Selective Democracy: You can’t have it both ways
In response to the peaceful gay march that was met with violence on Rustaveli Avenue in Tbilisi on May 17, Teona Betlemidze’s subsequent article ‘Violence at Gay Demonstration Exposes Darker Side of Georgia Culture’, drew a critical response from journalist Archil Sikharulidze.
In his response, Sikharulidze suggested that “Human rights and particularly the rights of minorities as we know them are the brainchild of Western culture.” Sikharulidze goes on to acknowledge that these human rights principles are “unique”, yet he denies the necessity of their universal application.
Further, he states that “[attempts] to push [these rights] forcefully against the wishes of the majority of society sow the seeds of confrontation.” He then goes on to emphasize that nations should be able to choose which aspects of minority rights they wish to accept according to the traditions and cultural factors that exist within a particular society.
Sikharulidze seems to view democracy as a model where minority populations are at the whim of the majority population. In doing so, he not only blurs the conception of democracy, he also confuses the application of basic human rights with the granting of special rights or privileges to minority groups. Western-based or otherwise, what Sikharulidze seems to miss is that the protection of human rights is a fundamental aspect to any democratic society, and their selective or arbitrary application runs counter to the normative framework set-out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Georgia also happens to be party to.
Articles 19 and 20 of the declaration uphold the demonstrators’ rights in this context, and should have protected them from the violent opposition that they encountered on May 17. In addition, Article 14 of Georgia’s Constitution also protects them from being discriminated against.
Admittedly, the right to free speech is not always pretty. In the United States, extremist white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) still embark on unsavory marches and demonstrations that offend the sensibilities of many within American society. However, the right to free speech cannot be capriciously applied. While the majority of Americans may not endorse such distasteful displays of hatred, the US Constitution ensures that any group, regardless of how disagreeable, has the right to express their position within civil society.
This rule also applies to Georgia. While the majority within Georgian society may feel that the gay rights march in Tbilisi was an affront to Georgian traditions and represented something that was anathema to the teachings of the Orthodox Church, it was nonetheless a right that is protected by both Georgian law and the international treaties for which Georgia is party to. Thus, irrespective of what Georgian society may feel about homosexuality at the present, those demonstrators should have been able to peacefully carry out their march without the threat of violence.
This concept is analogous to the two sides of a coin: In order to preserve democratic ideals and observe international standards on human rights, societies must tolerate what they may subjectively view as objectionable principles and beliefs by some within society. These basic rights afforded to all citizens represent a reciprocal exchange, and work to maintain a free, open and democratic society. Societies cannot arbitrarily choose to accept only those expressions that fall in line with their belief systems. As exemplified with the white supremacist groups in the United States, democratic societies must take the good with the bad, lest they find themselves living in a society that restricts their freedom of expression
Contrary to what Mr. Sikharulidze suggests, granting basic human rights to every citizen is not the same as providing special rights to minority groups. The demonstrators on May 17 were not asking for special privileges or special treatment; they simply wanted their rights to be respected like any other individual in society.
Until those within society are able to grasp this concept, Georgia cannot hope to achieve the full democratic reform it states it wants to achieve, nor can it crown itself as the democratic reform champion in the post-Soviet space it often perceives itself to be.
By William King