Has the U.S. Been Supporting War Criminals in Georgia?

Central Eurasia

Last week the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda, requested the authority to begin an investigation into potential human rights violations committed by Georgia, South Ossetia, and Russian forces during the 2008 August War or “Five-Day War.” Alongside the request, the ICC released a report outlining the alleged crimes committed by all sides that would be further investigated.


The ICC report leaves no party innocent, including the Georgians. Specifically, it states that “the Separate Light Infantry Battalion, the Tank Company of the Separate Armoured Battalion, the Independent Ballistic Tank Battalion, [and] the 1st and 2nd Artillery Brigade supported by the special forces of the Ministry of Interior” are assumed to be responsible for carrying out an attack against Russian peacekeepers. According to the Rome Statute, of which Georgia is a signatory and through which the ICC gains its authority, the killing of peacekeepers is a war crime.

This allegation puts the United States in a difficult situation for its potential support of past war criminals and for future efforts to train Georgian forces. According the “Leahy Law”, the United States is barred from sending any assistance to foreign militaries or police units if there is credible information that the aforementioned unit has committed human rights violations. Since the ICC prosecutor has found credible enough evidence against these Georgia security forces units to request an investigation, the United States will likely have to suspend any aid going to these units in the future.

As detailed in the State Department’s Foreign Military Training Reports from FY2012 to FY2015, the United States has provided three of the allegedly guilty units—the Separate Light Infantry Battalion, 1st Artillery Brigade, and 2nd Artillery Brigade— with over 35 training classes totaling $695,655. Some of this training such as the Field Artillery Captains Career course provides instruction that could be in future war fighting.

Despite Georgia being deemed a “beacon of liberty” by the United States and being a key U.S. ally in the region, the impending ICC investigation illustrates the potential challenges in supporting Georgia.

In addition to the above charges of war crimes, the most significant ICC charge facing Georgia is their potential role in starting the 2008 August War. According to an independent fact finding mission conducted by the European Union sponsored Tagliavini Commission, the Georgians began shelling Tskhinvali, the capital of de-facto South Ossetia on August 7, 2008, thus marking the beginning of the war. In its defense, Georgia argued that the shelling was in response to attacks on its villages; however, the report suggests the shelling of Tskhinvali would not “satisfy the requirements of having been necessary and proportionate.”

During the initial shelling of the capital and other subsequent attacks, Georgian forces utilized multiple rocket-launchers as well as cluster munitions in civilian areas. Cluster munitions cannot accurately distinguish between civilian and military objects, which reportedly resulted in widespread civilian deaths and injuries to in Tskhinvali, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). The international community generally accepts the use of inaccurate and indiscriminate weaponry such as these as a war crime.

As with Georgia’s use of weaponry, Russian forces were also found guilty by the Tagliavini Commission of not taking all necessary steps to minimize civilian deaths. What’s more, there’s evidence they used aerial, artillery, and tank fire strikes indiscriminately, leading to death and injury of civilians, according to HRW. Unless the ICC uncovers new evidence, this accusation is likely to stand.

Georgian forces also reportedly beat and poorly treated several South Ossetians who were detained during the conflict and even allegedly attacked vehicles of South Ossetian civilians who were trying to flee the conflict zone. While an accurate death toll is not available, the EU fact-finding report estimated that 67 Russians and 365 South Ossetians were killed. If the ICC moves forward with its investigation, it will need to determine whether Georgia took all the precautions it could to minimize the loss of civilian lives during the August War.

Experts generally agree that South Ossetians also participated in the indiscriminate and widespread destruction of ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia. According to information available to the Prosecutor of the ICC, this included the beating, looting, raping, and killing of civilians, as well as the destruction of some 5,000 homes. During these attempts to push out the ethnic Georgians from South Ossetian territory, thousands were displaced and are still estranged from their homes.

During previous investigations into the August War, Russia had accused the Georgians of trying to inflict genocide and ethnic cleansing against South Ossetians. So far, these accusations seem unfounded, but the possibility that Russians and South Ossetians participated in ethnic cleansing against ethnic Georgians in the region isn’t completely unlikely. Bensouda, who requested the new investigation, estimates that “the ethnic Georgian population in the conflict zone was reduced by at least 75%.” In short: there seems to be ample evidence available to the ICC that the ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians living in South Ossetia did indeed occur.

Even if the ICC assigns Georgia sole responsibility for sparking the August 2008 clashes, the Russian military response will likely be deemed unquestionably quick and almost surely unjustified, as it was in the initial Tagliavini Report. While the Tagliavini Commission concluded that Russia’s initial actions in response to attacks on their peacekeepers was legal, the additional offensives by Russian forces were deemed extreme and unjustified, which will likely be reaffirmed by the ICC.

The ICC hopes to undertake an investigation of numerous war crimes committed by all sides in the war. While the conclusions will undoubtedly have vast affects on the people and countries involved in the war, what the investigation uncovers may also have consequences for the United States. However, these allegations are, as of now, just that—allegations—so it would be unfair to take action this early, but there is a strong chance that action will be taken in the near future. If Georgia is found guilty of war crimes and other crimes against humanity this may raise serious questions over U.S. aid.


Jackie Mahler is an Intern at Security Assistance Monitor covering Central Eurasia