A Misunderstood Masterpiece

Writing on RFE/RL, Charli Carpenter has an opinion piece on the EU report on the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008.  Carpenter takes a bit of a refreshing approach to a tired subject, pointing out that the entrenched pundits on both sides are really running away with the wrong messages and claims – though I am not sure I would necessary commit to Carpenter’s decription of the report as “a masterpiece of legal and evidentiary analysis.”  Charli also contributes to the blog The Duck of Minerva.

The key problem is that the report is framed in such a way as to conflate the civil and interstate wars of which the “August war” was composed. The title of the report refers to “the Conflict in Georgia.” It is not until page 36 that the 43-page summary of the report even acknowledges that there were two different components to the war, governed by separate international rules. Although the authors do in fact disaggregate these aspects to some extent in the actual report, the fact that they fail to do so in the summary muddles the legal analysis completely. No wonder both sides now claim the report exonerates them on the question of “who started it.”

This is ashame, since the longest chapter of the report deals not with who mightbe blamed for starting the war, but with the way hostilities wereconducted by all parties. Regardless of a war’s legality, there arelegal and illegal ways of fighting. Commentators desperate to focus onthe blameworthiness of one party or the other for the war itself havediverted attention from the report’s discussions of war crimes — whichwere committed by all sides, especially by the one party (SouthOssetia) least to blame for taking up arms in the first place.

Ultimately,those who read the entire report will find it is a masterpiece of legaland evidentiary analysis. The authors have painstakingly synthesizedmultiple branches of international law with scores of interviews, reamsof source material, and numerous reports from NGOs. The report itselfis nearly 500 pages of “applying principles to facts.” Despite a fewinconsistencies, it is generally fair-minded, objective and apolitical.It should have done the job.