POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda is seeking authorization to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed seven years ago in the context of a clash between Russia and Georgia. The conflict involves the effort by the former Soviet Union Republic Georgia to retain control of its region of South Ossetia.
In an October 13, 2015 Request for Authorization, the Prosecutor asks an ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I to authorize investigation of possible crimes within ICC jurisdiction committed between July 1 and October 10, 2008 in South Ossetia. In 2008, South Ossetian rebel forces took military action to gain independence, and Georgia responded with force to retain control. The Russian Federation sent military forces into South Ossetia to support the rebels. These forces then occupied South Ossetia during the time at issue.
After hundreds of people were killed and thousands of ethnic Georgians were forcibly displaced from their homes in South Ossetia, both Georgia and Russia maintained in the area troops designated as peacekeeping forces.
The Prosecutor’s Request for Authorization finds, pursuant to Rome Statute Article 15, a reasonable basis to believe that South Ossetian forces committed war crimes and crimes against humanity relating to forcible displacement of ethnic Georgians, and that war crimes were committed by South Ossetian forces against Georgian peacekeepers and by Georgian forces against Russian peacekeepers.
The submission suggests that further investigation, if authorized, might implicate Russian nationals in criminal activity. It notes substantial military, financial, and other assistance provided by Russia to South Ossetia and states that available information indicates that South Ossetian forces could not have continued with forcible displacement of ethnic Georgians “but for the occupation of Georgian territory by Russian armed forces and the military advances that preceded the occupation.” Pointedly, “information available indicates that at least some members of the Russian armed forces participated” in war crimes relating to displacement. Related charges of crimes against humanity would require evidence that Russian military or governmental authorities pursued a policy of displacing ethnic Georgians. The report states that such evidence is lacking “at this stage.”
Authorization to investigate would represent the first time the ICC has addressed a conflict on the European continent as all other nine currently open situations before the ICC involve countries on the African continent.
ICC entry would also be bold because the ICC would be intervening on its own initiative into a conflict involving a major world power and in a situation where there is an “ongoing tense relationship between Georgia and the Russian Federation” noted in the report. As a State Party to Rome Statute, Georgia could have referred the matter to the ICC, but it did not. The Prosecutor is pursuing this matter on her own initiative, following up on her predecessor’s initiative to open a preliminary examination of the situation in Georgia in August 2008.
As a State Party, Georgia has accepted obligations set out in Part 9 of the Rome Statute to cooperate with ICC investigations. Russia did not ratify the treaty establishing the Rome Statute, but it did sign it, and Russia also acceded to the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Article 18(a) of the VCLT requires a State that has signed a treaty “to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of a treaty.” Given the nature of the conflict at issue, however, the cooperation of the parties involved may be tailored to accord with partisan interests. The Prosecutor reports that she has engaged with, and received information from, authorities in Georgia and Russia. She cautions, however, that “[w]hen assessing the information in [her] possession, the Prosecutor has…taken into account the possible bias and interests from parties to the conflict, and has therefore primarily focused…examination on allegations corroborated by third parties.”
In support of her request for authorization, the Prosecutor notes receipt of requests from several possible victims of the conflict and from seven Georgian and international human rights organizations seeking justice for victims and punishment of the perpetrators.
An ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I must now decide whether to grant the request for investigation. If the Chamber does so, the ICC will enter a new and challenging phase in its work.