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Despite Protests, Georgia Passes Anti-Discrimination Law
Georgian parliament. (Photo: Akhali Gazeti)
After fierce debate, the Georgian parliament has passed legislation that outlaws discrimination.
The law was passed with 115 votes to one on May 2, leaving a conservative lobby of Orthodox Christians angry about provisions on gender identity and sexuality. Rights groups, meanwhile, worried that the final wording had been toned down to remove mechanisms for punishing offenders.
The law bans all forms of discrimination, including that based on language, religion, and sexual orientation, is a precondition for Georgia being granted relaxed visa procedures with European Union states.
When parliament’s human rights committee discussed the bill on April 29, most of the discussion was about the inclusion of the terms “sexual orientation” and “gender identity”. Georgian Orthodox clerics attending the debate warned against retaining these provisions, and Christian groups held protests in the capital Tbilisi and in Kutaisi, where parliament sits.
The head of the church, Patriarch Ilia II, sent a message to parliament saying that “believers view non-traditional sexual relations as a mortal sin, and in its current form, this legislation provides propaganda and legality to this sin”.
He added that civil rights were already protected under existing Georgian legislation.
Although Georgia’s constitution and legislation enshrine equality, rights activists say there are few effective mechanisms to enforce this. The latest annual report from the Public Offender, the official human rights ombudsman, speaks of homophobia as “a grave social trend that results in hate crimes and other discriminatory acts”.
During the April 29, Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani countered church objections by insisting that the law must include gender identity and sexuality or else it would fail to meet the conditions the European Union has set for Georgia to sign an Association Agreement.
“That is a far greater benefit for our country, including for its territorial integrity, than these unfounded worries about whether certain revisions might cause local objections,” she said.
The speaker of parliament, Davit Usupashvili, was even blunter about the wider political context of the legislation.
“The question is as follows: either we go towards Europe and recognise that we cannot violate human rights, or we reject those views and stay in Russia,” he said. “So which is it to be – Russia or Europe? This decision is to be made by parliament and the country. We must all make that choice together.”
When the justice ministry began working on the bill last year, it proposed establishing the new post of “inspector” for upholding equality, with powers to issue binding recommendations and fine institutions found to be discriminatory.
However, the government made major changes before submitting the draft for parliamentary scrutiny. One crucial revision dropped the idea of an “equality inspector” and made the Public Defender responsible for overseeing anti-discrimination rules. The process would be for the ombudsman’s office to seek to resolve matters through mediation, and only send cases to court as a last resort.
The Human Rights Education and Monitoring Centre, one of the groups involved in drafting the earlier version of the bill, said it had no objection to the role being assigned to the Public Defender – currently Ucha Nanuashvili – but had concerns about his office’s restricted mandate.
“He is widely trusted and his staff are experienced. However, given the massive amount of work required to combat discrimination, he will need more money and staff, otherwise it will be impossible to enforce the law,” the centre said in a statement. “The current version does not specify the methods available to the Public Defender to respond to and verify the compliance of the two parties. The mechanism will also be ineffective if the ombudsman’s recommendation is not followed.”
Similarly, Giorgi Gotsiridze of the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association pointed out that the ombudsman would not have powers to impose fines, and could only seek prosecutions for cases that merited that.
“If we pass the law as it now stands, it will be ineffective because actions that are not criminal offences but which are discriminatory will go unpunished,” Gotsiridze told IWPR.
The law gives victims of discrimination the right to claim compensation, but human rights defenders say it can be very hard to prove the extent of harm caused by discrimination.
Tamar Chugoshvili, the Georgian prime minister’s human rights adviser, said the law had to be softened to remove the most contentious issues.
“The government discussed the matter and decided that for the moment, this country is just not ready to issue direct fines, so that it’s necessary to resolve problems through recommendations and court orders,”Chugoshvili said.
Nino Jomarjidze is a freelance journalist in Georgia.
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