“Victims are kidnapped as we speak,” Slow pace continues to undermine Georgia case

Nika Jeiranashvilidirector of the Open Society Georgia Foundation, is demanding greater impetus from the International Criminal Court (ICC), which continues to face criticism for its laboured attempts to find justice almost ten years after the Russo-Georgian conflict began in South Ossetia.

Jeiranashvili, who is also the case’s designated ICC Project Manager, is one of the most outspoken critics of the investigation’s sluggish pace, arguing that very little has been achieved since the investigation began almost two years ago. He now spends most of his time raising awareness for the Georgian case at the ICC court in The Hague, “because if I’m not here, nothing happens.”

There has still not been a single arrest in the case itself. In January 2016, the ICC authorised an investigation into allegations of ethnic cleansing in South Ossetia following lead prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s request in October 2015. An official ICC field office in Georgia was promised in December 2016, but in reality, is expected by January 2018.

The ICC has been interested in the alleged war crimes within the Georgia case for nine years, but only became officially involved in March 2015, after the Georgian government formally suspended their investigation, allowing the ICC to enter the case under complementarity ruling.

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The ICC has been in operation since 2002, but has faced sharp criticism in recent years. © Flickr, 2017.

The complementarity clause ensures that the ICC is used as a court of last resort, once every domestic option has been exhausted and Fadi El Abdallah, official spokesperson for the ICC, says this respect for state sovereignty ensures the court is not responsible for political consequences.

The importance of this particular case has already been discussed in great detail, as it is the ICC’s first case outside of Africa, the first investigation into two international warring parties and a test of the ICC’s resolve against one of Europe’s most influential powers in Russia.

The gravity of the case is not lost on Mr. Jerianashvili, who argues that as our knowledge of Russian involvement in Ukraine in 2014, or Syria in 2016 increases, the court must be wary that it may set a future precedent with Russia and its dealings with international states.

Jeiranashvili notes the growing West vs. Russia rhetoric in a manner akin to Cold War legacies and suggests that the geopolitical ramifications could be enormous, particularly for Ukraine, who see the Georgia probe as a blueprint for any future investigations in their country.

Abdallah stressed the particularly complicated nature of this case and admitted to The Scoop that the investigation into Georgia offered “different challenges” when compared to previous ICC cases that have solely focused on African states.

The ICC have been strongly criticised in the past for a perceived narrow, neo-colonial focus on African states and Jeiranashvili hopes the court is not naïve when understanding how serious Russia’s resistance will be.

He goes further and compares the Georgia situation to a chess game, dividing the difficulties the court faces into practical and technical issues.

The practical issues are centred around the amount of time that has already passed since the alleged war crimes took place. Jeiranashvili argues that ground-level operations are being hindered by the ICC’s lack of experience dealing with a nine year backlog of alleged crimes. Furthermore, many elderly Georgians who were displaced may now have died and “victims are being kidnapped as we speak.”

On the technical side, Russia’s vocal lack of compliance has been one particularly stymieing part of the ICC’s investigation. The Russian government publicly withdrew their signature to the Rome Statute in November 2016, announcing to the world their intention to restrict any international enquiry.

Arresting Russian officials now becomes “difficult and circumstantial” and a failure to indict Russian perpetrators will ensure the entire justice process “loses its value” according to Jeiranashvili.

This is not the first time a lack of co-operation has threatened the ICC’s pursuit of justice. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir became the first sitting president to be indicted by the ICC in 2009, and his government have ensured co-operation has not been forthcoming with any international investigation.

Abdallah stated that ascertaining Russian cooperation is essential “for the good of the victims.” A source close to the Office of the Prosecutor also reiterated collaboration from all sides in the Georgia case was important for the ICC’s application of justice.

There are approximately 28,000 victims in this particular case according to Jeiranashvili, with 27,000 of them considered ethnically Georgian and over 6,300 victims informed the ICC of their experiences by December 2015. The ICC could not confirm how much that number has changed in the two years since.

The Trust Fund for Victims (TFV), which independently operates alongside the ICC, has responsibility for reparations, damages and assistance for victims of crimes punishable under the 1998 Rome Statute. Although they can offer general psychological, educative or property assistance before a defendant is indicted by the court, nothing has transpired for victims in South Ossetia.

The TFV first visited Georgia in September of 2017 says Jeiranashvili, who is pleased that more cooperative work from NGOs and civil society organisations in Georgia has been planned for 2018. Erin Rosenberg, representative of TFV, warned that although the board of directors could decide to begin assistance programmes in Georgia in their next annual meeting, the “resources of the trust fund are significantly insufficient.”

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