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Uncovering truth about Georgia conflict

By Stephanie Holmes
BBC News

As accusations of indiscriminate violence, murder and genocide are hurled between Russia and Georgia over the South Ossetia conflict, human rights investigators are painstakingly trying to establish the facts on the ground.

A Georgian woman stands near a damaged apartment block in Gori, Georgia
Residential buildings were hit during the conflict

Researchers suggest both sides may have violated the codes of war - using violence that was either disproportionate or indiscriminate, or both - claims that the International Criminal Court is currently investigating.

Russian prosecutors have announced they are opening criminal cases into the deaths of 133 civilians who they say were killed by Georgian forces.

Initially, however, Russia suggested more than 1,500 people had died in the conflict.

Last week, Georgia filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice, based at The Hague, alleging the country had attempted to ethnically cleanse Georgians from the breakaway regions.

Uncovering the facts - even of very recent history - becomes a battle in itself when people are displaced and desperate.

"Gathering comprehensive data about the dead from civilians is a time-consuming task," Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch's deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, told BBC News.

"We have to cross-check data and check that people are not misidentified or miscounted."

Shifting status

Neighbours who take up arms during a conflict, for example, shift status, becoming combatants rather than civilians, which can confuse calculations of civilian death tolls.

A worker in the Georgian port city of Poti points out damage from alleged cluster bombs dropped during a Russian airstrike
Russian forces have been accused of using cluster bombs
"We have to make sure there is no double-counting - if a body is moved, we have to be careful not to count it twice - maybe it is counted once in the village itself and then it could be counted again in the city morgue," Ms Denber said.

"To get really accurate figures you would really have to go to every single village."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - which has just gained access to South Ossetia - says it hopes to uncover the truth by remaining neutral and only revealing what its told - by survivors, eyewitnesses and relatives - to relevant authorities.

"The work of the ICRC is totally confidential," spokeswoman Jessica Barry explained from the Georgian capital, Tblisi.

"We do take allegations of arrests, of people missing or reported dead. We can also offer our services to the authorities for the transfer of mortal remains.

"All the work we do is gathering confidential information which we share with the authorities with the aim of finding out the location of loved ones for the civilian population."

War of words

The ferocity of the conflict on the ground was echoed in the way both Russian and Georgian officials conducted a media war, making ever graver accusations against each other, competing for television airtime and giving spiralling civilian death tolls.

A woman walks past propaganda poster depicting Russian aggression
The war has been played out both in the media and on the ground
All of which muddies the waters when trying to establish if human rights and international laws have been violated.

"There has been a lot of controversy about the Russian figures," says HRW's Rachel Denber.

"When that figure came out - of 1,500 dead - it wasn't very helpful, it didn't provide any sourcing or methodology, there were no details about how the figure was calculated. We certainly can't confirm it."

"The problem here is that when Russia puts out a figure like that it does two things - it distracts attention from where there are violations and from the real scale of what is happening."

The organisation puts the civilian death toll in the dozens, rather than the hundreds.

Responsibility to protect

As well as multiple rocket launchers mounted on four-wheel drives, known as Grads, campaigners say cluster munitions - which can contain hundreds of smaller bomblets - were used during the conflict. Both these weapons are intrinsically indiscriminate, they say.

Disproportionate attacks are prohibited [...] if there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don't fire
Rachel Denber, Human Rights Watch

"If you have a military objective then the Grad rocket is not a targeted weapon, civilians are going to get hit and that is exactly what happened, and happened on a significant scale. The proximity was such that it was indiscriminate," Ms Denber said.

She cited a reported case in which Russian forces dropped bombs on a convoy of passenger cars fleeing Georgia's Gori district, and another in which Georgian soldiers pursued armed South Ossetian militias using tanks, driving and firing through a residential neighbourhood.

"The rule is that disproportionate attacks are prohibited. In other words, if you have your eye on a military target, and there is likely to be civilian damage excessive in relation to the expected military gain, you don't fire," Ms Denber said.

Although the fighting has now stopped, violations continue, she says, with Russian forces failing to protect civilians in areas of Georgia and South Ossetia that they control - a key part of the international law governing behaviour during war.

"We have numerous stories of Ossetian forces roving around ethnic Georgian villages - running around, looting homes, torching them," she said.

"We are looking into other accounts of violence, of people being robbed at gunpoint. These are areas that Russian forces have control over - it is their responsibility to protect them."


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