Georgian Government Promises Push on Human Rights
As the Georgian government begins work on a programme to improve human rights, campaigners have praised its record since coming to power a year ago, while noting that a great deal still needs to be done.
The primary areas of concern relate to the rights of ethnic and sexual minorities and the conditions in Georgia’s prison system.
Meeting human rights defenders on November 4, Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili said his government was intent on pursuing reforms to set in stone judicial independence, media freedom, and fair elections.
“With this aim in mind, a new human rights strategy and plan of action is being drawn up as an initiative by the Georgian government,” Garibashvili said. “Everyone will come to understand that we won’t rest until we bring European-standard human rights to Georgia.”
Garibashvili replaces Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire and Georgian Dream leader who has stepped down after a year as prime minister. The Georgian Dream coalition came to power after a parliamentary election in October 2012.
One of the achievements claimed by Georgian Dream is an improvement in prison conditions, and experts acknowledge that there has been real progress.
“There have been positive changes in many areas, above all an end to cases of torture and inhuman treatment in places of confinement,” Aleko Tskitishvili, director of the Human Rights Centre in Tbilisi, told IWPR. Nevertheless, he said, “serious problems remain. In the penitentiary system, for example, we need to resolve the problem of the living conditions and medical assistance for inmates.”
Rights groups are worried about the rising number of acts of aggression against minorities, which have become more frequent in the past year.
In one alarming incident, a peaceful protest against homophobia on May 17 in Tbilisi came under attack from a conservative mob that included priests from the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country’s main confessional group. Several dozen people were injured before police could contain the trouble. (See Anti-Gay Riot in Georgian Capital.)
August saw inter-faith clashes in a village in southern Georgia, provoked by the removal of a mosque’s minaret. Orthodox clerics called for a referendum on the construction of religious buildings. (SeeToppled Minaret Provokes Passions in Georgia.)
In November, the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate spoke out against plans by the Identity NGO to set up a shelter for homeless children. A statement from the Patriarchate claimed that “Identity supports homosexuals and other sexual minorities. Naturally, there is a risk that this way of life will spread among the minors under their care.”
On December 4, a group of Orthodox activists tried to stop recently-elected President Giorgi Margvelashvili from offering Hannukah greetings to the country’s Jewish community. It was, they said, not “the Christian way”.
Taken together, these incidents form a worrying trend, in Tskitishvili’s view.
“The issue of enmity and aggression towards various minorities, principally religious ones but also LGBT groups, is now very pressing. The [May] attack on the anti-homophobia demonstration is the most shameful thing that has happened in Georgia over the last year,” he said. “The police must work more effectively to guarantee the security of these individuals.
“It’s also essential to educate society. The state must ensure that people are educated and it should make every effort to make this country more secular and stop it being dictated to by Orthodox believers.”
The government’s action plan on human rights will be based on the report from the European Union’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, and also on cases identified by Georgia’s official ombudsman.
Human rights practitioners have welcomed the strategy, although they say the test will be how well it is put into practice.
“The process of investigating specific cases will be of great significance,” ombudsman Ucha Nanuashvili said. “It’s going to be important to establish precedents so that people begin to believe that human rights really are being protected.”
The speaker of parliament, David Usupashvili, has insisted that human rights are the country’s number one priority.
“Until now, the country has had other priorities. We thought that protecting human rights could wait until we’d built a strong state, sorted out the economy, improved the security situation and so on,” he told journalists. “That was wrong. When we say we are moving towards Europe, we need to understand that Europe is a place we’ll reach when human beings become our most valuable assets.”
Tinatin Jvania is a freelance journalist in Georgia.