Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Armenia's Broken Promises

Armenia may say it is committed to democracy, but as it nears membership in the Council of Europe, proof on the ground remains hard to find.
By Michael Danielyan

Impressed by Armenia's apparent commitment to democracy, the Council of Europe looks set to welcome the former Soviet Republic into the fold. But has the leopard really changed its spots?


Armenia is currently one of only six European countries, which have yet to be granted membership status. In the past, the council has been dissatisfied with the fledging state's human rights record and its aggressive stance over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.


However, earlier this month, an Armenian parliamentary delegation returning from Strasbourg announced that the application had been approved in principle, and would be rubber-stamped at the council's April session.


The ruling cabal hopes that membership status will serve to encourage foreign investment and consolidate the nation's position on the world map.


The Helsinki Association is the only human rights organisation in Armenia to oppose the membership bid. The association believes the Council of Europe is guilty of double standards when it comes to electing its members.


In 1995, Russian Duma deputy and human rights campaigner Sergei Kovalev slammed the decision to accept Russia into the council on the grounds that Moscow's democratic vision was far from mature. That year, Russian tanks thundered into Chechnya, the republic was devastated and an estimated 60,000 people were killed. The West remained silent.


In the wake of the second Chechen campaign, the council has delayed any discussion of sanctions until April. Meanwhile, the death toll continues to soar, refugees complain of summary executions and journalists daring to criticise the war disappear in mysterious circumstances.


Is Kovalev's stance equally applicable to Armenia? Yerevan is hardly a superpower, and may not have a "red button" to intimidate the rest of the world. But over the past decade, there have been few signs that democracy is flourishing in the South Caucasian republic. And it seems unlikely that membership of the Council of Europe will persuade any of the nation's politicians to change their approach to human rights issues.


The demands imposed on Armenia for council membership have yet to be made public. The council's parliamentary assembly requires a letter of intent from any applicant, signed by the president, the prime minister and the parliamentary speaker. The deadline for this letter was February 20 but it still remains unclear what exactly Armenia's politicians have pledged.


For 10 years, Armenian politicians have been promising democratic elections - but both the parliament and the president were elected unlawfully. They have also promised to introduce legislative reforms -- but the only visible result is a law extending the period for which suspects can be detained without charge from 72 to 96 hours. They have promised to protect human rights, claiming there are currently "only" 15 prisoners of conscience (Jehovah's Witnesses who object to military service) whilst, in 1999, "only" six people died under police torture and, between October and December, brutal hazing in army barracks claimed "only" 42 lives.


As a result of the new democratic atmosphere, claim the authorities, the editor-in-chief of the Oragir newspaper, Nikol Pashinyan, was "only" given a suspended jail sentence for breaking article 208 (professional negligence) of the Criminal Code. But at a stroke, one of Armenia's most outspoken publications was effectively put on a short leash.


The Helsinki Association later appealed to the Council of Europe, which dubbed the sentence "a declaration of war on freedom of speech". But Yerevan quickly made more promises.


At meetings in Strasbourg on February 5 and 6, the Helsinki Association suggested to council members that the best way to improve the human rights situation in Armenia would be to demand that the authorities observe basic democratic principles prior to acceptance.


The Council of Europe took the approach that the Armenian government is eager to observe human rights but simply lacks the necessary experience. For this reason educational seminars and conferences will be held with a view to promoting democratic principles.


But why waste money on a training programme when, in reality, Armenia is only interested in using the Council of Europe to improve its image abroad and attract investment?


Ineta Ziemele, an official for the Directorate on Human Rights, commented, "Armenia is planning to adopt a new law offering young men a civilian alternative to military service - in this way the problem with prisoners of conscience will be resolved." However, the proposed law, drawn up by the Helsinki Association in 1997, has been gathering dust on parliamentary shelves for the past three years.


Meanwhile the Stability Party leader Ovanes Ovanesyan, who visited Strasbourg in January, proudly announced to the Armenian people, "We managed to convince the Council of Europe that we will pass such a law a year after our membership bid is accepted, and it will cover all religious bodies currently registered in Armenia." He failed to mention that the Jehovah's Witnesses have yet to be registered by the authorities and are still serving prison terms in punishment for their beliefs.


While the Helsinki Association points out that the question of council membership is the only card left to play against the anti-democratic regime, supporters of the bid argue that it will now be possible to take cases to the European Court of Human Rights.


They fail to realise that this is a long and expensive procedure. The relatives of the six victims of police torture will find it impossible to appeal to the European Court. The official version of their deaths was suicide: they will never be able to afford lawyers capable of fighting the corruption that is so deeply embedded in the Armenian legal system.


Marjorie Farguharson, advisor for the council's Directorate of Human Rights on Russia and the Ukraine, says, "I think that genuine guarantees and pledges of the seriousness of [Armenia's] intentions are sufficient for Council of Europe membership."


When asked if the membership bid could be used as a lever to improve the human rights situation in Armenia, Farguharson replied, "No I don't think so. Human rights are infringed in every member state. But we've managed to persuade Russia to abolish the death penalty." One could argue that they abolished capital punishment, and promptly started a war.


Armenia, for the time being, is not at war. And there's talking of abolishing the death penalty here as well. Meanwhile, the authorities will restrict their killing to secret police cells.


Michael Danielyan is a member of the Helsinki Association in Yerevan.