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Disputed Territories, Disputed Rights: Executive Summary

Article by Adam Hug

September 26, 2019

Disputed Territories, Disputed Rights: Executive Summary

This Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Foreign Policy Centre publication seeks to draw attention to the human rights situation in some of Europe’s most contested but least well known places: Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Crimea. When unrecognised states or disputed territories are on the agenda it is usually about the unresolved nature of their conflicts with the countries they have tried to leave, and the role of external patronage and tight security grip exercised by Russia and (in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh) by Armenia, or indeed assessing the risks of ceasefire violations. These issues, and the thorny questions of status, provide the backdrop to this publication but this essay collection’s primary focus is what can be done to improve the human rights situation despite these challenges. It brings together a range of different perspectives, both from the ground and from international experts.

The publication has three central observations. Firstly, that it is essential that more is done to support the work of local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), journalists and lawyers to help them build their capacity and to improve collaboration between them in challenging circumstances. It addresses how the international community needs to find ways to encourage the de facto authorities not to close civic space or place restrictions on NGO activity.

Secondly, there is a need to improve access to international law and international monitoring processes. The publication highlights the importance of the European Convention on Human Rights, whose rights and responsibilities apply in the unrecognised states as a result of all the recognised state parties to the conflicts being signatories, both the states with de jure sovereignty and particularly for the powers that act as ‘patrons’ or occupiers. More can be done to support lawyers both on the ground and internationally in taking cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) and courts operating under universal jurisdiction in third countries. Effective documentation of human rights abuses may also open up opportunities for the use of ‘Magnitsky’ legislation or other personal sanctions on human rights abusers from or operating in disputed territories. More must be done to enable United Nations (UN), Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Council of Europe and other international human rights monitoring missions to overcome wrangling over ‘status’ issues to conduct their work in these territories.   

Thirdly, that issues of conflict resolution and human rights come together in the vital issues of protecting both the rights of internally displaced person (IDP) communities (particularly the very large Azerbaijani and Georgian IDP populations) and the human rights of ethnic Georgians, Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars and Moldovans who are still trying to live in the disputed territories which have mainly been home to them since before the conflicts began. The international community must ensure these issues are an important part of their dialogue with the de facto authorities, as well as improving assistance to countries managing the needs of their IDP communities.

Key Recommendations

To the de facto authorities and recognised state governments

  • Abide by all international human rights standards and allow access for monitoring missions;
  • End pressures on NGOs, including those working with international partners or donors;
  • Protect the rights and welfare of IDPs and minority groups;

To the International Community and Global Civil Society

  • Prioritise human rights issues in dialogue with the de facto authorities and the state parties;
  • Support capacity-building for civil society, journalists and lawyers in unrecognised states;
  • Improve access to international legal mechanisms (e.g. ECtHR) and universal courts;
  • Use sanctions, including ‘Magnitsky’ type provisions, against rights abusers in de facto states;
  • Improve support for IDP communities.
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