Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Window on Eurasia: UN Satellite Photos Undercut Russian Claims about South Ossetia

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 10 – Satellite photographs analyzed by United Nations experts show that only five percent of Tskhinvali was destroyed during the fighting there but that 50 percent of ethnic Georgian villages were destroyed in that region by Ossetian marauders behind Russian lines, a pattern that undercuts Moscow’s claims about what took place.
The UN satellite research program UNOSAT has released photographs showing the destruction in South Ossetia. Some of these were published in “Novaya gazeta” on Monday (, but a more comprehensive sample is now available on the UNOSAT portal at
These pictures and the analysis conducted by the independent experts at UNOSAT show, Human Rights Watch told “Novaya gazeta,” that Ossetian units “burned and robbed Georgian villages,” as HRW people on the ground had reported in the face of Ossetian and Russian claims to the contrary.
But these photographs taken over the course of August also call into question repeated Russian claims that the Georgian army had destroyed much of the South Ossetian capital – the satellite photographs show only five percent of its buildings having been damaged -- and that Georgian forces had carried out a systematic genocide there.
The photographs are extremely disturbing because, in the words of HRW experts, they demonstrate that “Georgian villages have in fact ceased to exist on the territory of South Ossetia.” But the human rights group’s own observers point out that now there is evidence that similar “marauder activities are continuing in Georgian villages in the buffer zone.”
“It is possible,” “Novaya gazeta” concludes, “that the materials collected by Human Rights Watch [and the UNOSAT photographs] will become part of the case about military crimes at the time of the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, which will be considered by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.”
Such use of satellite photography to document the actions of various participants in conflicts is spreading: A year ago, for example, Azerbaijan used satellite photography to show the destruction of certain cultural monuments that has taken place in portions of that country now under Armenian occupation.
One reason for this is the dramatic improvement in satellite photography technology in recent years, but another and more important factor is that such photographs not only provide the kind of objective proof that observer reports sometimes lack but also have a far greater impact on those who see them.
And because this technology will make it more difficult for officials to lie about what is happening or to cover up their own crimes, one can hope that the very possibility that satellite photographs will be taken and shared will over time act to restrain those who might otherwise engage in crimes of war and crimes against humanity.
Unfortunately, as these UNOSAT photographs show, neither Russian forces nor the irregular Ossetian units behind their lines included that possibility in their calculations. And as a result, an enormous humanitarian disaster ensued, one that is not only not over but not yet being blamed on its real authors.

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