Developing a disability policy in Georgia

Dr Michael Wardlow, Chief Commissioner at the Equality Commission in Northern Ireland, reflects on his time in Georgia as part of Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s Multi-Party Office work with the DUP. 

Last week, I was privileged to be part of a small delegation to Georgia, funded by WFD, to take part in a workshop on the development of a disabilities policy for the Georgian government. This is the second time I have been a guest of that most beautiful place, where hospitality to the foreigner is not simply aspirational but is received as something very practical.

From beginning to end, Paula Bradley (DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly for Belfast North) Thomas Hogg (DUP local councilor for Belfast North) and myself were treated as friends and colleagues and not “experts” from somewhere parachuted in for a few days. For this, we are extremely thankful as we came as “outsiders” but left as good friends and allies.

There is an old Georgian proverb that translates roughly as “The right balance depends on the weigher”. In other words, how we value people depends on our view of the world.

However we treat our fellow human beings, it remains a fact that those living on the margins of society, the people who are disabled by physical conditions or social attitudes, tend to have to struggle to be treated equally. This situation has no geographical limitations.

Numbers of those affected by such conditions are notoriously difficult to obtain in any jurisdiction so it is not surprising that although only 3% of Georgian citizens hold “disabled status”, it has been estimated that about one in eleven Georgians are actually living with a disabling condition (GeoStat Census, 2014).

During the workshop we heard a presentation from GeoWel, of their recent survey detailing the situation relating to disability in Georgia. It was an extremely challenging experience to be given this insight into the daily lives of many Georgian citizens, those “differently abled”, who face huge challenges simply to access services or employment.

The survey highlighted five areas of concern, including status and statistics, perceptions and stigma, children, physical infrastructure and education and support for those living with disabilities. I could equally apply all five to the place I call home.

Georgia operates on a medical model of disability, an approach that tends to allow “hidden disabilities”, such as Down’s syndrome or Autism, to be overlooked, unless they are linked to a physical or mental health condition.

Over the two days, it became clear that all the delegates believed that this basis of assessment needs to be changed to a human rights centred, social model. It was also self-evident that there is a passionate conviction to make real change in Georgia for those living with disabling conditions, a view held equally by Government, public sector colleagues and NGOs. Such a shared vision, in my view, is unusual and is to be commended and supported.

Those of us who came from Northern Ireland were given ample time to present reflections on our own experiences of addressing disability, including Paula on the role of the legislature in creating policy, Thomas on the role of local authorities and myself – examining the need to ensure that equality and human rights principles underpin any disability legislation.

WFD played an essential role supporting the Georgian partners in taking this initiative forward and it was clear that their ongoing non-directional approach was both appropriate as well as beneficial to those involved. There was a clear desire to continue and indeed extend the partnership beyond this project.

So, we left with memories of passionate people, who together want to make real change to the lives of almost 400,000 Georgians who face daily challenges. We all believe that we are more than the sum total of our parts and experiences and that it is in coming together and standing alongside those on society’s margins that we best demonstrate our shared humanity.


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The question of modernising democracy

(Above: George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director – Europe and Central Asia, signs agreement with the Verkhovna Rada in Ukraine to mark beginning of partnership with WFD in November 2015 )

George Kunnath, Regional Director – Europe and Central Asia

Having a democratic constitution does not mean you have a democracy. Having all the expected laws and rules does not mean you have a democracy.

More than ever we agree that a true democracy is about the culture and values that each of us as individuals live by. And this is why the advancement of democracy is progressive – it takes a long period of time for culture to become embedded.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early nineties gave a great expectation that Eastern Europe would see democracy flourish. However, the Economist Democracy Index 2016, highlighted Eastern Europe as the worst performer in a world where democracy is regressing. Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) now have more nondemocratic countries than democratic ones, being home to 15 ‘hybrid’ or ‘authoritarian’ regimes and 13 ‘flawed democracies’.

While this assessment could be discouraging, it is worth noting that most Eastern European citizens, especially young people, want more democracy. They understand that what they have experienced was not democracy at its best, but in some cases a flawed democracy at its worst.

The rise of elites who have used influence, wealth and corruption to capture emerging democratic states has led to the feeling that democracy doesn’t belong to all, nor does it benefit all. When the elite or powerful ruling parties disregard the rule of law and undermine independent institutions this further erodes the foundations of a democratic society.

It should, however, be noted that a democratic system is individual to each country. The challenge has been less about having a democratic constitution and more about how we should work out the democratic principles enshrined on the paper. This gets even more complicated due to the hybrid nature of most political systems. Most countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans run on semi-presidential systems which tend to produce strong leaders who exert considerable influence over parliament, to the detriment of effective oversight and accountability.

Much can be achieved if political parties, parliaments, civil society and citizens uphold the rule of law, the independence of democratic institutions and hold government to account. In so doing we can overcome the ethnic and economic divisions that populist politicians exploit.

Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) was established in 1992 to support emerging democracies in Eastern Europe. That mandate grew to a global mandate, but is still very relevant to Eastern Europe today. WFD’s field presence in the Europe and Central Asia Region, has grown to nine countries. As we continue our work in a region that has seen setbacks and regression, we intend to focus on four key approaches:

Moving from personality to policy

Developing political parties that are policy-driven, not personality-driven. This is an important shift needed to create sustainable and long lasting membership based political parties. In Kosovo, we are offering a unique demand led approach to political party support.

Engagement and inclusion

Increasing the participation of women and youth only strengthens the democratic culture and enriches democracy. We intend to build on our successful ‘promoting women in politics’ programme in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to help parliaments and parties become more inclusive by sharing lessons across the region.

Oversight, accountability and respect for the rule of law

The volume of legislation being passed by parliaments in the region is amazing. Much of the legislation has to do with harmonisation with EU regulations. However, very little effort is given to oversight. A growing number of requests from parliaments relates to how they can conduct effective post-legislative scrutiny. 50% of our programmes in Europe and Central Asia now focus on financial oversight.

Modernising democracy

We have come to realise that certain practices within parliaments hamper the effectiveness of the institutions to deliver and to become inclusive and representative. We intend to support parliaments modernise by exposing them to simple transformative practices from other parliaments in the UK and Europe.

Democratic change is too large a programme for one organisation to deliver on. WFD will continue to value collaboration and partnerships as we move forward.

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Shaping democracy: Update from WFD’s openDemocracy debate

In February 2016 Westminster Foundation for Democracy launched our editorial partnership with openDemocracy with the goal of seeking to encourage a discussion about democracy assistance.

From torture in Georgia to corruption in Mongolia, a range of issues have arisen from the debate since our last update in June. Here’s a quick overview of the direction the debate has taken…

Mari Valdur, previously of SOAS and currently on the Doctoral Programme in Anthropology at the University of Helsinki, shines a light on some of the realities for citizens living in transitioning democracies. With the spotlight on Mongolia, the role of corruption and how this shapes citizens’ perceptions on what democracy can bring was analysed.

“While people say it’s very nice to have democracy, the reality is that [our] salaries are among the lowest in the world. The government provides very minimal services to citizens.”

WFD is proud of the support we have given to the Georgian Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee, tasked with reporting on the torture violations exposed in Georgian prisons by civil society and international NGOs. Mairi Mackay, Senior Editor at openDemocracy, met with Eka Beselia, Chair of the Committee and former public defender, to discuss the systematic torture taking place in Georgia’s prison system before 2012.

“After that, [the] repression [started]. I remember when I met the prisoners, they had always been tortured. We defenders could not help [them], because this happened everywhere, it was a systematic programme.”

In the most recent piece, Bram Dijkstra, policy analyst at the Open Society European Policy Institute, introduces the idea of election observation and the weight international organisations hold in pushing for compliance with international standards.

“Foreign donors must pay attention to the rapid release of the rule of law – and the EU should lead them. The EU, together with its member states, is Zambia’s biggest donor of foreign aid, a major trade partner, and maintains regular political dialogue with Zambian authorities.”

If you want to respond to any of these articles, get in touch by emailing mairi dot mackay @

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WFD congratulates Georgian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee

Westminster Foundation for Democracy has offered its congratulations to the Georgian Parliament’s Human Rights Committee after MPs adopted recommended rules of procedure without amendment.

Mrs Eka Beselia, Chair of the HRC, received praise from George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director for Europe, following the passage of the relevant legislation earlier in June.

The changes mean the Parliament of Georgia will in future conduct hearings on a range of issues covering:

– recommendations produced by UN human rights committee relating to Georgia;

– judgements made by the European Court of Human Rights; and

– recommendations provided as part of the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process.

“This is a major step which strengthens the Parliament of Georgia’s ability to scrutinise the Government’s implementation of its Human Rights Action Plan,” George Kunnath said.


WFD, in partnership with the University of Oxford, has developed an assessment tool for human rights committees to improve their effectiveness and help them comply with international standards and best practice.

Its outcomes in Macedonia, Serbia, Tunisia, Uganda and Ukraine, as well as Georgia, were summed up in a paper presented in the UK Parliament on July 6th.

Mrs Beselia, who spoke at the launch event, told the Westminster audience that the “institutional absence” of the scrutiny of human rights had been replaced by her committee’s work being viewed “as a normal and ordinary process”.

The successful reforms follow six months of engagement between MPs on the Committee and civil society organisations in Georgia.

More: ‘You can’t ignore human rights’

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From Georgia to Westminster: The reform of human rights committees

(Above, Left-right: Nicole Piché (Coordinator All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights), Eka Beselia (Chair of the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee in Georgia),  Anthony Smith (CEO, WFD), Les Allamby (Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission))

“Parliaments share a responsibility to protect and realise human rights,” notes WFD’s new research paper sizing up parliamentary performance on this critical issue. As Georgia’s positive experience shows, effective oversight of human rights can make a big difference.

The findings of the report were the subject of the fourth meeting of the Westminster Community of Practice in the Houses of Parliament this week.

Ms Eka Beselia, Chair of the Human Rights and Civil Integration Committee in Georgia, kicked off the discussion by explaining how WFD’s programme supporting the Committee to engage with civil society had benefited from the assessment.

She spoke of the absence of “institutional experience” within the Georgian Parliament to tackle human rights abuses when she started in her role as Chair in 2012. But now, she said, people see the work of the committee “as a normal and ordinary process”.

The paper, ‘Strengthening Parliamentary Capacity for the Protection and Realisation of Human Rights’, presented the findings of assessments into the effectiveness of parliamentary human rights committees in Macedonia, Serbia, Tunisia, Uganda and Ukraine, as well as Georgia.

The research is based on the outcomes of an ‘assessment tool’ developed by WFD, in partnership with the Parliaments, Rule of Law and Human Rights project at the University of Oxford.

Reform was “very difficult”, Ms Beselia added, “but if you want to change reality, it is possible.” The Georgian Parliament’s acceptance of the recommendations from the Georgian Human Rights Committee based on the WFD assessment tool demonstrates this.

However, this success does not detract from the difficulty of seeking initial reform on a sensitive and decisive subject. This was something which Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Nicole Piché, the coordinator and legal adviser for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights in Westminster, both had experience of.

Les recalled the “long and slow, but nonetheless important, journey with bumps in the road” that Northern Ireland embarked on following the end of conflict there. He spoke passionately about engaging parliaments on human rights work. Rather than dictating views on human rights, he urged the importance of starting “where people are, and gently persuade them over to international standards.”

This approach was supported by Nicole, who outlined how the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights participates in “frank but respectful exchanges” with representatives from countries with poor human rights records. Giving “credit where credit is due” is essential, Nicole believes, especially when considering the “long road, with obstacles that can be frustrating, unpopular and time-consuming” that developing countries have to embark on.

Both praised Eka Beselia and her colleagues for their work on the Georgian Human Rights Committee, agreeing that political will was vital when seeking any reform to the parliamentary response to protecting human rights.

Ms Beselia explained how the political will in Georgia changed after the 2012 elections. The systematic problems with key institutions like the judiciary, police and penitentiary in Georgia led to “society wanting to change human rights standards.” Nicole Piché added that “entrenched vested interests are hard to change” without political will and the support of citizens.

Engaging citizens in the work parliaments do on human rights can be challenging. However, Les Allamby suggested that placing an emphasis on economic and social rights, can help put civil and political rights on the agenda. He emphasised the need to find out “what resonates with people’s lives, and start there.”

And this applies in Northern Ireland as much as it does in Georgia or Uganda, demonstrating what WFD has to offer transitioning and developing countries the most. “The UK,” as Anthony Smith concluded, “has a real diversity and richness of experience working on human rights which is good to share and learn from.”

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‘You can’t ignore human rights’: Meet the Georgian MPs determined to achieve change

This week, Georgian civil society organisations (CSOs) have been sharing with the Parliament’s Human Rights Committee the harrowing stories they’ve encountered through their work.

MPs will take these grim examples to the Government in Tbilisi – with the help of Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) and the UK embassy in Georgia.

“Currently no-one cares for him – neither parents, nor the State,” says Maia Gedevanishvili of the Apparatus of Public Defender of Georgia. She’s talking about an 18-year-old who came to her for help. “There’s no state policy regarding young people who aren’t under the care of the state anymore,” she explained. “He is not ready for fully independent life. He doesn’t have a proper education, or job, or home. It is essentially important to help this category of young people prepare for adult life.”

Mrs Gedevanishvili was given the opportunity to raise this case to MPs thanks to WFD’s programme with the Georgian Human Rights Committee. We’re aiming to increase the committee’s oversight; the Government is implementing its Human Rights Action Plan, which needs scrutiny.

On December 7, committee members visited homes for parentless children in Rustavi and Kojori. They were seeking to check the living conditions are consistent with the children’s rights. But they also heard from a range of organisations – including the Centre on the Protection of Civil and Political Rights.

“One of the main challenges our state faces and our organisation works on,” its spokesperson Vakhtang Kanashvili said, “is the conduct of the comprehensive investigation of facts concerning crimes of torture that occurred before 2012.” The Centre is calling for a firmer criminal policy and amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code in order to comply with international standards. “The next step must be the correct qualification of facts concerning crime of torture and the persons who perpetrated that crime must not be granted any kind of legal privilege, including plea bargaining,” Mr Kanashvili added. These are significant changes, but the MPs who are being lobbied believe they can help achieve them.

The committee’s chair, Eka Beselia, who was a lawyer advocating on human rights issues before her election to parliament, keenly feels the importance of her work. “I strongly believe that you can’t make a difference by ignoring human rights standards,” she says. “Any reform which doesn’t take human rights standards into account is doomed to failure.”

Mrs Beselia believes this engagement reflects the strength of feeling in her country. “The Georgian people very much know what human rights issues are, because they feel it. They’ve been through inappropriate treatment, they were themselves in many cases the victims of violations of human rights.” The language of the petitions and claims received by the committee reflects this, she adds. “They feel that human rights should be engrained in this country. They don’t trust the country, which is why they apply to the committee.”


Among those participating in the December 7 field visit was the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association, who highlighted the case of a businessman who was forced to give up his home to the state. “He was forced to sign a deed of gift,” Archil Kaikatsishvili explained. “He lost the property he gained through years of hard work. After the change of government he addressed our organisation and asked for legal assistance; despite our efforts, it was not possible for his violated rights to be restored.” Parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the Public Prosecutor will ensure the prosecution’s responses to the most burning questions will be answered.

These cases reflect the difficulties of dealing with a bleak legacy of human rights in Georgia – and the hope that a better future is now possible.

After the change of government in 2012, the country adopted the Human Rights Action Plan. Responsibility for oversight of its implementation has fallen to the new committee. It has received thousands of petitions concerning human rights violations since then. And it has an ongoing brief to hold the executive to account over its decisions on reforms to the judiciary, prison system and prosecutor’s office.

There is a broader context to the committee’s work, too. Georgia is seeking membership of the European Union and has signed an Association Agreement which helps it prepare its candidacy. So it’s important to the Government that it addresses ongoing human rights issues, which remain an enduring challenge. WFD is also bringing together the committee with CSOs to discuss legislation springing from the EU-Georgia Association Agreement.

Tamar Lukava of the Human Rights Centre highlighted an example of this: the findings of his organisation’s monitoring work in prisons. Among the continuing violations, he noted, was the practice of “the search of women by making them naked in order that they be confined or transferred to institutions”. Mr Lukava said he believes the Human Rights Committee will be able to work on the elimination of this problem.

Dialogue with European partners is an important part of the process. So the committee’s visit to London in early December to meet with civil society organisations, parliamentarians and government officials was helpful. “We might adopt some of the nuances we’ve learned from this trip,” Mrs Beselia says.

The biggest impact WFD has is the access it offers CSOs to this group of MPs. Much of our work around the world is focused on using our links with parliaments to help improve their effectiveness, and it’s CSOs as much as MPs who are the key beneficiaries. They certainly expressed their gratitude in Rustavi and Kojori.

georgia mps“The organisations involved were given the possibility to get a better understanding of the government’s Action Plan on Human Rights and the flaws of implementation,” Tamar Mudladze of Children Of Georgia said. “The project in question facilitates the mobilization process of organisations working in this sphere. It makes the cooperation between different sectors deeper and it facilitates coordinated actions in order the identified flaws to be eliminated. We would welcome that the project be continued in the future.”

WFD continues to implement its ongoing programme with the committee. A visit to minority groups in the southern part of Georgia, further presentations from CSOs of their findings and a conference on torture and inhumane treatment will all help MPs prepare their recommendations for the Government.

There is real optimism across Georgia about the impact the committee can have. “The outcome from this kind of cooperation is rapid and tangible,” says Elenne Pileeva of the ‘Article 42 of the Constitution’ organisation. “The Government increasingly tries to implement these recommendations – because it is responsible towards the Parliament.”

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