For Immediate Release

EU: Focus on Civilian Protection at Georgia-Russia Talks

International Meeting on Conflict to Start October 15

GENEVA - The European Union should
emphasize the right of all people to return to their homes in Georgia
at this week's talks on the recent conflict over South Ossetia, Human
Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch also urged the EU to expand
the mandate of its observer mission in Georgia to include the
protection of civilians.

International talks on security
and stability in the region following the August armed conflict between
Russia and Georgia are to take place on October 15 in Geneva, hosted by
the European Union, the United Nations, and the Organization for
Security and Cooperation in Europe. Human Rights Watch said they should
focus on protecting civilians and holding both sides to account for
their abuses of human rights and violations of the laws of war.

"Civilians bore the brunt of this conflict," said Rachel
Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Tens
of thousands had to flee, and now they need safe and secure conditions
so they can return to their homes."

In a letter
to EU foreign ministers, Human Rights Watch highlighted the plight of
ethnic Georgians from villages north and east of South Ossetia's
capital, Tskhinvali, which were systematically looted and burned by
Ossetian militias after the conflict ended. The letter said that the
villagers have no homes to return to and no guarantees of protection
and security should they attempt to go back and rebuild.
  "Authorities in South Ossetia have sent mixed messages
about the right of ethnic Georgians from these villages to return, and
it isn't clear what Russia's message is," said Denber. "The EU should
make sure all sides unequivocally acknowledge the right to return and
insist they work on getting people home again."

According to the Russian human rights organization
Memorial, most Ossetians who fled to Russia to escape the fighting in
South Ossetia have returned to their homes, many of which were damaged
or destroyed.


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Human Rights Watch also said that Georgian, Russian, and
Ossetian forces committed violations of international human rights and
humanitarian law. Human Rights Watch urged the EU to press all sides to
hold credible and transparent investigations into serious violations by
forces and groups under their control or in areas under their control,
and to hold those responsible to account for their abuses.

Human Rights Watch also called on the EU to add protection
of civilians to the mandate of the European Union Monitoring Mission in
Georgia (EUMM), so the mission's monitors can ensure security as people
displaced from the conflict return to their homes in Georgia's Gori
district, which is adjacent to South Ossetia and had been occupied by
Russian forces. During the nearly two months when Russian forces had
control over the area they failed to ensure protection for civilians,
creating a security vacuum that allowed Ossetian militias and criminal
elements free reign to attack people. As a result, thousands more fled
even after the fighting ended. After Russian forces completed their
withdrawal from the adjacent territories on October 9, 2008, displaced
people began to return from other areas of Georgia.

The EU mission's mandate is to monitor and report on the
situation in Georgia to promote confidence-building, stabilization, and
normalization. EU monitors are deployed in all areas of Georgia
affected by the conflict, but they do not have access to South Ossetia
and Abkhazia, due to Russia's objections.

"The EU monitors' deployment to the ‘buffer zone' improves
prospects for the security of ordinary people," said Denber. "However,
the situation remains very fragile, and the task of restoring law and
order is enormous. An expanded EU mandate is the best way to ensure the
protection of civilians who return home."

Human Rights Watch emphasized the importance of the EU
monitors gaining access to South Ossetia to ensure protection to ethnic
Georgians there and help create security conditions that will promote
the return of all who fled.


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