Georgia will appeal to judges at the International Court of Justice today to impose emergency measures to halt what it calls a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Russia in the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The case at The Hague, in the Netherlands, opens a new legal front in the battle between Georgia and Russia for control of the regions and comes as French president Nicolas Sarkozy heads to Moscow for talks on the stand-off.
In documents filed with the United Nations’ top judicial body, Georgia accuses Russian forces, local militias and mercenaries of conducting a campaign of murder, forced displacement and attacks on towns and villages that started in the early 1990s and culminated in last month’s brief war.
Georgia claims the campaign has left thousands of civilians dead and forced 300,000 from their homes.
Russia has not directly responded to Georgia’s case. But Moscow accused Georgia of crimes against humanity after its army launched a massive attack last month on South Ossetia, killing Russian peacekeepers and dozens of civilians.
Russian leaders have bristled at the West for failing to condemn what they described as a Georgian “aggression” and indiscriminate killing of civilians, and threatened to prosecute Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili as a war criminal.
A month after the outbreak of war in the region and weeks after a ceasefire was approved, Russian troops remain entrenched deep inside Georgian territory.
The dispute has plunged relations between Moscow and the West to near Cold War levels of animosity.
The 15-judge tribunal, unofficially known as the World Court, will probably take years to deal with Georgia’s case, which accuses Russia of breaching the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
After three days of hearings, judges must first decide whether they have jurisdiction before mulling whether to impose any immediate measures to safeguard civilians. Even if they do, it is unclear whether Russia will comply and the court has no way of enforcing its decisions.
“The court does not have an army or police force to make a party before it comply with its order. But the fact is that in the vast majority of orders, states comply,” said Paul Reichler, an American lawyer on Georgia’s legal team.
“It’s easy when you’re invading another country to invent some legal justification, but its not easy to maintain that pretence after a court like the ICJ says what you are doing is illegal.
“You have to bring yourself into compliance or accept being branded an international outlaw.”
Moscow blames Mr Saakashvili for starting the war with his August 7 artillery barrage, and claims its actions in the region are aimed at protecting civilians and maintaining peace.
Russia has signed a ceasefire agreement but also recognised both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, a move denounced in Georgia and abroad.
The regions make up roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory – and include miles of prime coastline along the Black Sea.