LLM Students Plead on the 2008 War between Russia and Georgia

Half of the class of our LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights – 26 students – pleaded on 21 May at Villa Moynier on the 2008 South Ossetia armed conflict between Russia and Georgia.

These pleadings form part of the core course on international humanitarian law (IHL) given by Professor Marco Sassòli and follow previous ones on Gaza by the other half of the LLM class.

In this exercise, students argued before a jury – composed of Professor Marco Sassòli and of our Teaching Assistants Yulia Mogutova and Revaz Tkemaladze – that the side they represented, Russia or Georgia, has respected IHL while the adverse side has violated it.

Focus on the August 2008 South Ossetia Conflict

The August 2008 one-week long hostilities in South Ossetia left lives, homes, and communities devastated and gave rise to numerous allegations of violations of IHL.

In January 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized the opening of a formal investigation by the Office of the Prosecutor into the situation. On 10 March 2022, the ICC Prosecutor announced that it had reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes of torture and inhuman treatment, unlawful confinement, hostage-taking and unlawful transfer occurred and applied for three warrants of arrest.

On 21 January 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rendered a controversial judgment on human rights violations committed by Russia in this conflict in the case Georgia v. Russia no.2 and on 5 October 202, it delivered two controversial decisions in the cases Bekoyeva and others v. Georgia and Shavlokhova and others v. Georgia.

Teams of two LLM students (whose roles were attributed by the lot) pleaded on the following issues:

  • The classification of the conflict and applicable law
  • Classification of persons and territory
  • Killing and destruction of property of ethnic Georgians and allegations of ethnic cleansing
  • The use of weapons and precautionary measures during ground and air offensives
  • The targeting of persons
  • The treatment of detainees
  • Fictitious appeals in the cases of Georgia v. Russia and Bekoyeva v. Georgia before the ECHR.

‘In the current situation, it has not been obvious for those students assigned by lot to represent Russia to fulfil their role. They all did so perfectly and therefore understood that IHL applies equally to both parties and is rarely violated by only one side in an armed conflict. In addition, contrary to what often occurs in practice, none of their arguments was contrary to good faith but all of them, including those that could not be prepared in replies to questions by the court, were well-founded and make me proud to have been their IHL teacher during this year’ explains Professor Sassòli.

Addressing Complex IHL Issues that Have a Specific Resonance with the Situation in Ukraine

Despite the conflict's short duration, it touches upon virtually all relevant IHL issues. The task given to the students was complex and nuanced, as they had to address different territorial units, actors involved, and types of conflicts. This exercise challenged them on many important international law issues, such as the standard of attribution of the conduct of organized groups to states, the obligations to ensure respect for violations of IHL by third parties, and the obligation to protect law and order in areas where states exercise control.

‘Students showed a real mastery of the facts and the law. They came up with extraordinarily original arguments and ideas. Pleadings are also a good reminder that IHL treats all belligerents equally and even in inherently asymmetrical situations, both parties should exercise equal care for the benefit of the civilian population. It is promising to see that accountability in such situations is not a myth and there are good arguments why states should hold their officials responsible for violations of IHL. Armed conflict situations give rise to cases, which have the potential to be litigated successfully before international fora, and I am confident that our students are well-equipped and ready to take on such tasks in a variety of roles!’ says Revaz Tkemaladze.

A Long Preparation

While oral pleadings – on the armed conflicts in Gaza or South Ossetia – last one day, the preparation for this exercise was much longer and entailed a lot of work for both our students, their coach – our Teaching Assistant Revaz Tkemaladze – and Professor Sassòli.

After providing students with the pleading material, Revaz guided them on the scope of the questions that they were attributed and made suggestions, together with Professor Sassòli, on their written outlines, as well as on how they could improve to come well-prepared for this oral exercise. Students also received guidance on how to enhance their legal writing and oral advocacy skills.

At the end of the day, a reception allowed all LLM students to celebrate the successful completion of a demanding period that required substantial work and time commitment.

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