The Georgian Young Lawyers Association, Kutaisi Branch is not one to lose momentum. On the face of it, the budding young lawyers’ group seems to have an unbearably expansive mandate. But probe a bit deeper, and one invariably finds how its cohesion takes shape before an ailing set of state structures that have yet to fully respond to the needs and demands of Georgia’s most vulnerable populations. From human trafficking to domestic violence, from the plight of internally displaced persons to the needs of those whose socioeconomic realities and material dearth render them unable to access vital resources, GYLA’s concerns commonly find their loci in the field of social justice, and not solely in relation to state operations. Responsive not merely to the failures of the state justice system in terms of its norms and codes for official proceedings, GYLA also takes on the inadequacies that are produced by the much more stealthy culprit of structural violence- the implicit and unwieldy mechanisms of societal organization that produce inequalities of access and power. Ultimately, GYLA’s work consists in lending a voice to the voiceless and countering the apparatuses of structural violence that afflict the motions of daily life for so many.
Taken from GYLA’s mission statement, drafted in 1994, when the nation-wide organization was just beginning to gain ground, the following statement sketches the contours of the organization’s vision for Georgia, underscoring the philosophical basis for its vast range of pursuits: “We feel called upon to help build a country, where the public are not spectators but have legal awareness, where state institutions are transparent and accountable, where the rule of law rules and the government’s power is circumscribed by human rights.” This mandate has visibly spurred a number of efforts that form the makings of a veritable democracy, one that refuses to permit the reproduction of exclusionary and degrading policies and practices, whether they are officially statist or find their foundation in preponderant modes of social organization.
Conceived in 1988, as Georgia began to emerge from the thralls of the dissolving USSR, GYLA’s initial mandate was forged organically, from the impulses of a number of lawyers to challenge the indoctrination bearing upon most law students of the time, for it was demanded that they function more as auxiliaries of the “repressive state machinery” than as just practitioners of law. In 1994, when a group of ninety lawyers coalesced in the Schoolchildren’s Palace in Tblisi, GYLA was officially established, moved by a common set of principles: “We wanted to establish standards of legal profession. We wanted to stand on our dignity. We wanted to have a sense of siding with each other against what we thought was wrong.”
The organization’s brochures deal explicitly with the multifariousness of its objectives and are certainly not shy in asserting its fidelity to the vulnerable. Given the infancy of much of Georgia’s state infrastructure, GYLA has made it a mission to fill vacancies that are critical to democratic development. It offers its legal aid and consultation services free of charge to those in need, whose circumstances, largely material, would otherwise abandon them before cryptic legal systems. In the absence of civil society organizations like GYLA, such persons often find themselves bereft of the capacity to effectively assert their rights. Even more, GYLA remains committed to installing democratic frameworks of correspondence, incorporating all components of society, from civil organizations to citizens residing in rural areas, where the workings of official governance can seem so elusive.
GYLA, as a national organization, has branches spread across the country, serving different regions in myriad ways. Its regional offices operate in the following provinces: Ozurgeti, Gori, Rustavi, Dusheti, and Telavi, with affiliates in Ajara and Kutaisi. Of late, GYLA, Kutaisi Branch has focused upon decentralization so as to foment more robust democratic engagement by localizing people’s concerns and struggles. Furthermore, accountability and transparency on the part of government, two of GYLA’s more significant guiding principles, have proven more realizable within smaller frameworks, wherein local administrators and their constituents can effectively communicate. This is not to say that GYLA’s efforts are purely regional. They also participate in parliamentary proceedings wherein the constitutionality of federal legislative proposals and initiatives are assessed.
Advisors to state officials and citizens alike, GYLA, Kutaisi Branch’s approach counts upon the efficacy of correspondence and cooperation. In the absence of initiative on the part of all members of a democratic polity, GYLA’s vision of democracy cannot thrive. This is a great part of what spurs its efforts to engage with people who proclaim their apolitical leanings, a proclivity GYLA counters by illustrating the power of knowing your rights. The organization regularly makes visits to rural areas of Georgia, where people can claim to often find politics dispensable, and understandably so, as the corrupt and inadequate distributive mechanisms of government make it seem all the more impenetrable and useless.
Nana Chapidze, revered member of GYLA, Kutaisi Branch, and winner of a 2010 Justicemakers’ Award from IBJ, is in the process of launching her project, “Supporting Juvenile Justice Reform.” Her work aims to institute a coherent and equitable juvenile justice system that aligns its aims and modes of operation with the norms and standards established in the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. The state, she has explained, has left a gnawing gap where deep reflection and systemic overhaul should be taking place. The criminal justice system has failed to institute a set of procedures and norms that explicitly respond to the particularities of criminal acts perpetrated by juveniles, and it has yet to consider the unique needs of children and adolescents. It has failed to take into account the circumstances that tend to propel juvenile misdemeanors, and there is consequently no framework in place to address the imperative of rehabilitative programs and services to (re)integrate at-risk juveniles into society. All of these issues weigh heavily even before one considers what a working juvenile justice scheme might really aim to achieve. In other words, the possibility of a restorative system of justice has yet to become conceivable in the halls of state bureaucracy.
Beyond the work of “Supporting Juvenile Justice Reform”, the GYLA, Kutaisi Branch assumes the responsibility of a non-state actor that is thus well placed to effectively defend those whose rights have been violated by the state.
In the absence of GYLA, there would likely be little access to legal defense beyond that offered by the state. Without GYLA, there would likely be little means of thoroughly learning one’s rights and no way of procuring a defense unencumbered by the demands and pitfalls of wielding state power.
I had a long conversation with Nana Chapidze, in which she detailed the most cogent efforts GYLA, Kutaisi Branch is currently undertaking. She described how its legal consultation services are younger than other initiatives and have really succeeded in rendering power accessible to the most socio-politically vulnerable members of society. Such consultations have proven profoundly momentous in the forging of a citizen body capable of honing its voice before a stark and often unresponsive set of bureaucratic legal structures. Counseling people on their rights and defending them in administrative, civil, and criminal cases, GYLA, Kutaisi Branch has been integral to the development of a strong regional democratic movement in the Imereti Region of Georgia, which includes Kutaisi.
Nana also described efforts underway in rural sectors of the region and in areas known as centers of collective resettlement, established by the state to serve internally displaced persons. IDPs in Georgia are casualties of the conflicts of the early 90s and the wars of August 2008 in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. As Nana said, “While there are several social aid programs and also rehabilitation efforts, they are not very effective. GYLA has gone to these centers, given legal consultations about state problems and services they can receive. These people have many different kinds of legal questions. They come here to the Kutaisi Branch office often.”
Other beneficiaries of GYLA are those the state considers “Socially Protection-less People,” who are categorized as such in an administrative database overseen by the federal government. State agents purportedly visit families that might qualify for the status, and there are a number of different indicators used to determine the whether or not visited persons will meet the criteria. GYLA works actively to engage these people and to ensure that they have a deepened understanding of their rights. Furthermore, the organization works through various means to counter the demoralizing effects that such a status can have on people’s democratic initiative and their access to the halls of power; to determine what must be done to bolster such powers and rights so that they concur with international standards and norms; and to thereby confront and alter the structural foundations of an non-egalitarian legal framework. Modifications such as that which Nana’s project seeks to undertake have proven deeply effective in countering the politics of exclusion that tend to bear heavily upon those enduring obdurate forms of inequality before the law.
Ultimately, GYLA is an organization grounded in a firm faith in the power of democratic engagement and commitment to dissolve institutions, both official and informal, which perpetrate inequalities. Women’s rights have assumed a measurable degree of importance in the past few years at GYLA, Kutaisi Branch’s headquarters. As Nino Tvaltvadze, Chairwoman of the branch, explained, describing a project she headed, student interns came together with seasoned legal experts in early 2006 for a yearlong crash course in women’s rights. Students were asked to assess the discrepancies between formal statist initiatives addressing women in Georgia and the frameworks established in international law to buttress the global pursuit of gender equality. They were asked to partake in simulated trials and legislative discussions, whereby they gained a deeper understanding of the legal hurdles advocates face in the struggle to give salience to women’s struggles in both local and international politics.
Such a vast array of approaches to the issues GYLA faces again emphasizes the immensity of the organization’s pursuits. With a mandate like GYLA’s, one cannot really wonder if it is taking on too much. One simply has to observe its people in action. When I spoke with Nana Chapidze, she reminded me again of how indispensable organizations like GYLA are in the quest to build robust democratic institutions, both in civil society and in the halls of government. She said, “In cases, where a citizen may be a victim of the bureaucratic system, when people’s rights are violated by state bodies, as a non-state actor, GYLA is able to undertake citizen advocacy campaigns, to hold public meetings for people, educating them about their rights, giving them information about how they can defend their rights, about what mechanisms they have in their hands.”