[Patryk I. Labuda is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and a Teaching Assistant at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.]
As Kevin noted last week, the ICC Prosecutor has officially requested authorization to proceed with an investigation into alleged crimes committed during the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. Anticipated by ICC observers for some time, the announcement has prompted speculation about the prospects of a full-blown investigation involving a P5 country (Russia), as well as the geopolitical ramifications of the ICC finally leaving Africa. In this post, I would like to focus on a discreet legal issue with ramifications that may turn out to be equally important in the long run: the Prosecutor’s charges relating to crimes against peacekeepers and why this matters for the future of peacekeeping operations.
In her submission to the Pre-Trial Chamber (PTC), the Prosecutor identifies two primary sets of war crimes and crimes against humanity that fall within her jurisdiction. In addition to the forcible displacement and persecution of ethnic Georgians, the Prosecutor plans to investigate “intentionally directing attacks against Georgian peacekeepers by South Ossetian forces; and against Russian peacekeepers by Georgian forces (Request PTC, para. 2).”
Under the ICC Statute, attacks on peacekeepers are criminalized directly as war crimes. The two relevant provisions are articles 8 (2) (b) (iii) and 8 (2) (e) (iii), which apply to international and non-international armed conflict respectively:
Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict (emphasis added).
If, as is expected, the Pre-Trial Chamber grants the request to open an investigation, the key question facing the Prosecutor will be whether the peacekeepers in the 2008 conflict were really just that – peacekeepers?
While this may seem like an unusual question, it should be emphasized that the facts are highly unusual, too. The Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPKF) in South Ossetia, which was established by the 1992 Sochi Agreement, comprised three battalions of 500 soldiers each provided by Russia, Georgia and North Ossetia. Though not formally a UN-mandated mission, it appears both the Security Council and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe recognized the JPFK as a peacekeeping operation (para. 149). However, the key point is that, unlike UN-mandated peacekeeping, the peacekeepers in South Ossetia were nationals of two of the three parties to the 2008 conflict: Russians and Georgians (South Ossetians were not allowed on the premises of the JPKF). In other words, the ICC Prosecutor’s charges relate to attacks against Russian and Georgian troops – deployed as part of a peacekeeping mission – in the context of an armed conflict where Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian troops fought against one another.
Why does this matter? Although it appears that peacekeeping involving parties to a conflict is not prohibited (e.g. the UN does not appear to have an explicit policy against it, even if peacekeeper nationality has, in the past, been a contentious issue in UN operations), the composition of the JPKF in South Ossetia raises important questions about the application of international law to peacekeeping, and in particular the applicability of international humanitarian law and international criminal law to the attacks that the ICC Prosecutor plans to investigate. Irrespective of whether such peacekeeping is allowed ‘on paper’, I argue that the unusual composition of the JPFK will likely negate some protections that peacekeepers normally enjoy.
The key legal issue that is likely to come before the ICC is who is entitled to peacekeeper status under international law? Although there is no international convention on peacekeeping (the UN Charter is silent on the matter as well), the rules applicable to peacekeeping are derived from over half a century of military practice, and it is generally accepted that three core principles apply: 1) consent of the parties, 2) impartiality and 3) non-use of force beyond self-defence. While there is much debate about the scope of these three principles, especially in recent peace operations, for the purpose of the Georgia investigation the important question will be whether the impartiality criterion was met. (more…)