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Experts: South Ossetia, Abkhazia Have No Right to Secede

Georgia and Russia have both invoked international law to justify their actions in the current conflict. But German legal experts say that only one side seems to have a justifiable point in doing so.

Eduard Kokoity, wearing military gear

Eduard Kokoity (right) has proclaimed himself president of South Ossetia

Was it legal for South Ossetia to secede from Georgia in 1992? Did this happen in line with international law, which grants every nation the right to self-determination?

It's a clear-cut case, said Andreas Zimmermann, who teaches international law at the University of Kiel. Even if South Ossetia were to be recognized internationally as a nation and were granted the right to self-determination, this would by no means give it the right to secede, he said.

"The right to self-determination does not come with a right to secede," Zimmermann said. "It's a right to autonomy, to minority rights and the like. It only becomes a right to secede when we're talking about a situation of genocide, hence when fundamental basic and human rights are no longer guaranteed."

Not another Kosovo

Zimmermann added that in light of this, one could argue that Kosovo in 1998 had a right to secede.

"But in my opinion, we don't have such a situation in South Ossetia nor Abkhazia," he said. "De jure, they're still part of the Georgian state."

This fact allows Georgia to enforce its sovereignty on its territory. In other words, in terms of international law, Tbilisi does not have to accept that individual regions are breaking away.

It would be an entirely different situation if South Ossetia were a so-called de facto state. In this case, Georgia would have to adhere to the regular prohibition of the use of force between states -- as is the case between China and Taiwan, Zimmermann said. But South Ossetia is far from reaching the structure of a de facto state, he added.

"There's no recognition by other countries, there's no enforcement of authority within its territory, there's always been dispute between Georgia and South Ossetia," he said. "It's a gray area, but it's not a state."

Beyond peacekeeping

But that doesn't mean that Georgia can use force against civilians in the breakaway region, Zimmermann said, adding that last weekend's excesses were a clear breach of martial law.

The same is true for the Russian side, which cannot rely on any laws to justify its military encroachment of Georgian territory, said Uwe Thalbach, a Russia expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

"Russia claims that it's reacting as a peacekeeping force in South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian provocations," Thalbach said.

While Russia does indeed have a peacekeeping mandate in the region, its current military activities clearly go way beyond that, he added.

"It's a punishment of Georgia with military means," Thalbach said. "It's an expansion of war-like measure to Georgia's core territory and that's clearly a violation of international law."

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