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Georgia Is on the Wrong Side of History

17/05/2016 15:13 | Updated 17 May 2016

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) and many in Europe have a lot to celebrate: in 2015 Ireland passed a marriage equality bill after a historic referendum, and Greece and Cyprus have legally recognised cohabitation of same-sex couples. More recently, in Italy - after years of campaigning - the parliament finally approved a bill that grants same-sex couples the right to enter into civil partnerships, although it doesn't grant the same parental rights, or the right to adoption, as heterosexual couples enjoy.

Over on the eastern edge of the continent, however, things have been heading quite a contrary direction this year. Georgia, a nation of four million people squeezed in between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Armenia, has embarked on a crackdown on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights. Last month the country's parliament moved ahead with plans to outlaw same-sex marriage by introducing into the country's constitution a definition of marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman.

Under Georgia's Civil Code, same-sex partners do not currently have the right to marry or in any other ways register their relationship. But if the bill is finally approved, an explicit ban on same-sex marriage in the constitution might kill any remote possibility of LGBTI people enjoying family life in the same way as the rest of the population: the bill will lock in existing discrimination by preventing legislators from extending marriage to same-sex couples in future. Only another amendment to the constitution would be able to reverse this.

It does not help that Georgia was ranked as the third most homophobic country in the world in the 2014 World Value Survey - 92.6 % of Georgians are against the idea of having a gay neighbour. Despite this, Georgia remains for some one of the frontrunners in the region when it comes to the legal protection of the rights of LGBTI people. Unlike legislation in the neighbouring countries, Georgia's existing anti-discrimination legislation explicitly includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected grounds.

This anti-discrimination legislation was adopted last year expressly in a bid for visa-free travel and to allow the country to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. But the agreement does not require a country not to prohibit marriage equality in its constitution and almost before the ink was dry politicians were plotting to ensure that all things were not equal in love and human rights in Georgia. The recent bill shows the true nature of Georgia's ruling political elite - or the sort of laws that politicians really want to pass.

Georgia's homophobic bill was endorsed by the country's Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights and Civil Integration on 5 May. Now it has to go through other committee hearings, after which parliament will vote on it. The committee hearings follow weeks of public consultation and, disappointingly, the bill has received overwhelming public support. This is hardly surprising given that Georgian LGBTI activists were effectively excluded from the consultation because of security concerns and the hostile atmosphere of in the venues where discussions took place.

Local human rights groups have not yet started campaigning on marriage equality, as the LGBTI community in the country faces other problems, such as daily threats of physical violence and omnipresent hate speech in public spaces. Georgian activists believe that the bill is an effort to divert public attention away from the failure of their government to sustain the country's economic development and reverse the devaluation of the national currency, ahead of parliamentary elections in October this year. Deflecting attention from this by targeting one of society's most vulnerable groups is unacceptable. Local activists have already reported increased homophobic violence since the bill was introduced and it has become a topic of public debate in Georgia: in just one week in April, two homophobic attacks reported on the streets of Georgia's capital Tbilisi.

While the government is pushing for this constitutional amendment, Tbilisi is hosting the World Congress of Families on 15-18 May. The Congress is an international coalition based in the United States that campaigns for a society built on "the voluntary union of a man and a woman in a lifelong covenant of marriage". The Congress is notorious worldwide as a 'champion' of homophobia. According to US human rights organisations, the World Congress of Families has previously campaigned in favour of the Russian 'gay propaganda' laws and in 2009 opposed a UN statement in favour of decriminalisation of homosexuality worldwide, calling the statement a "special rights measure for homosexuals".

It is no coincidence that the Congress is coming to Tbilisi specifically today. Four years ago on 17 May, the first public march celebrating IDAHOT in Tbilisi was cut short by an aggressive crowd of Christian activists who blocked the demonstration and physically assaulted the participants. When a handful of LGBTI rights activists tried to organise another public event on IDAHOT the following year (2013), the scale of violence increased; a planned flash mob raising awareness of the victims of homophobia was cancelled and the participants had to be evacuated after an attack by 20,000 counter-demonstrators led by Christian Orthodox priests.

In a bid to seize the date from LGBTI people and consolidate homophobic public opinion, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, an institution which has become the main anti-equality force in the country, recognised 17 May as the day of "family sanctity". Not surprisingly, this movement specifically excludes same-sex couples from their definition of family. Now, every year on this day, Conservative groups in Georgia march down Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's main street, to celebrate "family sanctity" providing a convenient excuse for authorities to repeatedly refuse security guarantees to LGBTI activists for a public IDAHOT celebration in the city centre.

This year, according to the statement by Georgian LGBTI activists, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has again refused to guarantee protection of the IDAHOT rally in downtown Tbilisi, instead offering alternative, more remote venues to the activists. In the context of the pending bill, the failure of the authorities to protect the rights of LGBTI activists to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and the fact that the World Congress of Families will go ahead with participants fully enjoying Georgian hospitality, sends a strong message to LGBTI Georgians. That message is that not only they should stop dreaming of having their right to family life ever recognised, but they should also understand that they are better off staying in the shadows, rather than trying to launch any attempt to reclaim public space and respect for their human rights.

Georgia's governing party - Georgian Dream, has said that if the bill fails to gather enough support in parliament they will put the question of banning same-sex marriage to a nationwide referendum. In fact, on 28 March of this year, the Central Election Commission of Georgia registered a request for the referendum. The request now needs a minimum of 200,000 signatures of support, after which the president of Georgia will decide on the matter.

If the constitutional ban on marriage equality is successful, Georgia will join the ranks of Armenia, Ukraine, Moldova and others in the ex-communist Europe, who have banned same-sex marriage in their constitutions out of a fear of allowing LGBTI people to have their right to family life acknowledged in future. These countries are trying to distance themselves from the growing number of precedents in Europe where states recognise the right to family life of same-sex couples. Last year, the European Court of Human Rights issued a ground-breaking judgment Oliari and others v. Italy recognising the right of same-sex couples in Italy to have their partnership legally guaranteed. The Court's Georgian judge, while agreeing with the judgment as such, joined a concurring opinion to declare that this decision should not necessarily apply to other European countries outside Italy.

The recent positive developments across Europe demonstrate that there is a clearly emerging regional trend in favour of recognising marriage equality or other types of official partnerships for same sex couples. The Oliari judgment has already pushed for the introduction of same-sex civil partnerships in Italy and, as an important legal precedent, it could pave the way for the recognition of same-sex partnerships elsewhere across Europe. After the adoption of such partnership bills in Italy, Greece and Cyprus, for the first time more Europeans now live in countries where same-sex couples are entitled to some form of legal recognition and protection than those living in countries without such rights. The progress in Europe is evident, but, Georgia, if it carries on like this, will be on the wrong side of history.

Amnesty International opposes discrimination in civil marriage laws on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity and calls on all states to recognise families of choice. You can support Amnesty International's effort to stop the bill in the Parliament of Georgia by taking action here.

Levan Asatiani is a Regional Campaigner on Eurasia at Amnesty International's International Secretariat in London

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