Friday, August 15, 2008

I should have said we should favour the weaker side as their civilians are likely to make up most of the victims of any conflict

I've made a mistake in saying the EU should stay entirely neutral in the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

I still suspect President Saakashvili of Georgia wanted this conflict, thinking it might bring enough pressure on Russia from the EU and US to get Russian troops to leave South Ossetia and Abkhazia and allow him to fulfill his election pledge to re-unify Georgia, despite the majority of the populations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia never having wanted to be part of Georgia - and fearing a repeat of the ethnic cleansing carried out by both sides in the 1992 civil war.

I still suspect the Bush administration has fuelled the conflict by encouraging Saakashvili not to compromise with the Russians or separatists and vague but tough sounding promises of support.

However the Russian government and the South Ossetian and Abkhazian militias all have a record of ethnic cleansing and human rights abuses as bad and probably even worse than that of the Georgian government - and South Ossetian forces bombardment of Georgian villages on August 1st may have been co-ordinated with Russian forces which built up rapidly in the area in the months before war broke out. What's more Russia's military is so much larger and better equipped than Georgia's was that it should have been obvious that Russian forces would win and so the biggest threat was of Russian and South Ossetian forces killing Georgian civilians rather than Georgian forces killing South Ossetians.

Western journalists and UN observers have reported that Russian forces are standing by while South Ossetian militia-men steal from, rape and murder Georgian civilians (e.g watch the first video on this page from Channel 4 News, UK).
HRW Report the militias have burned Georgian villages in South Ossetia.

Nor do Russian forces have any right to still be in the main part of Georgia - where the majority of the population want to be part of Georgia, or to have continued airstrikes even after the Georgian military was defeated. Human Rights Watch observers say Russian planes have killed civilians by using cluster bombs on Georgian towns. This is a war crime - just like the same practice by NATO forces in Kosovo in 1999 - and one war crime does not cancel out another. Both sides have also used rocket launchers in town centres, killing civilians - the Russians in Gori in Georgia and (before Georgian forces' defeat) by both sides in Tkhsinvali in South Ossetia.
Russia's government and military are responsible for this and for the actions of the Ossetian militia-men they arm, train and fight alongside.

Russian troops have also aided Ossetian civilians in south Ossetia to escape from the war zone to North Ossetia - but this may be as much for propaganda value as for humanitarian motives.

This all seems like another set of moves in the international chess game among governments for power and influence. None of the players can be entirely absolved of responsibility for treating their own and other countries' people as pawns whose lives can be sacrificed to achieve 'strategic aims, but when, as with Georgia and Russia, the two sides are so unequal in power, we should favour the weaker side to try and prevent the stronger one allowing its proxies to run riot killing Georgian civilians.

That probably requires a new UN peacekeeping force in a zone on either side of the border between central Georgia and South Ossetia. This would help humanitarian aid and observers to get to civilians and internally displaced refugees of all ethnic groups. A UN General Assembly resolution calling for this and for Russian forces to withdraw back to their positions of July 31st this year and prevent Ossetian militias targeting Georgian civilians in Ossetia could also be put forward, since Russia could veto any Security Council resolution.

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