Human Rights Situation in Georgia and South Ossetia

Thu, 27/01/2011 - 18:43

Briefing by the NGO “Renaissance” (“Sandidzan”)
United Nations Office in Geneva

27 January 2011

The key topic of the event is, as you could have read in the announcement, the human rights situation in Georgia and South Ossetia. We have organized this briefing, for Georgia will tomorrow undergo the Universal Periodic Review – the procedure that allows international community to evaluate in a fair and objective manner the situation on the ground. But nevertheless sometimes UPR encounters a lack of information, and we see a positive role of the NGO community and the civil society as a whole in providing a more comprehensive account of the current state of affairs on the ground.

May I bring to your attention our report. It is the result of long-lasting activities of our organization. And after the presentation we will be ready to answer your questions and listen to your comments.
Georgia positions itself as a fast and effectively developing young democracy. It claims success in the making democratic institutions and protection of human rights, while conducting dialogue with human rights monitoring procedures.
The national report, that has been presented to Human Rights Council, however, doesn’t reflect the real situation on the ground. That is why it is necessary to keep the international community informed to create objective opinion, based on the information, compiled by different sources – both international and national. Georgia will be presenting their report tomorrow, on the 28 of January, so we are going to give some important information on human rights situation in this country. In many cases I will refer to the National Report of Georgia and the compilations of information provided by the OHCHR.
First, regarding the situation with the national human rights institution of Georgia - the Office of the Public Defender. Georgian national report claims that it is one of the most important bodies that implements the internal monitoring of human rights protection system and supervises compliance with national and international human rights standards. According to the paragraph 17 of the Report, the Public Defender is independent in exercising his/her functions and is bound only by the Constitution and the law. The law prohibits any undue pressure or interference in the Public Defender’s activities.
Unfortunately, the Georgian authorities openly hindered the activities of the former Public Defender Sozar Subari. In 2007 he was assaulted and beaten by the Georgian police for the simple reason that he joined the demonstration of the opposition, despite the fact that he informed the police of his post. His frank and independent approach to the human rights violations did not allow him to occupy this post for long – he was not reelected.
His summary report on the human rights conditions in the State from 2007 to 2010 contains 1300 pages, and exposes numerous human rights violations in so-called “leader of the developing democracies.”
Under the country’s law, this report should be presented in Parliament twice a year (in March and October). Several times, first in 2006, the presentation was postponed without valid reasons. In 2008 he was compelled to present this report to a civil society in a hotel instead of the parliament. In his speech he said then “The fact, I’m standing here, not in the Parliament, but in the hotel “Marriot” in Tbilisi in front of you shows, how the parliamentarians take human rights problems. This clearly shows that still there are hundreds and thousands of violations of human rights in Georgia.”
The national report clearly says that the judiciary and justice are independent. Meanwhile, numerous witnesses including the Ombudsman, have repeatedly stated that judges of all levels depend upon the executive power. It is reflected in the NGO compilation that the judicial system and the Office of the Prosecutor have become just an instrument for the fulfillment of governmental orders. Reports of the independent NGOs confirm reliable facts of politically motivated convictions, pressure on witnesses from the authorities and other gross violation. The Ombudsman has several times stated that courts in Georgia depend on the prosecutors and act in accordance with their orders. He put it in this way: “the courts have become a sort of notary office to enforce prosecutorial decisions”
First example are ethnic Ossetians – Alan Khachrov, Alan Khugaev, Soltan Pliev. They disappeared on the 13 of October 2008. Alan Khachirov, at the moment he was kidnapped, was just 15 years old.
I would like to draw your attention to the report, made by independent international experts Nicholas Sibir from France and Bruce Pegg from Australia, based on the information from the OSCE patrol. This report has been made on 14 October 2008 and says, in particular, that three Ossetians have been transferred to Gori on 13 of October. Experts believed that these Ossetians were Alan Khachirov, Alan Hugaev and Soltan Pliev.
These three people are still missing, and this is despite the fact that South Ossetia has repeatedly sent the information on missing persons to the Georgian side, OSCE and the EU representatives. This is despite the fact that authorized representatives of Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, have confirmed that Georgian security agencies were holding them hostages.
Another case. In October 2008 Georgian law enforcement bodies took Ossetian citizens Laliev, Kaziev and Toroshelidze. They have been condemned by the court of Gori and were released after year and three months. For four months they suffered from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Examples of this kind are ample.
According to the paragraph 37 of the National Report, “In recent years Georgia has attained significant progress in fight against torture, cruel and inhuman treatment.” Nothing more to comment. We urge the international community, including NGOs, to take part in the fate of these three people, who are victims of enforced disappearance, torture and inhuman treatment.
The Law on Freedom of Speech and Expression that was passed in June 2004 guarantees numerous media freedoms. In particular it is aimed to protect journalists not only from the pressure of the State but also from private persons or entities. The freedom of speech is also emphasized in the national report of Georgia.
Unfortunately this law is yet to be implemented, and the freedom is yet to be guaranteed. The gross violations of the freedom of speech, as well as oppression and intimidation of journalists, continue. The mass media remain under governmental control.
On 7 November 2007 members of security forces broke into the building of the opposition TV-channel “IMEDI”, following its reports of dissent with the Governmental policy. The channel was closed; the property and equipment were severely damaged. It happened not long before the presidential elections. Then IMEDI was reopened, but its leadership was changed, and since then the channel has become another voice of the Government.
A more recent example. Vakhtang Komakhidze, a well-known journalist, the head of a studio named “Reporter” visited South Ossetia in the end of 2009. He collected some materials on the 2008 conflict and intended to make a documentary film on those events, exposing facts that Georgian authorities wanted badly to conceal. Then his troubles started – according to his own words, the authorities began threatening him and his family. He had to flee to Switzerland and apply for the status of political refugee. He is currently staying in Geneva.
Finally, how come that a country with free media completely bans many foreign TV-channels on its territory? It is a rather rhetorical question, but Georgia is the case.
The national report says that ethnic minorities in Georgia are fully protected. Meanwhile, facts speak just the opposite. The Ossetian minority is exposed to various forms of discrimination in all fields – education, social service, property, participation in decision-making. In many cases they are also deprived of their culture, identity, and language.
Ethnic Ossetian population of Georgia, which has drastically decreased after the mass expatriations and proscriptions in 1991-1992, has a very limited opportunities to be educated in their native language, since Ossetian schools continue to be closed in Georgia as it has happened in the village Bolkvi, Lagodekhi region, Georgia.
Let us take as an example a distribution of land. As a practice, ethnic Ossetians receive smaller and less fertile pieces than Georgians. For instance, 148 ethnic Ossetians were gravely discriminated during the distribution of the lands in the village Tsitskanantseris, Karely region, Georgia. Five dwellers of the village Pichkhovani - Bogiry, Lagodekhy region, Georgia were treated in the same manner.
Even the rights of children from Ossetian families who stayed in Georgia after ethnic cleansings in 1990s are affected; they are deprived of their right to learn their native Ossetian language. In 2007 the Ministry of Education of South Ossetia voluntarily sent to Georgia a truck loaded with textbooks. I would like to underline that this request was supported by Georgian directors of schools with Ossetian pupils. However, at the check point at Gori town the truck was stopped and the textbooks were confiscated on the false pretext that they were politically biased. These were textbooks on language and national traditions for children from 1 to 5 years.
Finally I would like to come to another painful issue – ethnic cleansing and mass exoduses. In accordance with the data provided by the last Soviet census in 1989, 126 thousand Ossetians lived in Georgian mainland. This number does not include the population of South Ossetia Autonomous Region, which is nowadays the territory of South Ossetia.
According to last Georgian census in 2002 the Ossetian population constituted only 36 thousand. It was the result of a systemic policy of ethnic cleansing and expulsion conducted by Georgian authorities.
It is mere statistics, but they represent huge human suffering. In 1991-1992 80 thousand Ossetians had to flee from Georgia, since they were threatened to be raped, tortured and murdered. Another 10 thousand were forced to flee later. 9 villages of Gudzharet gorge, villages Sakavre and Picesi and other settlements in Gori and Karel districts became completely depopulated.
The property of the ethnic Ossetians – both movable and immovable – has never been returned. No compensation was given, not even an assessment of their loss was conducted.
Meanwhile, in 2008, 2009 and 2010 Georgian delegation presented to the UN General Assembly a draft resolution on refugees and displaced persons from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It talks about the rights of ethnic Georgians that were displaced following the military aggression of Georgian armed forces on South Ossetia. In fact, South Ossetia suggested getting refugees back to Leningor district with help of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Up till this happens their legal status will be indefinite. Some of the citizens of Georgian nationality that has got territorial asylum and a status of a refugee in Georgia, are not forbidden to return to their homes in Leningor district if they are not being prosecuted for war and politic crimes.
At the same time in the Georgian resolution there is not a single word about tens of thousands of Ossetian refugees that were forced to flee Georgia during the past 20 years. Furthermore, there is not a single word about 36 thousand of Ossetian citizens forced to leave South Ossetia in August 2008 under massive shelling and bombing by the Georgian armed forces. Many of them haven’t returned till now, others came back just to find their houses in ruins. The problem of Ossetian refuges is severely neglected by the international community and has never drawn General Assembly’s attention in the shape of a resolution or any meaningful document. The main issue is that South Ossetians have no voice in the UN. Moreover, Georgia strongly objects guarantee non-aggression against South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and this severe security threat remains a significant obstacle to the return of the refugees to the region.
Now I would like to reflect upon the human rights situation in South Ossetia itself.
As a consequence of 20-years long policy of oppression, intimidation and hostility conducted by the Georgian authorities, the Republic faces grave economic and social problems, which aggravated due to the military aggression in 2008.
As we have already mentioned, refugees remains one of the painful points in the peace settlement of the conflict. As of today, only the International Committee of the Red Cross is working in South Ossetia on continuing basis. The work of the Committee is significant, and one of its positive examples is restoration of interethnic families. Under this program many families returned to their homes both in Georgia and South Ossetia. For the further solution of the problem it is necessary to activate this program within the UNHCR network to guarantee safe return.
Much attention is drawn to the Leningor district. During the 20-year conflict this part of the South Ossetia was controlled by Georgian local authorities and was merged into the Mtskheta-Mtianeti administrative region.
After the conflict in 2008 Georgia ceased exercising control over that territory and left it. For years it was mainly populated by Georgians and some of them preferred to move to Georgia. Others preferred to stay.
After the new Ossetian authority was set up, nobody was forced to do anything contradicting the interests of the Georgian population of the district. There was no warfare, no shootings in Leningor – the district was generally safe. Quite the contrary, authorities created enabling conditions for Georgians to work, to get education, to see relatives, that lived or moved to Georgia. Article 4-th of the Constitution of the South Ossetian Republic States that: “The Russian language, equally with the Ossetian language, and at the places of compact settlement of Georgians - the Georgian language shall be recognized as a language of State and other institutions.” And this article is observed by Ossetian authorities in Leningor.
Georgian population of South Ossetia can:
1. Go out for earnings to Georgia and get back freely;
2. Choose education – whether they want their children to get education in Georgia or in South Ossetia. One of the first school built after the conflict on the territory of South Ossetia was a new Georgian elementary school in Leningor, although reconstructions of schools in Tshinval hadn’t got off the ground at the moment. The schools have Georgian teachers, the program is accepted by Ministry of Education of Georgia. It is notable that Ossetian language in this school is an optional subject. Now there are 5 Russian and 6 Georgian schools in district.
3. Georgian population that have Georgian citizenship too, have the same working and living conditions as all citizens of South Ossetia. Moreover, they can get two pensions in two countries without any limitations from the Ossetian side.
In reference to crossing border there is no mutual arrangement between South Ossetia and Georgia, there are few temporary check points. Monthly load is as high as 18000 crossings. Customs formalities from the Ossetian side are simplified. But Georgian border guards frequently infringe crossing the border by Georgian citizens both from south Ossetia to Georgia and back. As a result, some villages experience lack of food supplies, medicines, press and etc. There were incidents of blocking of ambulance cars leaving for these villages from Tskhinval or Gori. Every individual case required interference of joint peace-keeping force and the OSCE. But sometimes it was too late. These facts were confirmed by NGOs that act on in Leningor district and sent to international organizations. For example Mr.Chibirov was held at the post nearby Avnev village for more than 10 hours. As a result he died.
It would be wrong to say that South Ossetia is free from human rights problems. Our democratic institutions are young, and they have a long way to develop. The independent judicial system has started functioning. Now Ossetian authorities are working to strengthen democratic environment, ensure the observance of human rights, helps develop vibrant and responsible civil society. But the country faces resource constraint. Therefore prisons conditions are far from ideal, law enforcement agencies do not always have opportunity to effectively combat crime. There is a considerable lack of qualified judges, and that is why the cases are heard after long and undue delays.
Due to economic constraints we have serious problems with ensuring economic and social rights – first and foremost, right to health and right to adequate housing.
Unfortunately, people of South Ossetia are deprived of their right to access international human rights justice mechanisms, such as treaty bodies or European Court for Human Rights. We urge the international community to facilitate accession of South Ossetia to applicable international instruments and individual complaints procedures.
In conclusion I want to call your attention to the words of the UN Secretary General who addressed to the Human Rights Council the day before yesterday. He stated that the universal periodic review shouldn’t be formal and thus it is necessary to make it effective and shed light on human rights violations across the world. This is because human rights belong to the humanity and each of us, since we all are humans.

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