High Commissioner For Human Rights Praises Georgia’s Plan To Introduce Comprehensive Human Rights Reforms

Opening remarks by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a press conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, 21 May 2014
21 May 2014
“Good afternoon and thank you for coming.

I have just come to the end of my first visit to Georgia, where I have found much that is encouraging in terms of ongoing reforms, and learned much that is both alarming and depressing about the situation affecting people displaced from, and living in, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia.  I will return to this issue later.

In Tbilisi, I held fruitful in-depth meetings with the President, the Prime Minister and the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Internal Affairs as well as with the Minister of Internally Displaced Persons, Minister of Corrections and other senior Government officials.  I also held discussions with the Chief Justice, the Chairman of the Parliament, Georgia’s Public Defender and with civil society representatives.

The Government, led by the Prime Minister, has embarked on a wide range of reforms in the area of human rights and rule of law.  One of the most important of these has focused on depoliticizing a dysfunctional judiciary and law enforcement system.  This is a major task that will take time to complete, but it is widely recognized that there is already some progress.  Until recently, 99.9 percent of defendants were being convicted in the criminal court.  The acquittal rate is now starting to get more realistic, as the judges grow used to being more independent both from the Executive and from the prosecutors, for example by showing a greater inclination to demand that prosecutors properly justify their requests to place defendants in pre-trial detention.

The Government recognizes there is still a lot of work to do, not least in the area of training investigators, prosecutors and judges.  Georgia’s free media can play an important role in highlighting miscarriages of justice and scrutinizing the progress of judicial reform, as no doubt will the country’s vibrant civil society organizations, which are well developed and making a very important contribution to the country’s reform programme.  It is essential that trials are seen to be fair, transparent and free from any hint of political retribution.

An extraordinarily high number of criminal cases are still being resolved by plea-bargaining.  The plea-bargaining system – coupled with the previous virtual certainty of being convicted if their cases came to court – has at times meant innocent defendants have been left with no option but to pay exorbitant fines demanded by the prosecutors, with minimal involvement of judges – a form of officially sanctioned extortion, that led to people losing their homes and businesses.

I urge the Chief Justice, and all judges, prosecutors and employees of the law enforcement agencies, to cooperate fully with the judicial reform process.

Conditions in Georgia’s appallingly overcrowded prisons, where systematic torture and ill-treatment were rife, have significantly improved.  The number of prisoners has been dramatically reduced; there is much better health care; and reports of ill-treatment in prisons are now rare – although occasional allegations still emerge.  I have urged the authorities to maintain this momentum, and to consider allowing more NGOs to have access in addition to the National Preventive Mechanism.  I have also urged the setting up of an independent mechanism for investigating future allegations of ill-treatment or other abuses, as defined by the National Human Rights Action Plan due to be adopted later this year.

Similarly, I have also suggested an independent investigative body to look into allegations of abuse by the police and other law enforcement agencies.  According to the Minister of Interior, eight police officers have been prosecuted over the past two months.  However, an independent body would help remove the public’s doubts and suspicions over allegations of abuse, such as those relating to the case of former Prime Minister Vano Merabishvili.

Since many allegations relate to ill-treatment of detainees during their initial period in police custody, I believe it is particularly important that the new amendments to the existing legislation on witness questioning are enacted as soon as possible, so that questioning takes place before a judge, rather than hidden from the public view in police stations or prosecutors’ offices.  I urge the Government to speed up the training of investigators so that the enactment of these important amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code can be brought forward and put into practice.

The issue of surveillance, including wire-taps and use of secret video recordings of people’s private life by law enforcement personnel as a means of blackmail, is still a concern in Georgia, and I was very glad to hear that the new Government ordered the destruction of thousands of such video recordings.  Nevertheless, there is still a widespread belief that such recordings are continuing.

The Chairman of the Parliament informed me that the drafting of the planned new surveillance law is now complete and it should undergo its first reading in Parliament next week.  This is a very welcome development, although I understand that certain complex but key elements, such as regulating the relationship between law enforcement agencies and mobile phone companies, remain to be finalized.

One issue that civil society organizations raised with me concerns the treatment of minorities – including in particular certain religious and ethnic groups, as well as the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) communities.  The recently adopted Law on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination is an important step forward, although I have recommended that the Government consider ways of extending it to cover the private sector.

I have urged senior Government officials to speak out strongly and consistently in public in support of tolerance, stressing the importance of avoiding discrimination against any group.  All violence and hate speech must be loudly and unequivocally condemned by political and religious leaders, and perpetrators of crimes should be prosecuted.  No one should turn a blind eye to violence directed against people simply because of who they are.  That Georgia still has a long way to go on this issue, was illustrated by the fact that the LGBT community here felt it necessary to go into hiding on May 17, the International Day Against Homophobia, in order to avoid repetitions of violent attacks on them during previous May 17 events.

Similar resolution must be shown if the Government is to fulfil its commitment to improve the conditions facing religious and ethnic minorities, especially Georgia’s large Muslim community.  Many people, including a succession of Government ministers, stressed the importance of improved education, both for members of deprived communities – particularly those facing language difficulties – and of the majority to improve their understanding of the importance of equal treatment and tolerance for others.  Some minorities are also suffering disproportionately from the extreme poverty affecting many rural areas.

While I met several impressive women Ministers and senior officials during this visit, it is important that the number of women in decision-making roles including in Parliament, increases significantly.  Likewise, it is essential that efforts to strengthen legal protection of women against sexual and domestic violence are maximized, since studies show worryingly permissive attitudes on both domestic violence and violence as a means of disciplining children.

Georgia’s National Human Rights Action Plan and National Human Rights Strategy are landmark documents and incorporate many key standards laid down by the United Nations human rights mechanisms and the Council of Europe.  Legislation has been adopted, drafted or is planned in virtually all major areas where there are clear deficiencies, and I do not recall visiting any country during my six years in office where such a wide-ranging and thorough programme of human rights legislative reform has been launched in such a short space of time.

Of course, passing laws is one thing and effectively implementing them is another – which is why the June 27 signing of the Association Agreement with the European Union, which stimulated a number of legal reforms, must be seen (I quote the words of the Minister of Justice) “as the moment when everything begins,” rather than as an end in itself.  Effective implementation will only be achieved if there is careful coordination across all relevant Ministries, and I was therefore encouraged to hear from the Prime Minister that an inter-ministerial Human Rights Committee has been set up under his supervision.

The various UN human rights bodies, including my Office, will do their utmost to continue helping Georgia in these efforts.

Now to move on to an issue that remains a huge and painful wound for all the country’s citizens, namely the situation in Abkhazia, Georgia, and the Tskhinvali region, or South Ossetia, Georgia.

In spite of repeated efforts and the urging of the UN Secretary-General, my Office has consistently been denied access to Abkhazia and South Ossetia.  I myself have made efforts to visit, but once again access was denied.

My visit yesterday to an IDP settlement, and to the Administrative Boundary Line with South Ossetia, has confirmed my view that more attention needs to be paid to the situation of human rights in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Whereas some movement is allowed in and out of Abkhazia, especially to the Gali region, both for displaced people, returnees and for some UN agencies and other actors, South Ossetia has become one of the most inaccessible places on earth, with no access permitted for international agencies, except the ICRC.

This isolation has been growing in recent months.  Since May 2013, razor wire and other forms of fencing, as well as additional watch towers and other monitoring equipment, have been set up by Russian guards along a stretch of more than 50 kilometres of the Administrative Boundary Line with South Ossetia.  This is further impeding the right to freedom of movement for IDPs, and the enjoyment of rights to property, water, health, education and access to religious and cultural sites.  In recent weeks, two more villages have been cut off from South Ossetia by the expanding barrier.

Civilians seeking to cross the Administrative Boundary Line are continuing to be unlawfully detained.  Their detention may last for several days, and they are only freed on payment of substantial fines, often simply for attempting to visit their own property on the other side of the wire to harvest their crops, including the valuable local delicacy known as jonjoli, which for many is their sole source of income.

As I saw for myself yesterday, the effect on local villagers on both sides of the wire is devastating.  I heard how two brothers who have ended up on different sides can now only communicate by shouting across the wire, and risk detention if they get too close to it.  I heard how one teenage boy in South Ossetia was detained simply for handing a cup of water to a friend on the other side.  I talked across the razor wire to one very brave 80-year-old man, Davit Vanishvili, whose house is surrounded by the wire, and is suffering in many ways as a result.  When his wife fell ill, he was unable to take her to the nearest hospital which is south of the ABL.  He has been harassed and his grandson detained on several occasions because they persist in communicating across the wire.

According to the government of Georgia, since May 1, restrictions on IDPs wishing to visit their property in Akhalgori in South Ossetia have grown more demanding.  Those who filed applications inside South Ossetia before May 1, are for the most part still not sure if they will be allowed to enter again.  Those who missed the May 1 deadline can no longer get through the checkpoint they need to traverse in order to lodge their application.

In all, some 250,000 people remain internally displaced in Georgia, unable to return to their homes and lands – in the case of the 220,000 from Abkhazia, for more than 20 years.  The Government, with the help of donors, has constructed good quality housing and established other essential facilities for many, though not yet all, of the IDPs, who also have unimpeded access to the labour market.  However, the time has perhaps come to mainstream action in favour of IDPs into national and regional development programmes as most of their needs are the same, or very similar, to that of the non-displaced population.

I am particularly concerned about the human rights situation inside South Ossetia. Reports suggest that living conditions are poor and getting poorer, affecting economic, social and cultural rights.  South Ossetia has become a black hole: very little is known about what goes on inside the region, as it has grown increasingly difficult for South Ossetians to come to other parts of Georgia, as well as for IDPs to visit the one part of South Ossetia where some visits had been allowed.

It is hard to see how this frozen, indeed worsening, situation is in anyone’s interests.  It is clearly affecting the human rights of many people – including the IDPs – and this is primarily the responsibility of the de facto authorities.  My Office and other organizations would be willing to provide much more protection, if we were permitted to monitor the situation inside both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and to help provide legal remedies, especially for the most vulnerable people.

Unfortunately, as things stand at present, the inhabitants of Abkhazia and South Ossetia are not benefitting from the promise of significant human rights and rule of law reforms of the type that are currently being rolled out to Georgians, and which have been the prime focus of this mission.  That is a matter of deep regret to me, and I hope for the sake of everyone that solutions to these hitherto intractable situations can be found.

For use of the information media; not an official record