Human Rights Priority: The Role and Mission of the Ombudsman – Public Expectations and Possibilities for Change

Gela Nikolaishvli, Lia Mukhashavria, Gogi Gvakharia and Tamar Guchiani
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გელა ნიკოლაიშვილი, ლია მუხაშავრია, გოგი გვახარია, თამარ გურჩიანი

Tamar Gurchiani began her speech at HBF with a quote from the American Declaration of Independence, emphasizing the importance of life, liberty, freedom and the pursuit of happiness of people, and the state enabling people to have access to these rights. According to Ms. Gurchiani “processes underway in our country at the moment, including discussions between candidates for the position of ombudsperson, once again confirm that we are, for the first time, facing a historical challenge regarding whether to choose a truly politically neutral Ombudsperson. This person would not belong to any political camp, and his/her only function would be to protect the rights granted through the constitution and legislation.”

The topic “Human rights priority: the role and mission of the Ombudsperson – public expectations and possibilities for change,” was especially interesting to the public, unlike previous discussions held about public defender issues, especially given the background in the country of changes after the elections. This probably explains the large number of guests at the Boell Foundation. Along with Tamar Gurchiani, Lia Mukhashavria and Gela Nikolaishvili, the public awaited Dimitri Lortkipanidze, who did not attend the discussion, and the questions directed towards him were left unanswered.

Who the new government appoints as an Ombudsman is an issue of special interest, and speakers of the discussion expressed their own opinions. “The public is most active in this direction, and it’s natural, since we all seek protectors, mainly from the side of the government,” said Gogi Gvakharia, the moderator of the discussion. Speakers talked about who the Public Defender should be, describing ideal personal characteristics, how activities should be directed, and the current priorities. They also spoke about the plans they will implement if selected as Ombudsperson. Each has his or her own vision.

Some questions were raised, and the candidates for the Ombudsman position gave their answers, discussing the following issues: protection of women and children’s rights, the position regarding sexual minorities, possible schemes for improvement of the monitoring mechanism, prioritizing the issue of homelessness, the use of the term “Public Defender” or “Social Defender”, the budget of the Office of the Ombudsperson the hate speech often used by media and in legislation, experiences in protecting rights of mentally ill people, religious rights and attitudes towards this, release of prisoners, and research within the Office of the Ombudsperson.

Gela Nikolaishvili believes that protection of human rights has significantly worsened over the past few years. Human beings, and their associated values and rights have moved down on the agenda, so the most important thing is to place human beings in the center of policy, as a value. He stated that “several directions need to be taken to change the situation. First and foremost, it’s about legislation, which significantly limits human rights and grants unlimited authority to state officials and structures.” In his speech he also emphasized rights of journalists, transparency of the judiciary, and rights of Internally Displaced Persons.

According to Lia Mukhashavria, “civil society marked its existence and a certain development stage by starting a campaign that nobody expected – the public sector was able to name candidates for the Office of the Ombudsperson and get heavily involved in the discussions.” Mukhashavria spoke of the issues related with the penitential and judicial systems and noted that the Ombudsperson should be able to raise allegations even against the highest authorities in the country. She reminded the audience about some trials in the European Court of Human Rights. She stated that “even though the law about the Ombudsperson does not explicitly provide “authority for investigation”, the authority that the law grants to the Ombudsman enables him/her to be proactive, study, review and analyze case materials and request any documents and explanations from any person.”

“We always faced dilemmas of freedom vs. security, and it was always resolved in favor of security,” says Tamar Gurchiani. According to her, the position of the Public Defender was created and introduced into the constitution in 1995 with the purpose of distributing authority, balancing control among different actors. Tamar Gurchiani also spoke of rights of prisoners, people with disabilities, IDPs, rights of women and children, and social and economic rights, including the right to adequate housing. At the end she noted that she will always remain open to learning opportunities. “I know it does not sound good, but we all keep learning. I am ready to rely on people that know better than me.”