Hello and welcome to the Armenian News Network, Groong, I’m Asbed Bedrossian.
In this Conversations on Groong episode Hovik Manucharyan and I are going to discuss a number of legal and human rights developments in and around Armenia.
This episode was recorded on Thursday, February 3, 2022.
Over the past few months certain developments have put us on alert about the state of Human Rights in Armenia, in light of the government’s appointment of a new HR ombudsman, and the persecution and harassment of opposition candidates who won local elections. On another front, we wanted to follow up on the legal battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan in the International Court of Justice in the Hague. Finally, a new Constitutional Commission has been selected to yes, you guessed it, yet again change the Constitution of the Republic of Armenia, to suit the needs of the ruling party!
To discuss these issues, today we have with us:
Ruben Melikyan, who was formerly Artsakh’s Human Rights Ombudsman, and prior to that he was rector of the Justice Academy of Armenia. In 2019, Melikyan co-founded and currently leads the “Path of Law” NGO. Իրավական ուղի in Armenian.
Early in December 2021 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued urgent decisions in the case that was brought to it by Armenia. The decisions ordered both Armenia and Azerbaijan to "...take all necessary measures to prevent the incitement and promotion of racial hatred" against each other’s nationals. Additionally, the decision said that Azerbaijan must protect from violence and harm "all persons captured in relation to the 2020 conflict who remain in detention" and must "prevent and punish acts of vandalism and desecration affecting Armenian cultural heritage".
● What Armenia’s suit was about, and what do the decisions mean for us?
● Will these decisions help protect our people and our heritage from gross violations?
Armenia claims that Azerbaijan violated the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (aka CERD), because destruction of national heritage is a form of racial discrimination. Did the ICJ’s decisions take this point into account?
● Where can Armenia go from here? How will it defend Artsakh’s Armenian population and heritage?
What are your thoughts about ECHR’s ruling that Armenia violated Pashinyan freedom of “freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and to liberty and security” stemming from the March 1 case.
On January 14 Turkish and Armenian special representatives met in Moscow for the first Turkish-Armenian Normalization discussions. Parliament vice-speaker Ruben Rubinyan met with Turkish diplomat Serdar Kılıç, then all sides made positive comments and said they wanted to continue towards comprehensive relations, and world powers put out statements commending the discussions.
● What are your thoughts about this process?
● What are the pitfalls and opportunities presented to Armenia in this process?
In April 2021, Pashinyan, in one of his speeches disclosed that he wants to change the constitution to a presidential system. He made that part of his party’s platform in the June 2021 elections. Now, it seems that the parliament has launched that process by creating a committee to develop recommendations for changes to the constitution.
● What are the goals of the current initiative to change the Armenian Constitution? How earnest is the Civil Contract’s official reason for initiating these changes: that is to transition to a semi-presidential system?
● What is the “semi-presidential” system of government that is being talked about?
● How was the constitutional amendment council selected?
Could there be alternative motives for changing the constitution, like “pre-conditions” from Azerbaijan and Turkey?
Just a few days ago we talked with political analyst Suren Sargsyan who has discovered archival documents that suggest that since the early 1990’s, Turkey has demanded that Armenia drop the Armenian cause, recognize Turkey’s borders and remove all language or claims to Western Armenia. To support this, they want Armenia to change its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution to drop all references to the Armenian Cause.
● Are you concerned that fulfilling long standing Turkish demands might be part of the goal of this initiative?
● Can the Parliamentary opposition stop harmful, or short-sighted amendments?
Since 2016 Dr. Arman Tatoyan has been Armenia’s Ombudsman, its Human Rights Defender. His term in office expires this month, in February.
Tatoyan is highly popular in both Armenia and the Diaspora, yet there has been friction with the Pashinyan administration. Last week the Civil Contract party proposed and voted in first deputy justice minister Kristine Grigoryan as the incoming ombudsman.
Ruben, you are a former Ombudsman of Artsakh, so you are definitely an expert voice on this role!
● How do you assess Dr. Tatoyan’s tenure as Armenia’s human rights defender, and also his office’s relationship with the current government?
● Would you speculate where his career is headed to?
● What can you tell us about Ms. Kristine Grigoryan?
● What are your expectations of her tenure as the new ombudsman?
Since the 44-day war ended in November 2020, the domestic politics of Armenia have been very unstable. Throughout 2021, opposition figures were harassed, jailed, and threatened with unending lawsuits. And we’ve seen some shady behind-the-scenes deals with government-associated entities that seem to be intended to strike at the opposition leaders’ financial resources. For example: the non-transparent deal for the Zangezur Copper Molybdenum Combine.
While these degradations in the norms of democracy in Armenia were noted by international NGOs like Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, as a whole they don’t seem to have put a major dent in Armenia’s reputation with the West. Just last week, the PACE voted for a resolution praising Armenia for making “marked progress in democratic development since 2018”. This was particularly scandalous because it ignored the opposition’s vocal complaints about the issue of the harassment and jailing of pro-opposition figures; and it ignored the European Ombudsman Institute’s (EOI) statement slamming Armenian Public TV, and the Armenian government, for “...pursuing a long-term policy of blocking the broadcasting of the Human Rights Defender.”
● Can you summarize the state of affairs in Armenia in this space?
The most recent of the opposition issues we just described, started a week ago when Pashinyan’s government initiated legal action to arrest a judge in Syunik, Boris Bakhshyan, after he let a jailed oppositionist, Ashot Minasyan, or Ashot Yerkat as he’s known colloquially, out on bail. Armenia’s prosecutor general Artur Davtyan would not say what the charges are against Bakhshyan, because of some need for “secrecy”. Bakhshyan has claimed that the legal action against him is harassment and retribution for allowing an oppositionist out of jail.
● Is the government behaving appropriately? Is it overstepping its boundaries?
● Do you think Armenia is being given an easy grade by the international, mainly pro-western institutions?
● Is democracy threatened?
One of the most worrisome developments for us is the rapid introduction of new freedom-limiting legislation (Article 137.1), that appears to be enforced by the regime selectively.
For instance, recently, through your Facebook post I learned that a criminal case was opened against an individual who shared content from ArmComedy (which is a satirical show) on their own Facebook profile, for severely insulting the Prime Minister. The law criminalizing such behavior was introduced last year.
● Can you talk more about this case and the phenomenon in general?
That concludes this Conversations On Groong episode, and we hope you found it helpful. As always, we invite your feedback, you can find us on most social media and podcast platforms, or our website Groong.org.
Thanks to Laura Osborn for the music on our podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe to our channel on YouTube, Like our pages and follow us on social media. On behalf of everyone in this episode, we wish you a good week, thanks for listening and we’ll talk to you soon.
Ruben Melikyan, Arman Tatoyan, Armenia, ICJ, International Court of Justice, ECHR, The Hague, Ombudsman, Human Rights, Democracy, Constitutional Council, Constitutional Amendments, Nikol Pashinyan, Kristine Grigoryan, Ashot Minasyan, Ashot Yerkat, Syunik, Zangezur, Molybdenum, Political Opposition, Armen Sarkisian, Vahagn Khachatryan, Turkey, Turkish Armenian Normalization, Normalization, Armenian Public TV, EOI, European Ombudsman Institute, Article 137.1,