On November 7, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, concluded her 10-day official visit to Georgia with a briefing for media representatives to share her findings.
During her visit, she met with the Deputy Foreign Minister, the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Human Rights Issues, officials from the Ministries of Interior and Education, the State Security Service of Georgia, the Special Investigation Service, and the Prosecutor’s Office, the Chairperson of the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee of the Parliament, the Youth Agency, Communications Commission, and Legal Aid Service.
In addition to government and parliamentary representatives Mary Lawlor also met with human rights defenders, members of human rights NGOs and associations, lawyers, investigative journalists, socially-oriented filmmakers, writers, artists, academics, labor rights defenders, and local representatives of regional and international organizations.
During the meeting with media representatives the UN Special Rapporteur expressed regret that some of her requests for meetings were not met, including with the Ministry of Culture and municipal authorities. She highlighted her inability to access the occupied territories of Georgia, which prevented her from assessing the situation of human rights defenders in those areas.
Mary Lawlor praised Georgia for its vibrant and diverse civil society: “Their work, the actions, and events they organize, the awareness they have been building in society and the real, tangible positive impact they make in people’s lives, are part of the country’s wealth” noted Lawlor.
She highlighted that the Georgian Constitution guarantees key rights for the protection of human rights and affirms compliance with international law. While noting that national legislation supports constitutional rights, she expressed concern about their implementation and recent legislative initiatives.
According to her, there is no specific legislation on the protection of human rights defenders in Georgia. However, certain state institutions, such as the Special Investigation Service and the Prosecutor’s Office, have taken practical measures to support HRDs.
“Coming away from my visit, I find it hard to fight the impression that a veneer of openness presented by the Georgian Government masks systematic efforts to undermine human rights defenders and their vital, necessary work. I remain open to being convinced to the contrary by the authorities, however, the serious and well-substantiated concerns shared with me by many of those I met during my visit leave this as my primary preliminary conclusion” Lawlor noted.
She stressed that many human rights defenders in Georgia do not feel that the state is working to support them and ensure that they are secure: “Human rights defenders fear for their physical integrity and feel that the state is actively undermining them and putting them at risk”. She noted that this fact should “ring alarm bells for any government claiming to prioritize human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.
She addressed the SSSG’s release of footage of CANVAS training when it alleged a conspiracy to overthrow the government, resulting in investigations and interrogations of those involved. “When I raised this sequence of events with the authorities, they referred me to the footage in question. I have reviewed this footage. In my view, there is nothing in the video that in any way substantiates the allegations made against the organizers and participants. … At no point do the trainers who speak suggest or encourage violence. The presentation of the video as evidence of a conspiracy strongly indicates a deliberate attempt by the SSSG to criminalize the human rights defenders involved and delegitimize the exercise of fundamental rights, and particularly young people and students exercising their right to peaceful protests, in the public eye. This has had serious repercussions for human rights defenders” she noted.
According to Lawlor, following the SSSG’s allegations, senior members of the ruling party uncritically embraced the narrative, promoting it through public statements and using it to justify the introduction of legal restrictions on the right to peaceful protest: the so-called “tent law”.
Mary Lawlor highlighted statements made by members of the ruling party against independent journalists, environmental, anti-corruption, LGBTQI rights defenders, and the queer community, with women being particularly targeted. She noted the presence of posters in Tbilisi accusing women human rights defenders of being “spies against the Church” and questioned why they remained in front of a prominent government building. “These examples depicting the development of an ‘internal enemy’ narrative are among the most current I have been made aware of. They have not, however, come from nowhere” she added.
She noted that despite the withdrawal of the Foreign Agents Law, its impact was repeatedly raised by the human rights defenders she spoke to. They described the damage it had done to their working relationships with municipal authorities, the increased insecurity they felt since the events surrounding its introduction, and the fear that the legislative project would be revived in one form or another. Its introduction emboldened far-right and ultra-conservative groups, whose own narrative of “foreign agents” and “internal enemies” was legitimized by the strong support of the government and parliamentarians.
Concerning attacks against LGBTQI defenders, she noted that the continued impunity for attacks against human rights defenders more broadly demonstrates a lack of political will to address the issue.
She said that impunity for attacks against journalists and other media workers who cover human rights issues is a significant and persistent problem. She added that in some ways the authorities also appear to be obstructing the work of journalists, as evidenced by reports of a very low response rate to requests for information, as well as a worrying code of conduct recently introduced by the Parliament.
“While human rights defenders from Russia and Belarus are currently able to enter Georgia without a visa and stay for up to one year, some defenders from these countries have been facing considerable challenges when seeking to re-enter Georgia after travelling to third countries in connection with their human rights work. In some cases, re-entry for foreign HRDs has been refused on the vague, catch-all grounds. The denial of re-entry in these cases is hugely problematic, effectively rendering the defenders homeless. Other foreign human rights defenders, while ultimately allowed to re-enter Georgia have faced issues at the border, with many reporting how they have been interrogated about their human rights work, participation in events abroad and future plans” she noted.
She concluded that Georgia is at a crossroads of transition, with a decision on EU accession expected soon and elections under a new, fully proportional system scheduled for next year. The state’s treatment of, and attitude towards, human rights defenders will be indicative of how the country moves through this period.
Among the preliminary recommendations provided by the Special Rapporteur:
To the Government:
- cease all stigmatization of human rights defenders and the delegitimization of their work through public statements;
- amend the Code of Administrative Offences to bring it in line with international human rights law and standards, and in particular to ensure that articles 166 and173, on petty hooliganism and disobedience of a police order, are not arbitrarily used to arrest, detain and sanction human rights defenders, notably when participating in assemblies;
- abandon the recent legislative initiative to amend the Law on Assemblies and Protests;
- amend national legislation concerning surveillance in order to increase oversight over such restrictions on the rights to privacy and freedom of expression and bring the legislation into line with international and regional law and standards;
- include the empowerment of human rights defenders as a key priority in the National Action Plan on Human Rights, including specific objectives on the protection and empowerment of women human rights defenders, LGBTQI defenders and defenders of the rights of ethnic and religious minorities;
- put in place an action plan to guarantee the meaningful participation of human rights defenders from ethnic and religious minorities in all decision-making processes, in particular those concerning them, in particular women and youth leaders from these communities;
- publicly recognize the legitimacy of the work of independent election observers and their importance for protecting human rights and democracy, and take proactive steps to ensure they can carry out their work freely during the 2024 elections.
To Members of Parliament:
- cease all stigmatisation of and discrediting statements against, human rights defenders, including independent journalists;
- pay particular attention to ensuring there is no place for public or private misogynistic attacks.
To the State Security Service of Georgia:
- expedite, in the quickest manner possible, all investigative acts into the alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government in a timely manner, with a view to either closing the investigation or submitting the cases for prosecution;
- cease all surveillance of human rights defenders, including independent journalists, that fails to comply with international and regional standards guaranteeing the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
To the Office of the Public Defender of Georgia and the Prosecutor’s Office:
- conduct a review of all ongoing surveillance of human rights defenders and journalists being carried out by the SSSG in order to assess conformity of any such surveillance with regional and international law and standards guaranteeing the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
To the Public Defender of Georgia:
- make clear the importance and validity of the work of LGBTQI rights defenders.
To the Special Investigation Service:
- open an investigation into the illegal surveillance of human rights defenders participating in the training organised for cultural actors in September 2023, applying the guidelines for investigation of cases involving human rights defenders adopted in July 2023;
To the Prosecutor’s Office:
- redouble efforts, as a priority, concerning investigations into the organizers of the violent demonstrations targeting the LGBTQI celebrations in July 2021 and July 2023, with a view to prosecuting the organizers of these demonstrations, including all persons who publicly called for violence against the participants in the celebrations.
To the Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
- create a joint platform involving human rights defenders and the Office of the Public Defender of Georgia to coordinate and follow-up on the implementation of recommendations from international and regional human rights bodies, including UN Special Procedures mandate holders.
To the Ministry of Interior:
- adopt a binding recommendation on the investigation of crimes against human rights defenders, based on the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and OHCHR Fact Sheet No. 29, and adopting an intersectional approach;
- ensure Belarusian and Russian human rights defenders are able to enter and reenter Georgia in line with the visa-free regimes in place and take proactive measures to reassure them of their ability to do so;
- ensure that anyone wishing to apply for asylum, including human rights defenders from foreign countries, be granted access to territory in line with international law standards;
- amend the Law of Georgia on the Legal Status of Aliens and Stateless Persons to remove the overly broad clause “other cases envisaged by Georgian legislation” from the grounds for denial on entry to the state (Article 11, paragraph 1, subparagraph i); in cases where there are legitimate reasons for denying entry to Georgia at its borders, always provide clear and transparent reasons for the denial;
- provide the option of obtaining a residence permit on humanitarian grounds in order to close the protection gap for foreign HRDs without family links or work status;
- take proactive steps to facilitate the registrations of NGOs and the opening of organizational bank accounts for human rights defenders from third countries.
To the Ministry of Justice:
- expand the mandate of the Legal Aid Service to allow them to provide free legal aid to all persons alleged to have been victims of crimes in retaliation for their advocacy on human rights issues.
To the Ministry of Culture:
- initiate a consultation process with actors from the cultural, artistic and scientific workers, including those who have been dismissed from their positions at national institutions and organizations representing them, to create an action plan for the protection of cultural expression in the country.
To the Ministry of Education:
- introduce a module on human rights defenders into the teacher training curriculum;
- introduce a module on human rights defenders in the civic education curriculum.