United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor
Preliminary observations and recommendations
Tbilisi — 7 November 2023
Georgia has an extremely strong, determined, and diverse civil society, which has grown over time and should be considered, including by the state, as part of the pride of the country.
Modern Georgia is built on a constitution that guarantees many of the rights essential to the work of protecting human rights. It also affirms that all legislation in the country shall comply with the norms and principles of international law.
National legislation has developed protective and supportive frameworks around many of the rights in the Constitution. While this is important and positive, there are also worrying trends in this regard.
There is no HRD-specific legislation in Georgian law. This, however, has not prevented several state institutions from putting practical measures in place relating to HRDs.
An example comes from the Special Investigation Service (SIS), which in July 2023 issued a binding recommendation for its investigators on the handling of criminal cases concerning human rights defenders. They did this on the basis of a straightforward and commendable definition of human rights defenders, which, with slight fine-tuning, could and should be adopted by other agencies and ministries. Similarly, in 2020, the Prosecutor’s Office developed guidelines on the investigation of crimes against HRDs. This, as with the SIS initiative, followed a recommendation on the subject from the Office of the Public Defender. The Prosecutor’s Office has also developed and implemented a system for gathering disaggregated statistics on the prosecution of crimes against human rights defenders, including the number of persons prosecuted for such crimes and the number of HRDs granted victim status. Again, this could and should be replicated by other government agencies and ministries, notably the Ministry of Interior.
Many human rights defenders in Georgia do not feel that the state is working to support them and ensure that they are secure. They do not believe an enabling environment is being created for their work. Rather, the contrary is true: human rights defenders fear for their physical integrity and feel that the state is actively undermining them and putting them at risk.
on 2 October 2023, the State Security Service of Georgia (SSSG) held a press conference where they released secretly filmed footage of a training carried out for actors in the cultural sector on peaceful ways to protect their rights. The SSSG presented this video as evidence to support an earlier assertion that civil society groups, and notably the organisation CANVAS, were participating in an organised conspiracy with the intent to overthrow the government, and the opening of a connected investigation. In the context of this investigation, human rights defenders who organised the training have been summoned for interrogation by the SSSG and obliged to sign a confidentiality agreement concerning its content. Cultural actors, who have been organising to peacefully defend their rights in the face of the wholesale politicisation of the sector since 2021, have also been summoned and interrogated based on their participation in the training.
There is nothing in the video that in any way substantiates the allegations made against the organisers and participants. The training was open to all. It took place over three days. The video presented as evidence of its alleged conspiratorial nature is 8 minutes long and heavily edited. 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 criminalise the human rights defenders involved and delegitimise 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.
In February 2023, a bill was introduced in the Parliament, supported by the Government, on transparency for “agents of foreign influence”. The introduction of the bill sparked protests across the country, in which young people and students joined civil society and human rights defenders to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed legislation. These protests, which were mostly peaceful but met with a violent police response, resulted in the withdrawal of the bill on 10 March 2023. Despite the withdrawal of the bill, its impact was raised repeatedly by the human rights defenders I spoke with during my visit. They described the damage it has done to their working relationships with municipal authorities, the increased insecurity they feel since the events surrounding its introduction, and the fear that the legislative project will be revived in one form or another. Its introduction provided encouragement to far-right and ultraconservative groups, whose own narrative of ‘foreign agents’ and ‘internal enemies’ was legitimised by the strong backing of the legislation by the government and parliamentarians.
Almost all of the actors, including state representatives, emphasised the difficulty of the situation faced by defenders of the rights of the LGBTQI community in Georgia.
The insecurity felt is heightened among defenders who face intersecting risks, notably based on gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion, disability, and living in a rural area.
In many instances, after reporting threats, attacks or discrimination, human rights defenders feel the only support available to them is from other defenders and civil society, yet it is the state which has a duty to protect them.
Where the women are from ethnic or religious minorities, the risks of physical attack are even more serious. As one-woman human rights defender put it to me, when it comes to integration of minorities, the authorities seem to think it is a one-way street. Female voices critical of this approach appear to be deemed unwelcome, and WHRDs from minority groups who do speak out risk a backlash from far-right and nationalist groups.
In some ways, the authorities also appear to be obstructing the work of journalists, as signaled by reports of a very low rate of responses to requests for information, as well as a concerning code of conduct recently introduced by the Parliament, which appears to open a path to potentially arbitrary sanctions for journalists deemed troublesome by parliamentarians.
Some human rights defenders with disabilities feel ignored by the state.
In many countries around the world, the human rights defenders most at risk are those whose activism is connected to the protection of the environment from unsustainable and damaging business activities, including those in the energy, infrastructure and tourism sectors. This emerged as an area of firm concern in Georgia. As one defender stated, instead of protecting the environment, they are forced to protect themselves. Defenders have received aggressive threats, and others being publicly discredited and labelled as ‘drug users’ and ‘petty hooligans’.
In regard to such cases the current situation for human rights defenders in the Balda Canyon, where at least one human rights defender was physically attacked.
Human rights defenders from other countries have traditionally been able to find safety and security in Georgia.
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.
Some foreign human rights defenders also face difficulties registering their organisations in Georgia, as they have experienced issues trying to open bank accounts since February 2022. One HRD I spoke to had seen their attempts to open a bank account for their organisation refused as many as five times. Furthermore, those who registered their organisations prior to February 2022, are now required to re-register and face difficulties providing diplomas, legal contracts and other documents.
Georgia stands at a crossroads of transition, with a decision on EU adhesion expected imminently, and elections under a new, fully proportional system scheduled for next year. The treatment of and attitude towards human rights defenders by the state will be indicative of how the country moves through this period.