ICC to investigate possible Russian war crimes

Evidence peacekeepers and civilians killed in 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia

As tensions mount between Russia and the West over the MH17 disaster and Moscow's intervention in Syria, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has announced an investigation into possible war crimes during the five-day conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008.

Fatou Bensouda has asked ICC judges to sanction the investigation on the basis that peacekeepers may have been killed by both sides, and that there's evidence that up to 113 ethnic Georgian civilians may have been killed by soldiers of the Russian-backed breakaway state of South Ossetia.

The situation in Georgia had been under preliminary examination by her office since August 2008, Ms Bensouda said yesterday, and now “according to my analysis, there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed during this conflict”.

Based on the evidence gathered during the investigation, the prosecutor warned, she would ask the court to issue summonses or arrest warrants against those “most responsible for the crimes alleged to have been committed in Georgia – no matter who they are”.

Significant decision

Given the collapse of the case against Kenya's president Uhuru Kenyatta, the refusal of South Africa to arrest fugitive Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, and South African president Jacob Zuma's warning last Monday that he now plans to withdraw his country from the ICC, the prosecutor is unlikely to pursue any new case unless she believes the evidence is compelling.

Ms Bensouda's decision on Georgia is also significant because it is only the third time in the 12-year history of the court that an ICC prosecutor has opened an investigation solely with the authorisation of the court's judges – and without referral by a member state or by the UN Security Council.

In theory, the ICC judges could turn down the prosecutor's request, but that would be without precedent, even in a situation in which the new investigation could potentially inflame international relations, most likely by provoking an angry reaction from Russia's president Vladimir Putin.

Regarded as the first European war of the 21st century, the fighting in 2008 took place in the Transcaucasia region, strategically important as the border with the Middle East.

Russian invasion

As a result of fighting between Ossetian separatists and ethnic Georgians, the Georgian army was sent to South Ossetia. In response, Russia accused Georgia of aggression against South Ossetia and launched a military invasion of the region. More than 1,000 people were killed over five days.

The office of the prosecutor said there was evidence that some 18,500 people had been uprooted from their homes during a “forcible displacement campaign” by the South Ossetian authorities – and that the ethnic Georgian population in the region had been “reduced by at least 75 per cent”.

"It's seven years since the 2008 war and no effective national investigation of what happened has been carried out by the Georgian authorities," said Ana Natsvlishvili, chair of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association, welcoming Ms Bensouda's intervention.

Nika Jeiranashvili of the Open Society Georgia Foundation agreed, describing the prosecutor's investigation as "a big first step towards finding out the truth about the gross human rights violations" that took place in the country less than decade ago.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court