeds will have an effect on the political developments within the country. If the ICC continues ignoring the local developments, it may risk becoming irrelevant and an untrustworthy institution for Georgian public.