Today, on January 28, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili has address the winter session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).
Mr. President, Excellencies, Distinguished Members of the Assembly, Ladies and Gentlemen
First of all, let me start by congratulating Mr. Hendrik DAEMS upon his election as the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I wish you, Mr President, a successful tenure. I wish this Assembly constructive work under your guidance.
It is an honor for me to address you today. It is an important occasion as Georgia has assumed this year the Presidency of the Committee of Ministers for the first time. This is an important responsibility and a wonderful opportunity at the same time. Yesterday, our Foreign Minister has presented our priorities during this presidency – 1. Human Rights and Environmental Protection; 2. Civil Participation in Decision-Making Process; 3. Child Friendly Justice – Converging Experience on Restorative Justice in Europe; and 4. Strengthening Democracy through Education, Culture and Youth Engagement.
These priorities were selected to reflect the challenges that are faced by our societies today and are intended to launch comprehensive discussion on possible solutions. I hope that the 6 months ahead of us will be fully used for fruitful deliberations and to identify the next steps to be taken for further progress in our common endeavor.
Seventy years ago, Post World War II Europe, fully understanding the true value of peace and the need to bounce back from the destruction and the despair, created the Council of Europe to “achieve a greater unity between its Members for the purpose of safeguarding and realizing the ideals and principles which are their common heritage, and facilitating their economic and social progress” - and it did.
The adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights laid the ground for the organization and became the guideline for every Member. Democracy, human rights and rule of law became the core principles that we all need to adhere to and to be guided by.
I strongly believe, that each and every member of the Council of Europe should abide by the values and principles of this organization. We individually and collectively have subscribed to the same standards and rules and therefore, are equally responsible to follow and implement these, whether small or large country, old or new democracy, developed or emerging economy. Hence, equality of treatment, objectivity in assessment, and fairness in implementation are the sine qua non conditions for the organization to remain credible, trusted and efficient.
Progress and development bring ever more issues and challenges, that members attempt to individually tackle. In reality, most of these challenges, being global in form and universal in essence, need a unified response and the Council of Europe is the place where we come together, share knowledge and best practices. Here, through cooperation and mutual support we come up with common solutions.
The Council of Europe has been reflecting on the most contemporary issues, has been setting new principles, elaborating Conventions, which adopted by the Council, are then translated into national legislations. That is how we all progress. Though the hardest part we all face is …the implementation! And Georgia is no exception!
Georgia celebrated 20 years of membership last year. It had recovered independence from the Soviet rule just 12 years before that. Today it’s even difficult to imagine where we were and how fast this revolution has happened. We have come a long way. Acceeding to the Council of Europe has marked the start of the path towards the transformation of our society, the liberation of the individuals, the democratization of the political system, the consolidation of democratic institutions and of a state based on the rule of law. A path that corresponded to the free choice of our nation, a choice that has never faltered, and which is to this day inspiring us and bringing us ever closer to the European integration.
In this short (in historical perspective) time, Georgia has succeeded to turn itself from a post-soviet state, into an emerging ever stronger and vibrant (sometimes some would say too vibrant) democracy; She has turned into a modern European state with stronger institutions, free economy, sustained economic growth, developing social and healthcare systems, all in an environment of stability.
This is a country that managed to pave its way towards the European Union and NATO, despite “everything” and everything it was : conflicts frozen and open war, occupied territories, threats and attempts to destabilization. We have managed reforms, in compliance with most of the membership requirements, despite sometimes pain and hardship and the strain of brutal changes on the population. We have managed to move forcefully in one and only one direction with the unwavering support of the absolute majority of the population.
Achieving the Association Agreement, the DCFTA, the visa-free regime and the substantial package – has been a demonstration of these achievements and the acknowledgement by our Partners, that Georgia was and is a trustworthy partner. We know that the end of the road is still not reached that it will take political will and readiness to achieve the last wave of reforms. That last stretch is not the easiest one but the most rewarding it will be.
Standing here, is an important opportunity for me to reflect on some of these achievements while recognizing the challenges and reflecting on steps for the future.
The new Constitution adopted in 2018 is a shift to yet another stage of our democratic development. It demonstrates our commitment to human rights protection – in addition to the fundamental rights and freedoms, this Constitution has introduced the newest in social, economic and environmental rights, that places it on a similar footing to those of modern and progressive European states.
Environmental rights, more specifically protection of individuals and communities against environmental harm is a priority that most countries are now learning how to deal with. It is a UN Sustainable Development Goal, that we all agreed on beyond our continent. I believe, that caring about our planet requires joint efforts at every geographical, political or societal levels. Therefore, it’s no accident, that Georgia chose Human Rights and Environmental protection as one of the priorities for our presidency. We intend to pursue this priority not only during our Presidency term, but well beyond.
Since joining the Council, Georgia adopted 89 Conventions and Protocols. I would like to single out one of the latest ratifications - the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
As the first woman President of Georgia, I am no exception for Georgia fares as a progressive country in gender equality. We have had women governing the country centuries ago, and Georgia’s constitution in 1920 already ensured equal political rights for women not only to elect, but to be elected. The Constituant Assembly of Georgia had five women members, one of them the first Moslem woman to be elected. Still, I consider it my special responsibility to go beyond the existing state, when already half of the cabinet of Ministers is composed of women including two vice prime ministers, but we have to go further.
My personal duty is to promote and encourage equal opportunities and equal treatment of men and women at every level of the society, in every part of Georgia. Unfortunately, the need to safeguard women from violence at home or elsewhere, has appeared in recent years even in Georgia which seemed immune to such excesses. But drastic social changes, economic hardship has had its toll and families have been giving in to the spiral of domestic abuse and violence. The Istanbul Convention sets high standards for preventing violence, protection of victims and most importantly, prosecuting accused offenders and it will be at the center of my attention to see that it is implemented without complacency or hesitations.
In 2019, Georgia adopted important pieces of legislation in order to further enhance the protection of human rights.
I am proud that Georgia has taken, among the few that have moved in that direction, an important step towards ensuring equality - by defining and prohibiting sexual harassment. The society itself is slowly accepting the terms and there are more and more individuals aware of their rights, especially in the workplace.
The adoption of Code on the Rights of the Child was an important milestone for reinforcing the state system that ensures the welfare and protection of every child. The code also creates greater guarantees to promote and ensure the participation of children in the decision making on all matters that concern them. We are now in the process of creating and improving the mechanisms to implement the Code.
Adoption of the new Law on Occupational Safety is an achievement towards improving employment rights. It establishes high standards of protection, effective sanctions, enhances the mandate of labor inspection and aims to change the working culture. The Law reflects the ILO recommendations and the respective EU directives. The next step entails active work on reinforcing the Labor Inspection in order to ensure a proper implementation of the standards. Strict implementation in practice, which is still to be achieved, will depend directly on the effectiveness of the inspection and monitoring system.
Human Rights need constant safeguarding. Here I would like to once again underline the significance of the Law on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, that protects all minority groups from discrimination.
I participated in the ceremony dedicated to the 5th World Forum on Holocaust in Jerusalem last week. Jewish people in Georgia have co-existed for 26 centuries without a single persecution on ethnic or religious grounds. Our friendship is an example that both nations are proud of. In today’s world of conflicts and tensions, such an illustration of peaceful cohabitation is even more valuable and necessary for all. That’s why I strongly believe that the exceptional relations of Georgians and Jews deserve special acknowledgement as an intangible cultural heritage. We are working towards submitting on this ground an application to the UNESCO world intangible heritage list.
Many different religions have been practiced in Georgia for centuries and respective groups have peacefully cohabited. We have districts in the capital Tbilisi and Kutaisi – the second largest city – where orthodox, catholic, and Armenian Gregorian Churches, the Synagogue and the Mosque are built next to each other. The Tbilisi Mosque is the only one today where Shia and Sunni Moslems pray together. These traditional tolerance and coexistence is still very much a reality and has not been overshadowed by distrust and isolation.
While The Georgian Orthodox Church has a special constitutional status in the country, the state also acknowledges the rights of other religious organizations through the State Agency for Religious Affairs. At this time there are 11 denominations working with the Agency, which channels legal and financial support to the organizations.
I would like to recall that Georgia is among the countries that grant full linguistic, cultural and religious rights to the national minorities living on our territory. We have co-existed for centuries and this diversity is an integral part of Georgia’s socio-economic development. These minorities enjoy full rights to their language, culture and traditions to such an extent that a majority of the national minorities living in the regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli do not speak the state language, an obstacle to promotion and integration. Efforts are made to overcome these limitations and to ensure a better participation of these minorities in the social and cultural life in the country.
One sensitive issue in our society remains the rights of sexual minorities to promote their rights in the public space. Both the religious traditions, but even more the weight of soviet puritanism explain the adverse reactions to public demonstrations of the LGBT community, such as the pride. The authorities are taking necessary measures to protect these rights and that of freedom of expression while preventing conflicts between different social groups. Law enforcement bodies have managed these sensitive situations and have been effective in physically protecting minority groups on such occasions.
Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the Georgian constitution and is fully enforced. Practice goes beyond its legislation: freedom has no limits, sometimes putting strains on the society for hate speech and the absence of any form control or self-restraint generate as elsewhere its own adverse effects on the social climate. Here like in most of the free developed countries, social media where free expression does not go hand in hand with responsibility and is often accentuated by anonymity, is adding to the existing tensions of an already polarized society.
Today all media outlets and social media enjoy enjoy full freddom. No media outlet has been fined or constrained by a public or judicial decision of any kind. When the ownership of an opposition TV channel – Rustavi 2 was contested in Georgian court, and while it was portrayed as an attempt by the government to overtake the control of this channel, none of the kind happened. To the contrary, and for the whole period of the trial, tax authorities refrained from administrative actions even to request payments of tax arrears amounting to 23 million Lari.
The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court of Georgia and from there, to the European Court of Human Rights. In its decision last July, the ECHR stated that none of the articles of the European convention had been violated in relation to Rustavi 2, including the right to a fair trial and recognized the impartiality of the Georgian judicial system in that regard.
After a few years of endless protests against the presumed attempt by the authorities to take over the R2 opposition channel, the judgement of the courts as confirmed by Strasburg’s court ruling, returned the channel to its legitimate owners. Contrary to the dramatic forecasts, the change in ownership did not result in any change of the broadcasting policy.
R2 is remaining to this day as vibrant an opposition channel as before, while the Georgian media scene has been enriched by a handful of new opposition channels that have meanwhile gone in the air. Today’s media landscape in Georgia is one of the most diverse, free and uncontrolled as can be, and it is clear that opposition channels are the ones to give the tone.
Georgia has developed a comprehensive approach towards human rights and the Government adopted the National Human Rights Strategy and Action Plan for 2014-2020. The implementation process was recently evaluated by an independent expert, commissioned jointly by EU and UN. It is noteworthy, that the report “welcomes the significant progress made, to greater and lesser degrees, in almost all of the specific subject areas addressed in the Strategy”.
We all understand that meticulous work needs to continue in order to implement these achievements in practice and monitor the impact on the protection and enjoyment of human rights. The role of the Public Defender is vital in this process. The Ombudsman provides sets of recommendations in each Annual Report presented to the Parliament. Though the number of implemented recommendations is growing, there is still room for improvement.
From the monitoring perspective, the Parliament gained expanded oversight functions under the new Constitution, that should be actively applied. The new Rules of Procedure created more mechanisms to make the Parliament effective in monitoring implementation and inform policy decisions, including “Minister’s Hour”, thematic inquiry and interpellation. The role of opposition has also increased in conducting oversight functions. During 2019 the Parliament held 13 “Minister’s Hour”, 3 thematic groups and 4 interpellations.
The progress has been evidenced by the European Court of Human Rights statistics regarding the human rights situation in Georgia. More people attain justice in Georgian courts and have no need to further apply to the ECHR. In the last six years the number of applications has been reduced 4 times. Meanwhile the rate of successful execution of the Court rulings that have been confirmed by the Committee of Ministers’ resolutions is growing. Progress has also been achieved in the commitment to settle cases at the national level. To date 128 cases were struck out through friendly settlement and government decisions.
Substantial progress has been made in strengthening alternative dispute resolution mechanisms - mediation and arbitration, in support of the judicial reform and reduction of caseloads domestically and in ECHR.
I have mentioned individual Georgian cases at the European Court of Human rights several times. But I must draw your attention to two inter-state cases – Georgia vs. Russia.
• Massive deportation of Georgians from Russia in 2006 – Georgia won the case on its merits in 2014. However, the Grand Chamber decision on compensation of damages in the amount of 10 million Euros for 1,500 Georgian nationals was taken only on 31 January, 2019. To this day, Russia disregards this decision and does not fulfill its unconditional obligation.
I have to reiterate here the call from our authorities to this organization and its members to press Russian authorities into fulfilling its obligations and pay the compensations to the victims without further delay. Double standards not only are not acceptable per se, but they weaken in the first place the organization and its principles.
• 2008 Russia-Georgia war – the final hearing was held almost two years ago, in may 2018. We are still waiting for the Court to deliver the judgement in a timely manner, which has been awaited by the victims since August, 2008. Most importantly, the Georgian society as a whole expects the justice to be served. It is also an example for the others. Again standards should apply. Justice should be delivered.
The independence of the judiciary and building public confidence in the court system remains a priority for Georgia. We have completed three stages of the reform and now the Parliament is working on the next set of amendments to ensure what is called the “fourth wave” . This fourth wave entails:
• Improvement of the mechanisms and of the framework of disciplinary liability of judges: namely, forms of the disciplinary liability of judges; various aspects of the legal proceedings; the Independent Inspectors Agency of the High Council of Justice strengthened;
• Solving the problem of backlog of cases;
• Reforming the High School of Justice;
• Elaborating regulations regarding the High Council of Justice (with emphasis on Transparency, Accountability and on the Procedures of the nomination of the judges).
The amendments will be introduced to the Parliament of Georgian in the coming weeks and it plans to finalize the process during the spring session.
In spring 2019, the Parliament revised the nomination and selection process for appointing the Supreme Court judges, to ensure transparency, accountability and professional evaluation of the candidates. There were five main recommendations provided by the Venice Commission, four of which the Parliament has endorsed. Transparency of the process was achieved and the selection process was generally positively assessed by the interested parties, international organizations and civil society.
The interviews were broadcast live, both at the High Council of Justice and the Parliamentary Committee hearings. Following the Venice Commission recommendation, the Parliament refrained from appointing all 20 judges and selected and appointed only 14 Supreme Court judges (2 current sitting judges and 12 new judges), leaving for the next Parliament to complete the task. Currently, 9 out of the 22 Supreme Court judges are women (40%). Some criticisms were expressed on the qualification criteria applied to the candidates by the High Council. The next selection process will thus have to be improved.
There are still criticisms towards the Georgian judicial system, some objective since the process is till ongoing, some politically motivated. However, the assessments and evaluations conducted by international organizations tend to more positiove assessments :
• The Heritage Foundation ranked Georgia 18 among the European courts
• World justice project puts Georgia in the top 20 for court efficiency
• Global competitiveness index puts Georgia on 15th place for public safety and 13th for its protection from organized crime
And last but not least, The results of the IPSOS survey identified that 51% of Georgians trust the justice system, which is similar to the average trust rate in the European courts. These numbers speak for themselves!
The path of democracy goes through free and fair elections. OSCE/ODIHR has provided substantial recommendations for improving the election processes. The parliamentary working group has been actively working since summer 2019 to draft amendments to the election code to incorporate the respective recommendations. The working group comprises of representatives of not only parliamentary parties, but other qualified political forces as well.
On the path to secure free and fair elections, Georgia has worked a long way, has gradually improved the processes and each election has marked a step forward, but clearly more changes need to be enforced in order to increase the public trust towards the process and secure a high level of participation. I am confident that the ongoing process will deliver a better electoral code and raise the standards.
But in reality, the biggest challenge to holding free and fair elections and to democracy in general is the progressive and extensive polarization in the political life which in the end affects all aspects of the society as cancer invades all healthy cells of the body. This is a challenge that increasingly many countries face today and Georgia is no exception.
Unacceptance of different opinions, aggression and hate speech divide our societies, antagonize individuals, fuel distrust and division. Coupled with fake news and disinformation, polarization becomes a fertile ground for outside influence during election campaigns and beyond. The extreme negativism deprives our population of the opportunity to unite around important and common issues. Meanwhile we have the resource of such issues that are matters of consensus: overcoming occupation of our territories, consolidating independence and achieving European integration are national objectives that could serve as a unifying platform.
It is my hope and aspiration that Georgian society puts more effort towards reconciliation and unification around the common threats. I personally have meticulously avoided to be highjacked in anyways by the polarization process, as I believe deeply that only in a strong consensus on our major values and priorities can this country continue not only its democratic development, but consolidate its independence and strive to end the occupation. A divided country cannot confront these challenges successfully.
It’s been almost 12 years since the Russia-Georgia war. 20% of Georgian territory remains occupied.
The human rights situation in the occupied territories is deteriorating constantly. The administrative boundary line is being shifted continuously and crossing points closed for mundane reasons obstructing freedom of movement for the population living in Abkhazeti and Tskhinvali Region. The crossing point to Tskhinvali region has been closed since September. The practice of closing the crossing points has resulted in tragedies, such as the death of Ms. Margo Martiashvili is one of the many, too many tragedies that result from this closure – she needed urgent medical evacuation and the security forces did not let her cross to the Georgia controlled territory to receive proper medical treatment.
All our citizens there suffer human rights deprivation, lack of adequate health services. prohibition of education in native Georgian language as well as restrictions to teachings in Abkhazian or Ossetian languages through the policy of Russification. But also intensified ethnically-targeted violations against what is now a very small Georgian minority in the enclave of Gali.
Citizens living on our side of the ABL in villages that have been partitioned, are kidnapped, ransomed, in some cases tortured or even killed for not having respected a border that has no legal existence and that from one day to the other suddenly appears in their backyard or goes through the village and its traditional graveyards. The latest incident was the detention of doctor Vazha Gaprindashvili for entering the occupied Tskhinvali region in order to provide medical help to local patients. Such acts go against all internationally recognized humanitarian rules and create grounds for additional escalation. I would like to use this forum to thank all our international partners for the enormous effort in supporting the release of Dr. Gaprindashvili after two months detention.
The international monitoring of the situation is very limited due to the fact that the European Union Monitoring Mission while being mandated to operate throughout the whole territory of Georgia, is not in fact allowed in the occupied regions by the Russian Federation. This is a violation of the 2008 Cease Fire Agreement.
Last summer Georgia filed a new inter-state case at the European Court of Human Rights regarding the violations of human rights on the occupied territories by Russia. They concern the violations of seven Articles of the Convention and three articles of Protocols 1 and 4.
On our part, Georgia’s peace initiative “A Step to a Better Future” is a very vivid demonstration of our commitment, aiming at improving the humanitarian and socio-economic conditions of people residing in Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions. We support fostering confidence building among divided communities to the benefit of all people. But our peace initiative, our unilateral decision not to use war as a way to resolve the conflict, has not been reciprocated in any way. To the contrary, incidents, threats, militarization of the occupied territories are the only answers.
The Geneva International Discussions are politically stalled. The Incident Prevention Mechanisms are rarely successful in solving technical issues. Both instruments are marked with constant walk-outs, as soon as important issues are raised. No progress or perspective seems to be expected from the existing formats. They have to be reinvigorated, to receive a new political input in order to become a format for solving the conflict, not merely managing it.
I strongly believe that our only solution is diplomacy – based on the national consensus I referred to already and with the support of our international partners. The United Nations General Assembly, The UN Security Council, the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, The OSCE Parliamentary Assembly have adopted numerous resolutions related to Georgia-Russia war. That is very important as a demonstration of international support. But we need more!
We need engagement of all and we are ready to do our part, in order to find the path to a solution that will allow our country to regain unity and to ensure freedom all over its territory.
Since my election, I have been actively working towards raising the Georgian occupation high on the political agenda of our partners.
We call upon all our partners to restore the Georgian issue in all their bilateral or multilateral talks with Russia, reminding it of its commitments under the ceasefire agreement, in particular de-escalation on the ABL, allowing the EUMM to monitor the whole region aiming at de-occupation and reunification of territories, but moreover of the people.
Beyond the tragedy that the boundary line of the occupied territories represents and a moving division line that places Russian forces at some 30 kilometers from our capital city, or the multiplication of military bases on both occupied territories, the issue is that ordinary citizens deserve a better life.
For centuries Georgia was the eastern frontier for Europe, bridging east and west, Asia and Europe. For centuries Georgia has shared and defended the very same values of freedom, tolerance that we have put as the guidelines of our organization.
Since independence Georgia has had more than its share of tensions, conflicts, war on its territory, the tensions have also risen in the region around us, global challenges have made their way to us . In this context, what should surprise us is not that Georgia has not yet succeeded in all its endeavors, has not achieved its reform plans and has still progress to accomplish, surprising is how much it has managed despite all of that. Surprising is the resilience of this small country, surprising is the level of democracy reached so 70 years of soviet rule, surprising is its capacity to maintain stability and preserve peace despite the occupation of its territories, surprising is its determination to build democracy and not to let its own and European values be challenged from outside or from within. Extremism has not taken roots in Georgia, foes from outside have not led us to isolation or aggression.
In the 21st century development and progress have brought new challenges that no country can individually tackle – climate change, aging population, migration, digital revolution, and populism/polarization.
We need to stand united around these issues in all multilateral formats. We need to stand strong in our commitment to jointly define what needs to be done. We need to promise that dialog will be the only tool to debate how we do it. We need to guarantee that all our decision and actions will be based on the principles of rule of law, human rights and democracy.
Our individual dedication will make the Council of Europe stronger, its institutions effective and members successful.