SPECIAL APPEAL OF 30 MEMBER NGOS OF SOUTH CAUCASUS NETWORK OF HUMAN RIGHTS DEFENDERS ON INTERNATIONAL DAY OF HUMAN RIGHTS

December 19th, 2009
On the 10th of December – the international day of human rights – the members of the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders celebrate the progress achieved in their struggle for freedom, equality and justice. 

Yet, we recognize with particular concern that the South Caucasus remains to be a part of the world where people who defend the rights and lives of others often fall victims of their own success – in response to their non-violent work for human rights they often face various forms of violence and repressions from the state.

In 2009 threats, torture, ill treatment, arbitrary arrests and detentions, unfair trials, defamation campaigns, and other forms of harassments against defenders and other citizens  have continued in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.  
Moreover, impunity for such violence remains prevalent.  

The year of 2009 witnessed serious, and at some extent successful, attempts by the governments in the South Caucasus to restrict and tighten the legal framework regulating the work of defenders and NGOs.  

Azerbaijan  

In June draft amendments to the NGO law were introduced in Azerbaijan – although under the pressure of international organizations, the government was not able to adopt the draft amendments as introduced, but some amendments were still adopted which restrict and unnecessarily burden creation and work of NGOs.  

According to the current law, e.g., if an NGO does not submit financial report no later than April 1 of each year, and fails to do so after receiving a written notification from an executive body, NGO is held accountable in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of AzerbaijanThe form of the report, text and the rules of its submission in a set period of time are determined by the executive body.  

Georgia

Restrictive laws have been adopted in Georgia as well, in particular 1) amendments to the Law on Assembly and Manifestation allowing interference in peaceful assembly and manifestation in situations which do not create actual  threat to the rights and freedoms of others and/or are not necessary to protect any public good of a higher value. 2) increase of the term of administrative detention from  30 up to 90 days. Such a detention can be applied among other activities for minor hooliganism violating public order and tranquility of citizens – an offence which allows a broad space for abuse of power to silence critical voices.

Concerns are rising in relation to yet another amendments to the Law on Police and the draft law similar to US Patriot Act pending before the Parliament currently. If adopted as they stand now, both laws will considerably increase executive’s authority to restrict civil liberties.  

Armenia  

Amendments imposing strict government control upon NGOs are currently pending before the Parliament of Armenia. According to the draft, NGOs must e.g., hold general assemblies once every four years and they are obligated to present an 11-point report, including financial one, to the Ministry of Justice and to the taxation service every year, also they should submit information about the head and all employees of the NGOs, etc.   

These facts demonstrate once again that the effects of attack against NGOs and the civil society in one country never stays limited within the borders of that particular country, especially in the regional context.

A dangerous tendency has emerged and is gaining force in all three countries – turning a victim into a criminal and on the other hand – punishing those who expose the violations rather than bringing to justice those who commit these violations.  

Just few examples of this tendency are cases of:

A human rights activist Mariam Sukhudyan in Armenia – charged with false denunciation and later on with slander for her video recording exposing sexual harassments of school children by their teacher in one of the schools in Armenia.  

A well-known human rights lawyer and chairman of Legal Education Society (LES) Intigam Aliyev, and LES lawyer Nurlana Aliyeva in Azerbaijan,– facing the risk of criminal prosecution and imprisonment for non-execution of the Civil Court’s Decision. The Court ordered them to pay a considerable fine and publish an apology for degrading “honor and dignity of the judge” as they published the  report which analyzes the legislation regulating disciplinary liability of judges and the practice of its implementation. The report emphasized deficiencies in the activity of that body, including the facts about impartiality and discrimination.

Dachi Tsaguria, Jaba Jishkariani and Irakli Kordzaia in Georgia, activists of the movement “November 7” – who were detained and fined by the administrative court on the 23rd of November for holding action in front of the Parliament at a distance of 25-30m from the Parliament building. Meanwhile, the Law on Assembly and Manifestations prohibits an action to be held only within the radius of 20m. The young activists were sitting in front of the Parliament building with photos of Amiran Robakidze and Sandro Girgvliani – two most well-known victims of police excessive use of force and impunity of executive for most serious human rights violations, respectively. The three also had displayed a poster saying “Public TV for People.”    

Situation remains critical in the field of freedom of expression and media in all three countries, most importantly – defamation is still a criminal offence in Azerbaijan, non-transparent media ownership and direct government censorship of the media, including of public broadcasters. create serious challenges for democracy development in Georgia and Armenia.   

In Azerbaijan currently 5 journalists and two bloggers are kept behind the bars under different charges, all actually related to their work. Currently the most critical is the health situation of  Mushfig Huseynov, a "Bizim yol" newspaper correspondent in Azerbaijan who is suffering from tuberculosis while authorities are failing to provide him with appropriate treatment.  

Journalists are often subjected to physical and verbal abuse in all three countries, however as a rule, the perpetrators go unpunished.

The cases and tendencies outlined above highlight the deep problems in the field of human rights and rule of law in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Moreover, while the existing situation negatively effects defenders, as well as any other citizen in these countries, the list of problems is not conclusive.  

In such challenging environments the role of human rights defenders becomes particularly crucial and on the other hand, puts defenders under increasing risk. Therefore, it is vital to pay special attention to the protection of human rights defenders in the South Caucasus, support their work and to meet with concrete action and timely remedies their concerns in the field of human rights and rule of law in their respective countries.  
 
Recalling the worldwide lesson from recent years, as articulated by the former UN Secretary–General, Kofi Annan, that “when the rights of human rights defenders are violated, all our rights are put in jeopardy and all of us are made less safe,” the Network member 30 organizations call upon:  

UN, EU, Council of Europe, OSCE/ODIHR and other international actors, to:  

• further increase their support for and contribution to the protection of human rights defenders, including interventions in specific cases requiring urgent action using the  full range of their human rights instruments and bodies;
• take appropriate measures for effective implementation of UN and CoE Declarations and EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders by governments, EU missions and other relevant stakeholders in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, as well as in other countries;
• continue provision of the necessary political support to the institutions of the UN High Commissioner and CoE Commissioner for Human Rights,  UN Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders, give appropriate follow-up to their work and provide them with necessary resources.  
• consider provision of financial support for the establishment of special funds for human rights defenders and their families as well as for the existing organizations and programs providing such support.

The Embassies of CoE and EU member countries, as well as of other democratic countries to:  
• take appropriate measures to support and protect human rights defenders in general and in risk situations in particular;
– take measures for establishing humanitarian visa schemes or emergency visas for  defenders and their family members when facing immediate risk;  
– take any other appropriate measure for the support of the human rights defenders who are facing imminent danger or are in need of respite as a consequence of persistent persecution in third countries;  
– observe the trials against human rights defenders;  
• consider provision of financial support for the creation of special funds for human rights defenders and their families as well as for the programs providing such support;
• pay special attention to their obligations under EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders in planning and implementing their country strategies.

 
International Donor organizations, to:
• pay special attention to the need for safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders in order to ensure sustainable change in the fields of human rights and democratization;  
• involve as broad range of defenders as possible in their dialogue with local civil societies of the countries of their action;
• pay special attention to the provision of financial support for the establishment of special funds for human rights defenders and their families as well as for the programs providing such support.