By Eka Janashia (05/21/2014 issue of the CACI Analyst)
On May 2, Georgia’s parliament unanimously adopted a contested anti-discrimination bill required under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan in order to attain the short-term visa-free regime with EU.
The law on “Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination” envisages the introduction of mechanisms against discrimination conducted on the grounds of race, color, language, gender, age, citizenship, native identity, birth, place of residence, property, social status, religion, ethnic affiliation, profession, family status, health condition, disability, expression, political or other beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, and “other grounds.”
The law triggered enormous criticism from different groups of society and was preceded by heated debates in parliament.
The legal advocacy and watchdog organizations insist that the anti-discrimination law is a watered down version of the original document drafted by the Ministry of Justice, with the active engagement of a broad range of civil society groups and that it provides less efficient mechanisms, as well as financial penalties for discrimination cases, than the initial one. Whereas the original version envisaged setting up a new institution – an inspector for the protection of equality – in charge of overseeing the implementation of anti-discrimination legislation, the adopted law places this competence under the Public Defender’s Office (PDO).
According to Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), the existing legislation already empowers the PDO with almost the same authority. The purpose of the bill thus should have been to establish new and more effective legal instruments, rather than replicate the old ones. Further, while the anti-discrimination law foresees an expansion of the PDO’s authority, it does not ensure relevant financial support for it. An explanatory note accompanying the bill says that the anti-discrimination legislation will not incur any increase of state budget expenses necessary to recruit additional staff in line with the PDO’s new responsibilities.
Another, more powerful, group which has severely attacked the bill is the Orthodox Church and its radical followers. According to the Georgian Orthodox Church’s statement, released on April 28, the anti-discrimination bill legalizes a “deadly sin” by including “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” in the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination. The EU represents a conglomerate of different nations and religions claiming to recognize and respect the culture and traditions of various people and expresses its readiness to take into consideration Georgian values as well, but this bill overtly contradicts these principles, the statement reads.
Those against the bill also argue that it allows sexual minorities to be employed even in the preschool education sector, which is alarming as it could have negative implications for children’s mental development. Some radical priests even suggested that the visa-liberalization should be categorically rejected “rather than making such inclinations as homosexuality a legal norm.”
Commenting on the bill, Speaker of Parliament Davit Usupashvili said it is a question of whether Georgia will continue its European path, recognizing that “we should not chase people with sticks, we should not fire people from jobs if we do not share their opinions and their way of life, or else we should stay in Russia, where it is possible to expel people whom you dislike from a city.”
Despite the strong support provided by the liberal wing of politicians, heavy pressure from the clergy forced the lawmakers to make significant modifications to the bill.
Initially, some lawmakers including the Vice-Speaker of Parliament, GD MP Manana Kobakhidze, insisted that the entire list of prohibited grounds of discrimination should be removed, as was suggested by spiritual leaders. While this initiative was not met by the parliament, a note of “protection of public order and morale” was added to the draft law. According to the law, actions committed for this purpose will now not be considered as discrimination against a person. The human rights groups fear that the inclusion of terms such as “public order” and “morale” risks encouraging discriminative interpretations of the law. The special post of an inspector in charge of monitoring the implementation of the anti-discrimination legislation, as well as financial penalties, have also been removed from the draft.
On March 28, as the government adopted the bill and sent it to the parliament for approval, PM Irakli Gharibashvili appealed to the state constitutional commission, currently drafting constitutional amendments, to reformulate the definition of marriage in the constitution as a “union of man and woman.” He claimed that such an explicit definition will eschew wrong perceptions and interpretations of the planned anti-discrimination law. For most Georgian lawyers, the PM’s statement does not make sense because Georgia’s constitution says that “marriage shall be based upon the equality of rights and free will of spouses.” Further, Georgia’s civil code defines marriage as a “voluntary union of man and woman,” meaning that same-sex marriage is already banned in Georgia.
The government seemingly seeks to accommodate the clergy’s demands while simultaneously maintaining the trust of the pro-European electorate.