Boris van der Ham, is member of the Human Rights Committee of Liberal International. This international organization of Democrats and (social) Liberals recently met in Georgia. In this blog his report
“After a stopover in Ukraine, my plane arrives in Georgia. The customs booths are showing huge, colourful posters: "Georgia, associated with the European Union!"
The Association Agreement that it recently signed with the European Union is big deal for Georgia. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the countries independence has been challenged several times. The country is sandwiched between various political powers, and seeks support from other countries to defend its territory. Those who do are honoured. During the taxi ride from the airport to the capital Tbilisi I see that a street is named after former US President George W. Bush. He supported Georgia in the conflict in 2008 with Russia.
Capital punishment for an atheist
I'm here for the biannual meeting of Liberal International (LI). From all over the world liberals and Democrats regularly meet to exchange ideas and define political positions. As a member of D66 (the Dutch Liberal Democrats) and as a member of the LI Human Rights Committee, I host a meeting on the freedom of religion and belief. I have a special link to this subject. After I decided in 2012 to get some fresh air out of daily politics, I have been chairman of the Dutch Humanist Association.
I show some parts of the documentary 'Among nonbelievers', which I made for Dutch television last year. It shows the problems of "apostasy", particularly in Islamic countries. In 55 countries, criticism of religion, or apostasy is punishable, and in 13 countries you even risk death penalty. Within the United Nations some countries try to restrict freedom of thought too.
The group of so-called ‘nonbelievers’ is bigger than just humanists, atheists and agnostics. Also Christians, Buddhists and freethinking Muslims are considered ‘apostates’ by orthodox religious groups. Not only at the hands of the government they run danger, society is in general very hostile too. I tell about the recent meetings I had with atheist bloggers from Bangladesh. Some of their fellow bloggers are hacked to death with machetes in the streets of Dhaka. I spoke to the wife of one of the killed bloggers. She was attacked too, and her wounded hand was a tangible proof of the brutal violence of the extremists. Liberals must take action against violations and the erosion of human rights.
The growing group of "non-affiliated"
After Christians and Muslims the people who are so called "Non-affiliated is the third largest "religious" group in the world. Among them are atheists, agnostics and humanists, but also liberal religious people who do not feel at home in an organized religion. This group of "non-affiliated" is probably much bigger, because many people are in name a follower of a religious community, but pull their own plan.
Levan Berdzenishvili, parliamentarian for the Republican Party in Georgia, confirms this: "Georgia is on paper a very religious country, but in practice, only a handful of people attend church or the mosque." The power of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the social life, however, is still big. People dare to come out as a non-believer. Berdzenishvili: "The right to choose your religion or belief means that it’s possible to be open about your choice."
Tangible world politics.
After the meeting, the delegation of Liberal International leaves Tbilisi. We visit a border post in South-Ossetia. In 2008 Russia occupied this part of Georgia, and the threat of further annexation has not disappeared. When we arrive, we see Georgian soldiers behind the barbed wire. Behind the wire an old Georgian man and woman show op. The Russians have taken their land. They cannot work the land, they live in limbo. World politics is very tangible again.
These kinds of meetings, debates and experiences that are made possible by organizations like Liberal International are extremely important. Human rights violations, military threats and the fight for freedom of speech - they remain abstract concepts, until you see what they mean in practice. One cannot stay indifferent towards the importance of international solidarity.
(this report has been published in the 'Democraat' - the magazine of the D66)