Armenia: Army Draft Reform Controversy

Critics of military conscription reform say it does not go far enough.

Armenia: Army Draft Reform Controversy

Critics of military conscription reform say it does not go far enough.

New legislation allowing Armenia's conscripts an alternative to front line service, has met with domestic and international criticism.

The long-awaited reforms will enable those who object to national service on religious grounds to take on a non-combat military role, but critics argue that the changes are too limited to represent any kind of significant improvement in the country's conscription programme.

The reforms, currently being debate in parliament, signal a move towards the phasing out of compulsory military service in line with Council of Europe membership requirements.

Under the new legislation, young men objecting to conscription for religious reasons are to take up auxiliary positions in the military, but have to serve for three and half years instead of the standard two, because, it is argued, their average working day will be shorter.

Those who opt for this alternative will be precluded from working in law enforcement or the judiciary.

"Unlike the classic European model of providing alternatives to army service, our version can best be described as 'military service without weapons'," said vice speaker of the Armenian parliament Vahan Hovannisian, who co-authored the legislation.

But many ordinary Armenians, opposition parties, local NGOs and international organisations believe that the reforms do not go far enough.

"We had very different expectations about this alternative to military service. It should be civilian. The whole idea is to serve the community in valuable ways other than through the military. This law has failed to give our children such an option," said prominent academic Levon Karapetian.

"This bill is unacceptable," said Mikael Danielian, chairman of the Helsinki Assembly. "We should be talking about a true alternative to military service. Armenia has pledged to the Council of Europe to bring its legislation into conformity with European standards, but there is a vast gulf between this law and the European standards."

Christine Martirosian, who works with the Organisation of Security and Cooperation, OSCE, in Yerevan, said the new form of conscription should not only be civilian in nature, but also equal in length to conventional army service. She and others believe extending the former smacks of punishment for not opting for the latter.

Viktor Dallakian, secretary of the opposition Ardarutiun (Justice) bloc, said excluding those who choose to take up an auxiliary role in the army from working in the judiciary or in law enforcement is a flagrant violation of basic human rights.

The government's decision not to introduce more liberal legislation stems from Armenia's continuing dispute with Azerbaijan over the Karabakh region, which requires the army to be on alert and at optimum strength.

"Armenia cannot afford to be more liberal on the issue than Azerbaijan," said Mher Shahgeldian, chairman of a parliamentary commission on defence, national security and internal affairs. "Both nations' alternative service laws should be equal."

"Our army is recruited through sweeping conscription," said Hovannisian. "That is why our alternative service will not be civilian in nature."

Even opposition politician Viktor Dallakian, who is critical of the bill, pointed out to IWPR that if Armenia were to completely follow European advice all conscripts would say their religious convictions forbade them from joining the military.

Conditions in the Armenian army are hard and brutality is widespread, while conscientious objectors are reported to persecuted by the authorities.

In one of the most shocking incidents to date, Artiom Sargsian, who had led a series of student protests against the arbitrary cancellation of draft deferments, was beaten to death in army barracks in Vanadzor in February 2001, two months after being conscripted.

"The army is ruled by jailhouse law," said Armen Gasparian, a student at the Agricultural Academy. "Friends who've refused to obey it have been killed or maimed. If they give us another conscription law - this time disguised as an 'alternative service law' - nothing will ever change."

The Armenian public have long been critical of conditions in the military and many parents dread the day their sons receive their call-up papers.

"My son is in college in the United States and I'm awaiting his return with trepidation," said Maya Karapetian, a Yerevan resident "I don't want him to serve in today's army - it is a very unsafe environment. I'm only one of many parents who share this view."

Janna Alexanian is a reporter with weekly.

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