Legislative amendments passed in late December, including the one tightening party funding rules, "create an uneven political playing field" and appear to be motivated by "a desire to control the political activities of a specific individual" - an apparent reference to billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili - "rather than for objective and sustainable reasons," UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said after wrapping up his eight-day visit to Georgia on February 13.
Maina Kiai, who before becoming UN's special rapporteur year ago was chairman of Kenya's National Human Rights Commission and Africa Director of Amnesty International, visited Georgia on February 6-13. During the visit he met with government officials, the Public Defender, representatives of civil society organization and watchdog groups, as well as political parties in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. He is expected to report about the findings to the UN Human Rights Council in June, 2012.
While commending the Georgian authorities for efforts leading to "increased security and safety" of citizens, reduction in violent crimes and petty corruption and welcoming last year's legislative amendments on status of religious minority groups, Maina Kiai also spoke of "a number of worrying signs that indicate that the generally positive trajectory in Georgia could be derailed and the focus on modernization could lead to a widespread climate of fear, intimidation and arbitrary restrictions of fundamental freedoms."
"The only way Georgia can continue its path to prosperity, wealth and security is by respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms. The recent legislative acts, as well as state actions, appear to threaten this path," he said.
Echoing concerns of many local watchdog groups and opposition parties, the UN special rapporteur said, that the legislative amendments to the law on political parties passed in late December, "at times use ambiguous language" and "are fueling an overall climate of distrust and appear to largely violate international human rights law."
The Georgian human rights watchdog and legal advocacy groups say, that the legislative amendment, which tightens party funding rules and also applies restrictions set for parties to organizations or individuals “directly or indirectly” related with political parties, “will have a restrictive effect on civil-political activities.” The groups also say that "the ambiguous and extensive nature of norms" creates a risk of selective application of its provisions.
The UN special rapporteur said, that these legislative amendments "applies restrictions on every person in this country for the mere reason of holding political opinions."
"This violates the right to association, and is potentially threatening to watchdog NGOs and civil society organizations whose work could be deemed political," he said, adding that it was causing "unnecessary fear to NGOs that their right of association, and their ability to operate freely, making their own decisions on political issues, could be compromised."
He said, that a provision in the legislative amendments, stipulating that these restrictions cannot be used against freedom of expression and civil engagement, "is not sufficient as a safeguard against potential abuse."
Maina Kiai also said he was "disturbed" that the law gave "extraordinary discretional authority" to the state audit agency, Chamber of Control, which has been tasked to monitor political finances, "to decide, in its own state of mind and without substantiating its decisions, and without clear criteria or possibility to appeal the decision, whether a legal or physical person 'is related' to a political party."
Speaking about break up of anti-government protest rally on May 26, 2011, the UN special rapporteur said, that "the clear excessive" force was used by the police, raising "the suspicion that the intention was not so much to disperse protesters as it was to punish and spread fear." He called for "a new, independent and transparent investigation" of those events with the participation of all stakeholders.
He also criticized Georgia's "very difficult labor environment". Recalling a strike of steel plant workers in Kutaisi last year, he said he was "concerned by the allegations of harassment and intimidation against workers who belong to or have expressed sympathy or desire to join labor unions."
The UN special rapporteur also expressed concern about "allegations of dismissals of public and private sector employees in Georgia for apparently supporting opposition parties."
"This seems to mostly affect teachers whose employment is on contract and not protected as public servants," he said, apparently referring to recent reports that several teachers from a school in Sachkhere district have been sacked for supporting billionaire opposition politician Bidzina Ivanishvili, including through signing a petition for restoration of Georgian citizenship for Ivanishvili.