Georgian President Vetoes Divisive Surveillance Bill

For the first time since the beginning of her term, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili has used her veto against the controversial surveillance legislative bill proposed by the parliament. On 22nd June, the president claimed in a statement that the adoption of these laws would authorise the restrictions of human rights and constitute an obstacle to the necessary democratisation process required to become an EU member state.

According to Transparency International, one of the ramifications of the amendment’s implementation would be the possibility to carry out covert investigative actions in connection to additional 27 crimes (more than 75 in total), including crimes such as an unlawful raising of the national flag. Moreover, the duration of the covert eavesdropping was previously changed from 6 to 9 months, however, now these measures may be indefinitely as long as the issue concerns one of the 100 enlisted crimes.

In an open letter to the legislators, non-governmental organisations, including Human Rights Center and the Georgian Democracy Initiative, claimed that the draft law worsens the standard of protection of human rights. Among the deficient nature of the amendments and non-conformity with the human rights conventions, they highlight the potential problem of an escalation of mass surveillance, which increases the risk of unlawful interference and arbitrariness of the authorities.

“It is not possible to adopt such a law in Georgia, which further restricts human rights, when we are asked to give more guarantees in this direction, to be more democratic and more European,” the president said, expressing her concerns about the potential violation of the right to private communication. The bill was also criticised by the E.U. Ambassador to Georgia, Carl Hartzell, who said: “We are concerned that the current changes significantly limit the privacy of Georgian citizens without sufficient guarantees of unwarranted invasion of privacy and protection of personal data.”

The activation of the veto procedure shall be treated emblematically and rather as a political act than a factual mechanism capable of blocking the bill. According to Georgian law, a simple majority (76 votes out of 150) is required for the veto to be overridden by the parliament, where currently 84 seats belong to the ruling party Georgian Dream that proposed the amendments. The Deputy Chairperson of the Parliament, Archil Talakavadze, has already announced the party’s willingness to support the original bill again once it is returned to the parliament’s voting.

Soon after the war in Ukraine had broken out, three countries, Ukraine (28th February), Moldova, and Georgia (3rd March) applied for the status of a candidate to the European Union. During the June 23rd-24th summit, the E.U. adopted a resolution granting this position “without delay” only to Ukraine and Moldova. Nevertheless, following the recommendation of the European Commission, Georgia, although once considered a frontrunner, can become a candidate only once it addresses a list of specific priorities.

The European Commission will have re-examined the application by the end of 2022, monitoring whether Georgia will address the issues of concern adequately. The Prime Minister, Irakli Garibashvili, already declared his commitment to “meet all of the requirements” set by the E.U.

Georgia is currently facing one of the most important political challenges in recent decades, and in light of its democratic backsliding, the war of 2008, and recent events like the passing of surveillance bills, the accession to the European Union remains a political priority.