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Update: Caucasus Humanitarian Sit-Rep

August 12, 2008

Latest numbers on humanitarian needs in the region. International Medical Corps is now echoing the 30,000 estimate of refugees fleeing north to Russia from S. Ossetia, UNHCR’s estimates remain more conservative but have risen from 5,000 Saturday to between 10,000-20,000 today.

Like other agencies IMC is emphasizing its assistance efforts for “women and children.” This is troubling given what it suggests about a) the number of elderly who likely weren’t as easily able to flee urban areas before bombardment and b) the possibility that large numbers of adult civilian men are either missing from these populations or are simply being denied aid in a misplaced bid to protect the appearance of humanitarian “neutrality.”

Reliefweb is reporting that the International Committee of the Red Cross is emerging as the lead agency in the region, but their zone of access has been limited to N. Ossetia. Given that Russia now controls both North and South Ossetia, this raises questions about how serious Russia is about the “humanitarian” dimensions of the conflict for their own sake.

You can’t infer humanitarian ideals from their efforts north of the border: the “humanitarian catastrophe” (i.e. refugee crisis) there is propaganda fodder for Russia so it coincides with their interests. The litmus test is whether they will allow aid agencies access to civilians fleeing in the opposite direction or remaining in S. Ossetia even though

a) it may implicate them in war crimes if the ICRC determines that they’ve targeted civilians directly as they entered Georgia and

b) it means that Georgian civilians will receive the aid they need from the outside, rather than by putting pressure on Georgia’s own resources.

Under international humanitarian law, Russia is obligated to provide access to neutral agencies to all civilians in areas under their control.

The ICRC is also “working to gain access to people detained in connection with the conflict, including two Russian pilots who were wounded and are being held by the Georgian authorities.” No mention by the ICRC of allegations that the Russians have captured any Americans in connection with the fighting.

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.