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How Can The Human Rights Situation In Armenia Be Improved?

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian

Two years ago, on February 17, 2006, the Armenian parliament elected me as its first human rights defender, ombudsman, with over 60 percent of the vote.

The institution of ombudsman in Armenia is still in the formation stage, due to the unfortunate fact that here -- as in many other former Soviet republics -- neither the government nor the population at large fully acknowledge the crucial role it can and should play in public life.

One of the ombudsman's most important duties is to systematically identify and bring to public attention both serious abuses of human rights and instances of maladministration. From the very beginning of my six-year term, I have raised those issues in my annual and ad hoc reports, at interim press conferences, and in specific recommendations to the government. Sometimes the response is constructive cooperation, but on some occasions the authorities disregard my conclusions and recommendations, or create artificial obstacles to implementing my recommendations.

Such obstructionism is shortsighted, counterproductive, and risks undermining people's trust in national institutions. At the international level, it can be damaging to Armenia's national interests. Noncompliance by government agencies with my office's recommendations generally results in Armenian citizens taking their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. That court has received about 1,000 complaints against the Republic of Armenia since 2002 and has handed down 16 rulings to date.

True, we have made some progress. But I cannot consider the situation satisfactory as long as some government institutions ignore their duty to observe basic human rights. For example, my office receives numerous complaints about the tendency of the Prosecutor-General's Office to insist that suspects be remanded in pretrial custody even when the outcome of their case could not possibly be affected by permitting the accused to remain at liberty pending trial. I have called in my annual reports for 2006 and 2007 and, most recently, at a press conference on July 11, for an end to this unacceptable practice -- which is a leftover from the Soviet criminal justice system -- but without success.

Even more serious is the problem of double standards and the selective implementation of justice. An analysis of complaints addressed to my office shows that court officials frequently refrain from using their right to enforce the compulsory penalty prescribed by law when the debtor is a state entity or official. Approximately 80 percent of court rulings in which a city mayor, a regional governor, or a police officer are recognized as debtors are either not enforced at all or are enforced only after a considerable delay.

This is a clear violation of the principle of equality before the law. Many officials affirm their commitment to universal values such as freedom, human dignity, and equality, but in practice often flout these values. For that reason it is incumbent on the state to create all the political, social, and legal safeguards needed to guarantee human rights and freedoms in practice.

In Armenia, as in many other transition countries, an oligarchic system of governance has taken root that, to a considerable extent, controls the media, political parties, and state institutions. That economic elite then set about trying to supplant the political elite. Business and politics merged into a single corporate group, within which the same persons functioned as both businessmen and politicians or statesmen. Business figures became powerful enough to exert a decisive influence on public policy, either through personal connections or by successfully lobbying their personal interests. At the same time, entities outside those oligarchic groups were effectively deprived of any possibility of engaging in economic activity. This has disproportionately widened the income gap between different segments of society and precluded the formation of a middle class that could become the social basis of state stability.

Those negative trends have undermined the key principle of democracy: that there are no rights without responsibilities, and no responsibilities without rights. Today rights are concentrated in the hands of a small group of people, while responsibilities are binding for the majority of society.

I believe that the recent developments in Armenia -- specifically the crackdown that followed the February 19 presidential election -- were conditioned by the harsh governing system; the overcentralization of power; an artificial system of checks and balances; social and economic polarization; the fusion of business with government; the absence of any public control over the authorities; and a deficiency of civil liberties. All this has resulted in the estrangement of one large part of society from the government, and its total lack of trust in public institutions, electoral mechanisms, the judicial system, and the media.

It is a regrettable fact that in the Republic of Armenia, as in the majority of transition countries, domestic stability is usually achieved through the dominance of one institution of power, such as the presidency, rather than a system of checks and balances between the three branches of power. Today, Armenian society faces a choice: to develop by strengthening democratic values and institutions or to reinforce authoritarian trends in power, thereby widening even further the gap between the authorities and the majority of society.

Reporting to parliament three months ago on the combination of circumstances that led to the violent clashes in Yerevan on March 1-2 between police and protesters, I argued that, at a minimum, we need to create a framework in which government officials can be held publicly accountable, and in which a strong opposition can function freely without taking to the streets; reform election legislation; guarantee the pluralism and impartiality of the electronic media; and eliminate economic monopolies as a first step towards dismantling the oligarchic system of government. Doing so would reduce the current polarization of society that constitutes a breeding ground for political extremism. There can be no half-measures. At this juncture, to imitate reforms would be both pointless and dangerous.

Armen Harutyunyan has served since February 2006 as Armenia's human-rights ombudsman. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL