Political leaders in Georgia must stop slandering civil society organisations

Some 49 member and partner NGOs of 13 Human Rights Houses issue a joint letter to political leaders in Georgia.

Mr President, Mr Prime Minister, Mr Chairman,

We, the undersigned 49 member and partner NGOs of Human Rights Houses, call upon political leaders in Georgia to stop slandering non-governmental organisations with unfounded accusations and refrain from discrediting their work and legitimacy. In the lead up to the presidential elections of 28 October 2018, public verbal attacks against human rights organisations by high-ranking officials are particularly alarming.

On 1 October 2018, 13 Georgian non-governmental organisations (including a member of Human Rights House Tbilisi: Article 42 of the Constitution) issued a joint statement expressing concern about the “severe” crisis of democratic institutions in Georgia and warning about their potential “breakdown”. The joint statement addressed the issues of high-level corruption and informal rule and demanded action from the Government. This statement was based on numerous instances of alleged corruption associated with the leadership of the ruling Georgian Dream party, and on legitimate concerns about the functioning of state institutions as documented by these very organisations throughout past months.

In response, Georgian high-level officials have launched a media smear campaign against civil society.

On 2 October 2018, Mr. Irakli Kobakhidze, the Chairman of the Parliament of Georgia, accused the leaders of the 13 NGOs of having “biased political views” and called them “a political union” rather than a real “civil society”.

On 3 October, the Minister of Justice of Georgia, Ms. Thea Tsulukiani, attacked the 13 NGOs, stating that they “represent political forces” and that “we are ready to register them as political parties”.

On 8 October, Mr. Irakli Kobakhidze further slandered the leaders of civil society as “accomplices to fascism”, because they did not react to the social media post of the director of one of the Georgian media companies.

The same day, following up to Mr. Kobakhidze’s second statement, the Mayor of Tbilisi, Mr. Kakha Kaladze, also publicly slandered the NGOs, who, according to him, were “founded by the opposition party United National Movement” (led by former President Mr. Mikheil Saakashvili) and were “either under false impressions or in debt”.

These statements prompted the Ombudsperson of Georgia, Ms. Nino Lomjaria, to note that “no Government has benefited from such a campaign and aggression against the NGOs.” She remarked that many NGOs were established long before the United National Movement came into existence, and she linked the smear campaign against civil society to their work.

Furthermore, while analysing the ongoing election campaign period, the leading election watchdog organisation in Georgia, International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy, documented unprecedented pressure on civil society from high-ranking officials.

With the presidential elections coming up in only a few weeks, the hostile climate towards civil society organisations is particularly alarming.

Unfortunately, such rhetoric against civil society and its leaders is not new. In 2015, more than 55 members and partners of Human Rights Houses issued a similar letter of concern regarding the slandering of NGOs by high-level government officials and politicians, who accused the civil society of “undermining” the functioning of the state.

The smear campaign against civil society groups by high-ranking officials and political figures is a cause for major concern. It is in clear violation of commitments made by Georgia, currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council, with regard to civil society space and recognition of the essential and legitimate role of human rights defenders in the promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law, according to resolution 72/247 adopted on 24 December 2017 by the United Nations General Assembly, a resolution co-sponsored by Georgia.

Moreover, smear campaigns against civil society are contrary to Georgia’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe, as member states should “ensure an enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders, in particular by… refraining from organising smear campaigns against defenders and other civil society activists and firmly condemning such campaigns where organised by non-state actors”.

The repeated verbal attacks against NGOs by high-ranking officials and political leadership hamper the expressed willingness of the Government to have inclusive and respectful public debates.

We call upon the Government and the Parliament to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can operate free from hindrance and insecurity, in view of Georgia’s Membership of the UN Human Rights Council, and in accordance with various Human Rights Council, General Assembly, and PACE (2225, 2018) resolutions and the Declaration of the Committee of Ministers (2008)The Government should refrain from and condemn any signs of a smear campaign against human rights defenders and their NGOs.

We hereby call upon you, Mr Chairman, to refrain from engaging in smear campaigns against civil society organisations. We further call upon you, Mr President, Mr Prime Minister and Mr. Chairmanto use the symbolic and political weight of your offices to express public support for the important role of human rights defenders and the legitimacy of their work,as well as the significance of their contribution to the public debate,in line with United Nations and C0uncil of Europe instruments.

Yours sincerely,

Human Rights House Azerbaijan (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center
  • Legal Education Society

Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, Vilnius (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Belarusian PEN Centre
  • Belarusian Association of Journalists
  • Legal Initiative

Human Rights House Belgrade (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM)

Educational Human Rights House Chernihiv (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Association of Ukrainian human rights monitors on Law Enforcement
  • Chernihiv public committee of human rights protection
  • Humanistic Technologies Center Ahalar
  • MART
  • No Borders Project
  • Postup
  • Transcarpathian Public Center
  • Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union

Human Rights House Crimea (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Almenda
  • Crimean Human Rights Group
  • Human Rights Information Centre
  • Regional Centre for Human Rights

Human Rights House Oslo (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Human Rights House Foundation
  • Health and Human Rights Info

Russian Research Centre for Human Rights (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Independent Psychiatric Association of Russia
  • Moscow Helsinki Group
  • Union of the Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia

Human Rights House Tbilisi (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Article 42 of the Constitution
  • Georgian Centre for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT)
  • Human Rights Centre (HRIDC)
  • Media Institute
  • Union Sapari – Family without Violence

Human Rights House Voronezh (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Civic Initiatives Development Centre
  • Memorial
  • Olga A. Gnezdilova, independent lawyer
  • Confederation of Free Labor
  • Youth Human Rights Movement
  • Youth Human Rights Group
  • Russian Union of Writers
  • Lawyers for Labor Rights
  • Charitable Foundation “For environmental and social justice”
  • Free University
  • Art-Group “Quadro”

Human Rights House Yerevan (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • Public Information and Need of Knowledge (PINK Armenia)
  • Real World, Real People
  • Women’s Resource Center
  • Socioscope NGO

Human Rights House Zagreb (on behalf of the following NGOs):

  • B.a.B.e. Be active. Be emancipated
  • Centre for Peace Studies
  • Croatian Platform for International Citizen Solidarity (CROSOL)
  • Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past

Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, Poland

Index on Censorship, United Kingdom

Human Rights House Tbilisi, founded in September 2009, is a collaborative project that unites five Georgian human rights organisations: Human Rights Centre, Article 42 of the Constitution, Georgian Centre for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims, Union “Sapari”, and Media Institute.  

Together with the Human Rights Houses, HRHF has significantly contributed to the establishment of the international legal mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders. HRHF has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council and the Network of Human Rights Houses has participatory status at the Council of Europe.

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