This collection of essays has sought to provide a platform for a range of different views about some of the most challenging debates in human rights and peace building. It does not make any claim to be exhaustive or definitive, indeed there are many important perspectives that will need to be part of future work, but it does attempt to be a starting point for conversations about the competing rights and responsibilities at play in this challenging area. It also seeks to remind all parties to the conflicts and the international community at large that all people have human rights irrespective of where they live.
Neither the editors of this publication nor their respective organisations, the Foreign Policy Centre (FPC) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC), are endorsing any views on the intractable issues of status set out by a number of the other essay contributors. However, it is important that local voices are heard, while recognising and understanding that their positions can be painful to hear for those from the states from whom they are trying to formally separate and particularly for those from internally displaced persons’ (IDP) communities whose lives have been changed irrevocably by the conflicts that forced them to flee. Nevertheless, the issues around status remain intractable at an intergovernmental level and the subject of much substantive research by peacebuilders and academics that we do not attempt to replicate here. It is with that in mind that the conclusions that we attempt to draw here and the suggested recommendations for action look to proceed as much as is possible, given the challenges of doing so, from a status-neutral position.
At the heart of this debate is the question of whether and how the international community should engage with the de facto authorities, local civil society and civil society. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine in particular robustly defend against any initiatives that would be seen to lend credibility to the de facto authorities or their policies. As a result, engagement on these issues by international governments and institutions from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to the European Union (EU) is couched in terms of reiterating and reinforcing the parent state’s position on territorial integrity. The de facto authorities in turn similarly robustly defend their own claims to independence and regularly reject initiatives and attempts at international monitoring that seek to assess the situation in the breakaway regions formally as part of the international community’s work in the parent state. For example, efforts by the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council and special rapporteurs to visit Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of their mandate investigating the situation in Georgia have been rejected a number of times.
Recent efforts to change facts on the ground that only create further challenges on the issue of status, such as the attempts at ‘borderisation’ through barbed wire fences and other means, between both South Ossetia and Georgia and between Abkhazia and Georgia, risk undermining the human rights of people living in or near the Administrative Boundary Lines (ABLs). Such changes create specific challenges for members of the two disputed territories’ Georgian communities and those living in Georgian controlled territories. Stopping ordinary people from physically crossing the ABLs or making it more difficult for them to travel by preventing them from getting the relevant documents both impinges on their human rights and undermines efforts at confidence building that would be a necessary part of any path to conflict resolution. The Government of Georgia may also want to consider however that particularly in Abkhazia the inability of the de facto authorities to build their own capacity, partially as a result of international pressure, has led to an expansion in Russian control and influence beyond what would have been desired by many in the local power elites.
In this essay collection a number of different authors make suggestions for engagement to address both human rights challenges and to build local capacity to address every day needs, some of which are more status neutral than others. While these are all worth considering on their own merits the editors wish to narrow the focus of our conclusions overall to three areas: engagement with civil society such as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists, lawyers and other non-state actors; access to international law; and the rights of national minorities and IDPs.
This collection has made clear that finding ways to engage with and support local NGOs, journalists and lawyers to learn, strengthen and push back against those that would curtail their activities are central to efforts to improve human rights in unrecognised states. International NGOs and donors can face a significant challenge in making contact with their counterparts in de facto states through a mixture of bureaucratic hurdles, political pressure and legal restrictions or sanctions by both status conscious ‘parent’ states and wary de facto authorities. Physically getting access to de facto states can be challenging, particularly for those seeking to do so in a manner that doesn’t antagonise the parent states (accessing the de facto states from Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine rather than the quicker routes via Armenia and Russia). Azerbaijan has been known to blacklist people that have visited Nagorno-Karabakh via Armenia without permission and organisations that do not follow the procedures set out by Georgia and Ukraine will face a significant backlash that would create problems for their work in those countries. In his essay Anton Nemlyuk specifically called on Ukraine to find ways to request permission to access Crimea remotely and if possible find ways to allow permission for access via Russia rather than Ukraine’s land border, while the NHC and others have called for greater flexibility from all parties to facilitate people-to-people contact both to allow status-neutral field research and to work directly with local counterparts.
Access issues include attempts to restrict the international funding of NGOs by the South Ossetian (and of course Russian) foreign agents laws, Transnistrian legislation on reporting requirements and funding approval by the Coordination Council of Technical Aid, as well as other official and unofficial pressures from the parent state against local NGOs collaborating with international groups. The precarious legal and security situation facing the de facto authorities, as well as Russian pressure in a number of cases, is a key factor in the wariness towards international collaboration. However, given that these de facto administrations regularly call for international engagement, the EU and international governments need to be proactive in defending the right of international civil society to gain access. Efforts at improving access for human rights NGOs will of course sit alongside similar efforts to defend Track-2 peacebuilding initiatives, with efforts to improve human rights potentially creating more space for honest and open dialogue on conflict issues.
A range of different types of civil society engagement that would be beneficial have been suggested throughout this publication. These include supporting independent reporting and newsgathering efforts to draw attention to the activities of the de facto authorities, improving awareness and accountability amongst the residents of the de facto states, within the public and elites of their metropolitan state patrons, ‘parent’ states and to the international community. There are also calls to back efforts that bring together lawyers, journalists and NGOs to encourage collaboration. Such collaboration is believed to be important in addressing human rights issues, disseminating knowledge about human rights and building pressure on authorities (de facto and de jure) to address issues. This work could be through joint trainings, ad hoc collaboration or assisting with the development of more structured, though still informal, associations to help build networks and trust.
Donors, whether philanthropic or governmental, need to be clear that though targeted funding at groups unlikely to receive local support can be helpful, skill sharing and helping give a platform for local voices is also important. This is because particularly in the cases of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and to a lesser extent for Nagorno-Karabakh any financial or economic incentives the international community might be able to bring to the table will be dwarfed by the scale of financial transfers being provided by Russia or to some extent by Armenia and its diaspora communities. As Thomas De Waal points out, as part of a recent study of a number of unrecognised entities, in Abkhazia ‘Moscow’s spending on pensions alone was more than ten times the EU’s aid program in 2008–2016.’
Efforts to directly improve the performance of the de facto human rights ombudspeople, while potentially beneficial, would face significant hurdles for international governments or international institutions. There may however be space to strengthen the capacity of local NGOs and lawyers to improve their abilities to influence and where necessary push back against de facto agencies and bodies, empowering people and reducing the power imbalance between them and the de facto institutions rather than empowering the institutions themselves.
A number of contributors have argued in favour of finding ways to improve the provision of public goods such as health care, education, social services, youth provision, and housing to improve the wellbeing of local people. However, if the de facto authorities are the ones providing the service there is a significant challenge that capacity building efforts even in these areas would be seen as enhancing their capacity to govern and therefore not be status neutral. A possible alternative might be to find ways to expand the capacity of local civil society to deliver such services, so that in theory such provision could continue irrespective of who controlled the area.
Accessing international law
The second main dimension for protecting people’s rights is through international law, and while international bodies may set challenges for the de facto authorities ultimately the rights and duties flow through and reinforce the importance of the recognised states who are signatories to the relevant treaties. A number of essays but particularly that by Ilya Nuzov show the importance of applying international law, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights to abuses committed in the breakaway entities. As set out above improving capacity of local lawyers working on the ground in the de facto states and in the border and IDP communities impacted by the conflicts, improving technical expertise and legal knowledge is a vital first step. However, it is also essential to help support lawyers in the metropolitan states (Georgia, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Moldova) who are able to take cases of abuse and seek remedies through the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR).
Both improved legal documentation and other information gathering efforts may open up opportunities for ‘Global Magnitsky’ type legislation in a number of important international jurisdictions including the US, UK and the Baltic states that could target the international assets of local human rights abusers and their enablers in the governments of occupying powers. Similarly, such documentation may help facilitate cases in third country courts operating under universal jurisdiction to holder abusers to account. Donors need to consider how they can best assist with supporting efforts to access the ECtHR, courts of universal jurisdiction and to trigger international sanctions.
As the NHC have set out in their essay earlier in this publication both the patron and the parent state as well as de facto authorities have a responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil human rights to the extent that they have effective control over a territory. They should co-operate in facilitating access to international human rights mechanisms and in the implementation of international decisions. While ‘parent states’ can be challenged over ways in which they may be inflexible in their approach, the ultimate responsibility for allowing access by international human rights mechanisms lies with the de facto authorities and their international patrons. Failure to provide access to monitoring by UN, OSCE and Council of Europe human rights mechanisms will continue to be seen as a sign of defensiveness about local standards, undermining international perceptions of the de facto authorities’ capacity to effectively provide governance to the areas under their control.
Minorities and IDPs
Protecting the human rights of minority communities within the areas controlled by de facto authorities is not only one of the most important areas for improving human rights standards in these areas but will be an essential component for any future peace process or discussions on status. Whether future paths on status lead towards reunification, independence, annexation or perpetual limbo, the credibility of the de facto authorities and occupying powers will be judged by the international community by how they treat minority groups who live in the territories they control. In the case of Abkhazia, however one defines the issue of status, the challenges facing members of the Georgian community in the Gali region will continue to be particularly sensitive and practical steps to improve the situation for the local population are urgently needed.
The IDP dimension has been less of a focus for this publication given other work in this area but it remains no less important. There is more that the international community can do to raise awareness of the continuing plight of IDPs in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine, particularly those whose future remains uncertain. This can include more concerted efforts to improve financial and technical support through the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other mechanisms, and ensuring that issues around protecting the property rights of IDPs pending any agreed peace settlement remain a core dimension of any international dialogue with the de facto authorities.
To the de facto authorities and recognised state governments
- Abide by all relevant European and UN human rights standards irrespective of status as a formal signatory to these statutes;
- Remove onerous official and unofficial pressures on NGO activity including those on international funding;
- Protect the rights and welfare of IDPs and minority groups;
- Facilitate access by UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and other international human rights mechanisms irrespective of the status under which they operate; and
- Reduce bureaucratic hurdles for independent human rights groups, NGOs, lawyers and activists to gain access to disputed territories without fear for their future ability to work elsewhere in the region.
To the International Community and Global Civil Society
- Ensure that human rights issues are a central part of any dialogue with the de facto authorities and the state parties to the conflicts;
- Support capacity-building and information sharing, both technically and financially, for civil society in unrecognised states;
- Support independent reporting and newsgathering efforts about the activities of the de facto authorities;
- Assist local lawyers to develop their capabilities within local de facto legal systems and to build partnerships with NGOs and journalists;
- Work both locally and internationally to build cases that can be brought to international legal mechanisms such as the ECtHR and courts of universal jurisdiction;
- Utilise sanctions, including Global Magnitsky type provisions, against both individuals and entities involved in carrying out or enabling human rights abuses in unrecognised territories;
- Submit amicus curae communications to international enforcement mechanisms expressing the need for clearer delineation of obligations and responsibilities between de facto and de jure authorities; and
- Improve support for IDP communities both in terms of living conditions and defending their rights.
Gunnar M. Ekeløve-Slydal is Deputy Secretary General, Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and a Lecturer at the University of South East Norway. He studied philosophy at the University of Oslo and worked for many years for the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights at the University of Oslo and as Editor of the Nordic Journal on Human Rights. He has written extensively on human rights, international institutions, and philosophical themes, including textbooks, reports, and articles.
Adam Hug became Director of the Foreign Policy Centre in November 2017. He had previously been the Policy Director at the Foreign Policy Centre from 2008-2017. His research focuses on human rights and governance issues particularly in the former Soviet Union. He also writes on UK foreign policy and EU issues.
Ana Pashalishvili is a lawyer with a broad spectrum of expertise in international law and human rights. She joined the NHC in April 2014 and since then has been actively working on topics related to human rights, international public and criminal law as well as data privacy, documentation and project management.
Inna Sangadzhieva is a Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC). She is a linguist from the Kalmyk State University (Russia) and has MA at political science from the University of Oslo. Inna has been working at the NHC for 15 years, she is an author of several articles and reports, mostly regarding the political and human rights situation in Russia and the former Soviet Union.
Photo by Lene Wetteland, Norwegian Helsinki Committee
 The Moldova-Transnistria situation is somewhat more fluid and flexible, albeit that status issues do still pose major challenges.
 Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2019: Transnistria, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2019/transnistria
 Recent works by authors such as Thomas De Waal and the International Crisis Group have set out ideas for status neutral engagement in a range of different spheres that stretch beyond the human rights focus of this publication. For example https://carnegieeurope.eu/2018/12/03/uncertain-ground-engaging-with-europe-s-de-facto-states-and-breakaway-territories-pub-77823
 For example as noted by Ilya Nusov ‘Resolution 2240 on access to ‘grey zones’ by CoE and UN human rights monitoring bodies, the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE (PACE) considers that: the exercise of de facto authority brings with it a duty to respect the rights of all inhabitants of the territory in question, as those rights would otherwise be respected by the authorities of the State of which the territory in question is a part; even illegitimate assumption of powers of the State must be accompanied by assumption of the corresponding responsibilities of the State towards its inhabitants.’ http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-XML2HTML-EN.asp?fileid=25168&lang=en
 In the case of Crimea Russia has already taken this step but at present it seems unlikely that the international community is willing to acquiesce to Russian demands for recognition of its annexation in the near future.