Guest Post: The Status of the Territory Unchanged: Russia’s Treaties with Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia

by Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller

[Natia Kalandarishvili-Mueller is a Lecturer in Humanitarian Law at Tbilisi State University, Institute of International Law, Faculty of Law, and a PhD Candidate at the University of Essex, School of Law. The views expressed in the post are that of the author only.]

Russia still occupies twenty percent of Georgian territory. On 24 November 2014, the Russian Federation and Abkhazia, one of Georgia’s breakaway region, signed a Treaty on Alliance and Strategic Partnership. The document is an avenue for Abkhazia’s incorporation into Russia’s military, economic, social and legal space. Particularly, it aims to create a common security and defence system and armed forces of Russia and Abkhazia in the form of joint defence and border protection forces and unifies standards of warfare management and law enforcement. Moscow also envisages the breakaway region’s support with military equipment. The provisions provide for the harmonization of the breakaway region’s legislation not only with that of Russia, but also with the standards of the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia also guarantees helping Abkhazia not only with its international recognition, but also facilitating Abkhazia’s membership in international organizations. On 18 March 2015, Russia and the other one of Georgia’s breakaway regions, South Ossetia, also signed a Treaty on Alliance and Integration (and here) containing basically the same provisions.

The Government of Georgia regards both these treaties as Russian annexation of Georgian territories (here and here). Georgia’s view is not without grounds. As a whole, the aforementioned documents also undermine the right to return and the right to self-determination of ethnic Georgians and their descendants who have been forced to flee their homes during the 1990s and 2008 armed conflicts. At present, the issue of the ethnic cleansing of Georgians is dealt with by the ICC, but only in the context of the 2008 armed conflict. The ICC Prosecutor’s Office Report on Preliminary Examination Activities (December 2014) observed that

[…] there is a reasonable basis to believe that South Ossetian forces carried out a widespread and systematic attack against the ethnic Georgian civilian population in South Ossetia and adjacent areas in the context of the armed conflict in the period from August 2008 through October 2008 that amounted to the crime against humanity of forcible transfer of ethnic Georgians under article 7(1)(d). There is a reasonable basis to believe that these forces also committed war crimes of pillaging under 8(2)(b)(xvi) and/or article 8(2)(e)(v) and destroying civilian property belonging to ethnic Georgians under article 8(2)(a)(iv) and/or article 8(2)(e)(xii) in the same period. (para. 140)

Hence, from the perspective of international law, the signed treaties raise complex issues such as the legality of the use of force, state formation, the management of natural resources, and the validity of these very treaties in light of the VCLT of 1969, occupation law, territorial annexation and the legality of self-determination of these territories. This post chooses to focus on the last three aspects, namely the interplay of the principles of annexation and self-determination in light of occupation law. Two questions may, therefore, be posed in light of the signed treaties:

  1. According to International Humanitarian Law (IHL), what is the relationship between occupation law and annexation of territory?
  2. What is the relevant legal framework for self-determination in international law and how may it be connected with occupation law?


Occupation Law and the Annexation of Territory

In light of the first question, I argue that even when an instance of annexation of territory takes place, the situation of occupation continues from the perspective of IHL, and the responsibility of the occupying power vis-à-vis the civilian population persists. Hence, no matter what type of treaty is forged or which agreements are achieved by Russia and the breakaway regions of Georgia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia will still remain occupied in light of Article 42 HR 1907. This stance echoes the reading of Article 47 of the GC IV, which states that:

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

Likewise, the commentary to Article 47 regards the relationship between situations of occupation and those of annexation in the following way:

[…] an Occupying Power continues to be bound to apply the Convention as a whole even when, in disregard of the rules of international law, it claims during a conflict to have annexed all or part of an occupied territory.

Dinstein, too, considers that an occupant cannot take the title, i.e. the possession of the territory it occupies. The displaced sovereign, therefore, remains to be holding the title de jure and the annexation of the occupied territory by the occupant is prohibited (Y. Dinstein, The International Law of Belligerent Occupation, Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 49). Thus “any unilateral annexation of an occupied territory – in whole or in part – by the Occupying Power would be legally stillborn” (ibid. p. 50). Therefore, IHL does not fall mute, as it bases its application on the facts on the ground. The fact that Russia continues to exert effective control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia in light of Article 42 HR 1907 cannot be swept under the carpet. Even if Russia considers signing these treaties to be valid because it has herself recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as sovereign states, in light of the separability of ius ad bellum and ius in bello, for IHL the situation remains unchanged:

This complete separation between ius ad bellum and ius in bello implies that IHL applies whenever there is de facto armed conflict, however that conflict can be qualified under ius ad bellum, and that no ius ad bellum arguments may be used in interpreting IHL. (M. Sassòli, A.A Bouvier, et al., How Does Law Protect In War? ICRC, Vol. I, 2006, p. 103)


Occupation Law and Self-Determination

In light of the second question, I argue that a situation of occupation may end with self-determination. However, resorting to self-determination may only be justified once the effective control of the occupant over the territory is completely relinquished and the process of self-determination is free from any third-party interference, particularly by the former occupant. Furthermore, self-determination, if exercised contrary to the international law principles of state sovereignty and territorial inviolability, undermines these very principles. In 1970, the Secretary General of the UN stated that:

… as far as the question of secession of a particular section of a Member State is concerned, the United Nations attitude is unequivocable. As an international organisation, the United Nations has never accepted and does not accept and I do not believe it will ever accept a principle of secession of a part of a Member State. (U. Thant, “Secretary General’s Press Conferences” (1970) 7:2 UN Monthly Chronicle 34 at 36)

There are two forms of self-determination: external and internal (A. Cassese, Self-Determination of Peoples: A Legal Reappraisal, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 5). Internal self-determination means that an entity establishes its self-government within the internationally recognized borders of a state (C.A. Monteux, Institution Building in Kosovo: the Role of International Actors and the Question of Legitimacy, London School of Economics and Political Science, PhD thesis, 2009, p. 90). In practice, internal self-determination can take various forms, from simple cultural autonomy to the canton system in Switzerland (C. Dominicé, The Secession of the Canton of Jura in Switzerland, in Secession: International Law Perspectives, in M. G. Kohen (ed.), Cambridge University, 2006, pp. 453–469).

External self-determination, on the other hand, means that an entity determines its status under international law, establishes its position among the international community and regulates its relation with other states free from the intervention of any state (supra, C.A. Monteux, Institution Building in Kosovo: the Role of International Actors and the Question of Legitimacy, p. 90). Direct recourse to external self-determination (i.e., secession) could undermine not only the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, as mentioned above, but render the whole concept of self-determination unjust. As such, this right has been linked to the colonial period and was aimed to free the people from the oppressing regimes. In its decision, the Supreme Court of Canada makes this point explicit:

International law contains neither a right of unilateral secession nor the explicit denial of such a right, although such a denial is, to some extent, implicit in the exceptional circumstances required for secession to be permitted under the right of a people to self-determination, e.g., the right of secession that arises in the exceptional situation of an oppressed or colonial people […]. (Reference RE Secession of Quebec Supreme Court of Canada (1998) 2. S.C.R. 217 §112)

Further, the Canadian Supreme Court views external self-determination as a step of last resort in particular situations:

The recognized sources of international law establish that the right to self-determination of a people is normally fulfilled through internal self-determination – a people’s pursuit of its political, economic, social and cultural development within the framework of an existing state. A right to external self-determination (which in this case potentially takes the form of the assertion of a right to unilateral secession) arises in only the most extreme of cases and, even then, under carefully defined circumstances. (ibid., § 126)

It has to be mentioned that the circumstances which would pronounce the conditions for external self-determination in international law lack clarity. This is also evidenced by the stance the ICJ took in the advisory opinion on Accordance of International Law of the Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Respect of Kosovo, when it only dealt with the issue of whether or not Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence was in accordance with international law (§ 49-56 and § 82-83). Based on arguments of those in favor of external self-determination, Borgen summarized one possible way such a rule could be formulated:

“Any attempt to claim legal secession “that is, where secession trumps territorial integrity” must at least show that:

  1. 1. the secessionists are a “people” (in the ethnographic sense);

  2. 2. the state from which they are seceding seriously violates their human rights; and

  3. 3. there are no other effective remedies under either domestic law or international law” (C.J. Borgen, Kosovo’s Declaration for Independence: Self-Determination, Secession and Recognition, ASIL Insights, Issue 2, Volume 12, February 29, 2008 available here)

In the context of de-colonisation, the concept of self-determination meant that colonies were allowed to “secede” and form a state on their own. But when it comes to “communities that are not colonies and within existing states, self-determination means ‘internal self-determination’, the pursuit of minority rights within the existing state” (C.J. Borgen, States and International Law: The Problems of Self-determination, Secession, and Recognition in B. Cali (ed.), International Law for International Relations, Oxford, 2009, p. 207).

Therefore, before directly leaping to claims of secession, internal self-determination has to be exercised. In this context, the demographic situation of the territory must not be changed and all those who lived there and who were forcibly transferred away from it have to have a say in the future of its status. At least this is what permeates the logic of international law. This would respectively apply to the Georgians and their descendants who were evicted from Abkhazia and South Ossetia and who were the victims of ethnic cleansing, both during the 1990s armed conflicts and the 2008 war.

Examining self-determination and occupation law in tandem points to the fact that it has to be viewed in light of the element of consent, i.e. who gives consent of the presence of the hostile state on the territory. The lack of consent to be present on one’s territory during military occupation means the previous power/sovereign is absent from the territory and does not exercise effective control over it as any state ought to over its own territory. So that consent is regarded valid, it must not be coerced and be extended by the recognised government of the recognised state (E. Benvenisti, The International Law of Occupation, Oxford University Press, 2012, p. 67).

When an occupant claims not to have effective control over the territory, but remains on the territory either by an alleged invitation of the de facto regime or by a drawn-up treaty, not only the legality of the regime has to be questioned, but also the validity of the treaty has to be examined in light of the VCLT.

In my view, these are the points that bring to the forefront the tension between occupation law and the principle of self-determination. Any recourse to the right of self-determination of a territory should be done only once a situation of occupation has completely ended and even then it should only be exercised without third-party intervention in addition to restoring the original demographic situation. During military occupation, when elections or the determination of the political future of the occupied territory are underway without the genuine consent of the ousted government, the situation on the ground continues to be one of occupation.

[This post has been slightly revised from the previous version that was posted.]

3 Responses

  1. Absolutely correct regarding the laws of war. See also 1919 List of War Crimes created by the Responsibilities Commission at the Paris Peace Conference; Adv. Op., ICJ on the Wall. Dinstein, a former President of Tel Aviv Univ., also addressed the attempted annexation of East Jerusalem.

  2. 1919 List crime # 10: “Usurpation of sovereignty during military occupation.” Available in our Doc. Supps. for International Law and Litigation in the U.S. (West Pub.) or International Criminal Law (Carolina Academic Press).

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