Living in Limbo – Rights of Ethnic Georgians Returnees to the Gali District of Abkhazia
See document by link: www.hrw.org/reports/2011/07/15/living-limbo-0
Almost 18 years after a cease-fire ended the Georgian-Abkhaz war, the conflict over the breakaway region of Abkhazia remains as far from a political resolution as ever, leaving in limbo the lives of more than 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Georgians displaced by the conflict. The only area of Abkhazia where the de facto authorities in the breakaway region have allowed returns of displaced persons is the southernmost district of Gali, where ethnic Georgians constituted 96 percent of the pre- conflict population. About 47,000 displaced people have returned to their homes in Gali district. But the Abkhaz authorities have erected barriers to their enjoyment of a range of civil and political rights.
This report documents the Abkhaz authorities’ arbitrary interference with returnees’ rights to freedom of movement, education, and other rights in Abkhazia. It is based on interviews with more than one hundred Gali residents conducted on both sides of the administrative boundary line, officials of the de facto Abkhaz administration, and representatives of international governmental and non-governmental organizations working in Abkhazia.
Armed conflict broke out in Abkhazia between the Georgian military and breakaway Abkhaz forces in summer 1992. A ceasefire agreed in May 1994 largely held until August 2008, when a short war broke out between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia, another breakaway region of Georgia. The war in South Ossetia significantly altered the situation in Abkhazia as well. Abkhaz security forces occupied the Kodori gorge, the only pre-conflict part of Abkhazia over which the Georgian government had previously retained control, and all existing negotiations and conflict resolution mechanisms collapsed.
Although Russia and several other states have recognized Abkhazia, the territory is internationally recognized as part of Georgia.
Following its recognition of Abkhazia in December 2008, Russia vetoed the extension of the Organization for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) mission in Georgia, arguing that the OSCE should have separate missions in South Ossetia and Georgia. Using a similar argument, in June 2009, Russia vetoed the extension of the mandate for United Nations Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), which had maintained more than 120 military observers along the ceasefire line for 16 years and had led international efforts to resolve the conflict in Abkhazia. Russian border guards replaced Russian peacekeepers on the Abkhaz side of the administrative boundary line.
The Georgian and Abkhaz sides have continued talks under various auspices, but negotiations have made little progress. In the face of the political stalemate there is little or no prospect for the dignified and secure return of the thousands of people who remain displaced from their homes in Abkhazia. For a short period in 1994, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) facilitated the resettlement of several hundred people to Gali district. The spontaneous return of Gali residents continued well after that. In early 1999 the Abkhaz authorities launched a unilateral initiative to implement returns to Gali district. Many families went back, initially commuting daily across the ceasefire line, and migrating seasonally to tend their fields and look after their property.
However, the Abkhaz authorities’ arbitrary interference with the rights of ethnic Georgian returnees has driven some of those who have returned to their homes to leave Gali district and go back to uncontested areas of Georgia. This in turn has presented serious obstacles for larger scale, sustainable returns of displaced persons to their homes in the breakaway region.
The de facto authorities require all residents of Abkhazia to obtain Abkhaz passports as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of certain rights, such as the right to work in the public sector, to vote and run for public office, to obtain a high school diploma, to undertake property transactions or to commute freely across the administrative boundary line which separates Abkhazia from uncontested areas of Georgia.
The procedure for obtaining such documents is discriminatory and onerous for ethnic Georgian returnees. Abkhaz law automatically grants the right to a passport to all ethnic Abkhaz as well as to all people, regardless of their ethnicity, who had resided in Abkhazia for at least five years at the time of the 1999 declaration of independence. These criteria automatically exclude ethnic Georgians who were displaced by the fighting in 1992-1993 but who subsequently returned and are now resident in Gali district.
Ethnic Georgians can receive Abkhaz passports through naturalization. However this process is excessively burdensome, requiring ethnic Georgians to collect, translate, and file a large number of documents, some of which they do not always possess. Moreover, the process requires ethnic Georgians to renounce their Georgian citizenship. The Abkhaz authorities emphasize that they do not compel anyone to obtain Abkhaz citizenship. However by putting in place a system that requires an individual to obtain the Abkhaz passport in order to enjoy certain rights, the authorities are arbitrarily interfering with those rights.
The ability to cross back and forth across the administrative boundary line is particularly important to returnees because the daily social, economic, and family life of many Gali returnees is on both sides of this line: while they may live in Gali district, they visit close relatives, receive Georgian government social benefits, obtain timely medical care, and in some cases attend school, on the other side of the boundary, often just several kilometers away in the town of Zugdidi.
However, since August 2008 the Abkhaz authorities have restricted returnees’ ability to commute across the boundary by eliminating three of the four “official” crossing points, and by requiring special crossing permits for those who do not possess Abkhaz passports. As a result, many who wish to cross the administrative boundary must first make a circuitous and time-consuming trip to Gali’s administrative center, the town of Gali, to obtain a permit. Those who do not have the time or the means to travel to Gali town sometimes resort to crossing unofficially, thereby risking detention, fines, and imprisonment. The restrictions imposed by the Abkhaz authorities are arbitrary and constitute an onerous burden, especially for those who live in rural areas that are close to the boundary yet far from the town of Gali.
Access to Georgian-language education for ethnic Georgians living in Gali district is also restricted. Prior to the conflict in 1990s, Georgian was the language of instruction for almost all schools in Gali district. Since 1995 the Abkhaz authorities have gradually introduced Russian as the main language of instruction, reducing the availability of Georgian language education, especially in upper Gali. Abkhazia’s new education policy has created barriers to education, as the majority of school-age children living in Gali district do not speak Russian. The policy has also affected the quality of education as there are not enough qualified Russian-speaking teachers in the Gali district to teach in Russian. As a result, some parents are moving their children to those schools in the district where the curriculum is still in Georgian. Other students are leaving Gali altogether to continue their education in territory controlled by the Georgian government.
Eleven schools in lower Gali continue to teach in Georgian, but their future status as Georgian-language schools remains uncertain. Teachers and parents worry that as the Abkhaz authorities devote more resources to ensuring Russian as the language of instruction in all schools in Gali, Georgian-language schools will disappear altogether. If that happens, native Georgian-language speakers would not have the same access to education in their mother tongue as Abkhaz and Russian residents of Abkhazia.
Many ethnic Georgians in the Gali district express serious concern about personal security and protection against violent crime. These concerns are an important factor both for those who have returned to Gali and are deciding whether to stay or leave again for uncontested areas of Georgia and for those who are still waiting to decide whether to return to their homes in Gali. Ethnic Georgians from Gali overwhelmingly conveyed to Human Rights Watch a sense of acute vulnerability to theft, kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, extortion and other crimes. According to the former UN Special Representative on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, this vulnerability is largely due to the weakness in the rule of law and administration of justice in the area, as well as deep, mutual distrust between the Georgian population and the Abkhaz security forces.
Although Abkhazia is not recognized as an independent state under international law, the Abkhaz authorities nevertheless have obligations under international law to respect human rights. Under international law, all human rights guarantees applicable within the territory of Georgia also apply to Abkhazia, and the de facto authorities in Abkhazia, as a power with effective control, are obligated to respect and protect those guarantees.
Abkhazia’s constitution explicitly guarantees the rights and freedoms provided in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international human rights treaties. Without prejudice to Abkhazia’s status, the authorities in Abkhazia have an obligation to ensure freedom of movement in both directions across the administrative boundary, and nondiscrimination, in particular with regard to the issuance of identity documents and the right to education. Since they exercise effective control in Abkhazia, the de facto authorities also bear primary responsibility, and therefore a duty, for ensuring the safety and security of the local residents.
Until UNOMIG’s mandate was terminated in 2009, the UN maintained a human rights office in Abkhazia, which was jointly staffed by the OSCE and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). This office had a protection mandate, including to gather information from victims and witnesses and to follow up on individual complaints. UNOMIG also reported biannually to the Secretary General. Although a relative newcomer to the conflict, the European Union has also become a significant player as the largest donor funding rehabilitation and confidence-building projects. In response to the 2008 conflict, Brussels also deployed an unarmed civilian monitoring mission (EUMM) to Georgia, but its monitors are denied access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although these institutions continue to send high-level visits to Abkhazia, and several UN agencies maintain a field presence in Abkhazia, including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), currently there is no agency on the ground with a broad human rights monitoring and reporting mandate.
Abkhazia is now moving rapidly to institutionalize its sovereignty, but this cannot come at the cost of the rights of ethnic Georgians. After the forced withdrawal of the UN and OSCE from Abkhazia there are fewer possibilities for monitoring and protection, leaving ethnic Georgians in Gali more vulnerable than ever. The Abkhaz authorities need to act now to recognize and protect the rights of all people in Abkhazia, including ethnic Georgians in Gali district. Failure to do so will at best cause tens of thousands of people to live in a constant state of anxiety and limbo. At worst, it could force large numbers of Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians to leave their homes forever. Both of these injustices can and should be averted.