Armenia: the arduous path to democracy

In January 2001, Armenia finally joined the Council of Europe (CE) and acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). By so doing, the country undertook a mass of commitments the honouring of which would lead to significant advances in democratisation and in establishing the Rule-of-Law. However, since 2001, Armenia has met but few of its obligations. The recent (3rd) Progress Report of the Council of Europe’s Monitoring Team states that “progress [in honouring the obligations] has been halted for almost 18 months” (footnote 1). One positive achievement was the recent abolition of the death penalty.

It is widely accepted that the Armenian judiciary is still not independent, that the separation of powers has not been realised, and that the country has failed to meet European standards in relation to the holding of free and fair elections. “The authorities appear to find it difficult, in terms of both drafting appropriate legislation and in practice, to address matters relating to the separation of powers.  The independence of the legislature, the judiciary and the media appears to be perceived as a threat to power which lies mainly in the hands of the president”(footnote 2). Police brutality is commonplace in Armenia, with law-enforcement officers routinely extracting testimony by force and psychological pressure. Very few of them have ever been prosecuted for what many believe is the most widespread form of human rights abuse in Armenia. The victims come from all walks of life (footnote 3).

Thus we must acknowledge that, as a consequence of decades of a Soviet totalitarian regime and of our recent history, there exist serious problems concerning the development of democracy and the establishing of the Rule of Law. These problems, and they include the absence of a tradition of fair trial, and the unlawful behaviour of state officials and law-enforcement officers, coupled with their practical immunity and widespread corrupt practices, are complex and have their origins in the very foundations of Armenian statehood. However this does not change the fact that these failures are incompatible with the functioning of a democracy and Armenia’s membership of the Council of Europe.

This state of affairs is conditioned upon both objective and subjective reasons. Among the former are the heavy legacy of the totalitarian past; among the latter are the professional incompetence of many Armenian state officials, judges and law-enforcement officers, the lack of knowledge of fundamental human rights and lack of awareness among wide sectors of the Armenian society of the national and international mechanisms for protecting human rights. One matter of particular concern is the lack of relevant knowledge, among Armenian lawyers, judges, law-enforcement officials and even human rights activists, of the international commitments that Armenia has undertaken and of the ways to use the enforcement machinery that the Council of Europe has created.

Ever since Armenia’s accession to Council of Europe, giving rise to the opportunity to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights (the Strasbourg Court), the Court is widely referred to by Armenian politicians – mainly oppositionists, human rights activists, lawyers, victims of human rights abuses and virtually all the others in the country who have heard of it – as a forum where citizens might seek redress for any domestic denial of their rights. However, few understand how to use the Strasbourg system to seek their remedies: this is true even of most professional lawyers. This lack of knowledge minimises the practical possibility of taking cases to Strasbourg, thus making the country’s accession to Council of Europe and ECHR much less effectual.

The British Alumni Association of Armenia (BAA) – with a membership of more that 100 young, Western-educated Armenian professionals in various fields  – has recently initiated an extensive awareness-raising campaign aimed at educating Armenian lawyers, judges, law-enforcement officers, law students and the general public of the Strasbourg mechanisms for the protection of human rights protection, including the history, procedures and the leading judicial cases decided by the Strasbourg Court. Their awareness of these topics will give them the opportunity to employ the Strasbourg machinery and use its mechanisms in their professional work. Although it cannot be guaranteed, it is likely that the judges and law-enforcement officers will learn to apply the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg Court, and of other CE member countries, in their daily professional work. That would certainly have a positive impact on their professional competence and behaviour.

The increasing professional competition between various law firms, NGOs, law-enforcement agencies and levels of courts will motivate many to learn more about the supra-national systems for protection of human rights, and is likely to have direct impact on the country’s legal and political systems. Many in the target group already have some understanding of the issues and their growing knowledge of the basics of the ECHR and Strasbourg procedures will encourage their colleagues to follow their lead.

By awareness-raising of the Strasbourg procedures and machinery, BAA’s activities will enhance the opportunity to fight such grave human rights violations as torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, still widely practised by Armenian law-enforcement bodies.

The BAA and its partners do not suppose that their initiatives will themselves be sufficient for dismantling and reforming the existing system significantly. However, we do believe that, by educating legal practitioners and others in Armenia about the opportunities that Strasbourg provides for human rights protection, including the sanctions that it can, we will contribute to the establishment of better practices and codes of conduct. That, in turn, will surely contribute to the fight against the continuing abuse of human rights.

  1. Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Documents, Monitoring Group (GT-SUIVI-AGO) – 3rd Progress Report on Armenia and Azerbaijan, September 2003.
  2. Ibid.
  3. In July 2002, for example, a parliament deputy affiliated with Armenia’s governing Republican Party claimed to have been illegally detained and beaten by several officers led by the then chief of the Yerevan-city police, Ashot Gizirian, now head of the Armenian interior ministry’s powerful Sixth Directorate charged with fighting organised crime, terrorism and drug trafficking.

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