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One year after war over South Ossetia, minorities still at risk

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One year after the outbreak of the conflict over Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) expresses serious concerns about the current situation of ethnic minorities, especially in the breakaway territories where access is currently denied to international observers.

On 7 August 2008, the long-standing conflict flared up again as Georgia launched an attack on South Ossetia’s capital Tskhinvali after months of escalating tensions. The Russian Federation, which has been supporting the independence of South Ossetia and Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia, immediately counter-attacked with a large-scale offensive and partially occupied Georgian territory.

An internationally brokered cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia was signed in mid August but one year on, the situation remains tense. The withdrawal of Russian troops, although initiated in September 2008, remains incomplete, whilst both sides accuse each other of cease-fire violations and increasing provocation.

The plight of ethnic Georgians from the breakaway region of South Ossetia, whose villages were systematically attacked by Ossetian militias in what the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe denounced as ethnic cleansing, is of particular concern. Among the tens of thousands of persons who remain displaced, around 25,000 ethnic Georgians have still not been able to return there. Concerns have also been expressed by the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities about the situation of ethnic Georgians in the Gali district of Abkhazia.

Mark Lattimer, MRG’s Executive Director, says, ‘Russia and the de facto South-Ossetian and Abkhazian authorities must end any ongoing violations against ethnic Georgians, investigate and bring the perpetrators to justice. In general, the protection of ethnic minorities must be ensured in the areas under their effective control, as well as by the authorities in Georgia as a whole, and internally displaced persons must be allowed to return voluntarily as soon as possible.’

The OSCE Mission to Georgia and the UN Observer Mission in Georgia, both of which had been active for more than fifteen years, were forced to close in June 2009 by a Russian Federation veto on their extension mandate. Both missions were of crucial importance for the security and stability of the region and for the monitoring and prevention of human rights violations, including minority rights. MRG views their withdrawal as a serious hindrance for minority rights protection in Georgia and the two breakaway territories and calls on the Russian Federation to resume talks and allow prompt redeployment of OSCE and UN field operations.

The EU Monitoring Mission in Georgia, established in October 2008, now remains the main international monitoring body reporting on human rights violations. It is however still denied access to the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, despite its mandate.

‘We are deeply concerned about the practical impossibility for international, independent observers to monitor and protect human and minority rights in these territories’, adds Mark Lattimer. ‘Russia and the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia should allow international monitors to access the territories.’

The rights organization also calls on Georgia to comply with its international obligations and address the long-standing minority issues in the country, especially in light of the unstable political and economic situation and the absence of the OSCE.

MRG will shortly be publishing a briefing which will look at minority issues in Georgia. This will be available via MRG's website, www.minorityrights.org

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