Guest article by Artur Sakunts, Chair, Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly-Vanadzor, Armenia
On 23 April 2018, following a one-month period of non-violent, peaceful and decentralised civil disobedience and large-scale protests known as the Velvet Revolution, Serzh Sargsyan, who had held the post of President of the Republic of Armenia for two consecutive terms and submitted an application to rule the country for a third time, had to resign. It is important to trace the long-term civil society commitment to change that helped sow the seeds of the dramatic events of April.
Before the end of his second term of office, on Serzh Sargsyan’s initiative, Armenia’s form of government had changed from a semi-presidential system to a parliamentary one through a constitutional referendum. The constitutional amendment process was, however, not participatory. The draft amendments were published only three months before the referendum, leaving insufficient time for debate, while the referendum took place with numerous violations, including the falsification of voting results.
Over the last 20 years, Armenia experienced obvious regression in the fields of democracy and human rights, even after joining the Council of Europe in January 2001, and following the introduction of legislative changes, including the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2015. Elections at the national and local levels were neither free nor fair. People were persecuted for their political views, political opposition activity and civil actions. The freedom of speech and pluralism were restricted. Journalists were subjected to violence when doing their jobs. Torture was of a continuous nature in police stations, penitentiary institutions and the armed forces. Ultimately, human rights violations were of a sustained and systemic nature. Officials and representatives of law enforcement agencies were not brought to liability for all these violations, as no effective investigations were conducted.
In order to complete the picture of the situation created in Armenia, one should note the scope of the spread of corruption, which international and local experts assessed as a threat to national security. The principles of equality before the law and the rule of law no longer worked in Armenia; impunity dominated. The judiciary was fully subject to executive power, and justice was selective in nature. The participatory process in the field of government was an imitation only of real democracy. Due to the authorities having monopolised the economy, political parties, being deprived of a social base, had become a constituent part of the political system ruled by the Republican Party.
Civil society action and state reaction
Parallel to all of this, civil society and its institutions, namely human rights organisations, think tanks, investigative journalists and environmental movements, working on issues such as fundamental human rights, the fight against corruption and the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, were able to develop their capacities and skills in the fields of documenting and publicising human rights violations, corruption and economic crimes, carrying out strategic litigation, monitoring the performance of international obligations by the authorities and advocacy.
Short-term civil protests and long-term social movements mobilised in connection with various issues, including environmental issues, such as initiatives against the exploitation of the copper mine in Teghut, the construction of a hydroelectric power station at the top of Trchkan Waterfall and an illegal construction in green Mashtots Park; issues related to human rights violations in the armed forces, including initiatives known as ‘the Army in Reality’ and ‘Women in Black, Armenia’, and in penitentiary institutions; and issues related to human rights violations against women - including domestic violence - and LGBTI people, to name but a few.
It should be noted that from election to election civil society organisations (CSOs) performed observation missions more and more professionally. The data obtained and the reports compiled in the framework of those missions enjoyed the attention of international observer missions and were perceived by them as unbiased, objective and well-grounded in data.
Within civil society, cooperation between separate institutions developed through unions, coalitions, joint monitoring and reports. Civil society was active on international platforms as well, including those offered by the United Nations (UN), Council of Europe, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and European Union (EU), by presenting shadow reports and statements, and submitting applications to the European Court of Human Rights and different human rights institutions of the UN, including the Committee against Torture and Human Rights Committee.
The actions of CSOs were tracked by the mass media outlets controlled by the authorities. Media outlets were instructed by the authorities to target civil society, presenting it as foreign agents, grant eaters and the home of anti-national elements. This was expressed not only in speech but also in threats and criminal prosecutions, which although short in duration, were accompanied by the deprivation of freedom. Clearly, the authorities did not welcome the activity of civil society at all. The authorities made consistent efforts to control civil society and, as a counterweight, introduced fake, government-controlled non-governmental organisations (GONGOs). These were a way of trying to diminish the role, meaning and impact of CSOs, and to call into question the objectivity of the assessments of civil society’s monitors, advocates and human rights defenders. As a consequence of all of this, a barrier was created between CSOs and civil initiatives.
It should be noted that there was no national event or a shocking violation of human rights about which civil society did not express its position through statements, public discussions, reports and the initiation of judicial processes. With the efforts of CSOs, public perceptions about the seeming immunity of state institutions were changed. For instance, the Ministry of Defence, which was long considered to be an unquestionable, immune institution, especially in the context of the Karabakh conflict, had to open up to some extent due to the pressure of public complaints, initiatives to bring criminal cases, data obtained through judicial protection and especially the pressure caused by presenting information about this in international arenas.
As was mentioned above, civil society’s role in decision-making was largely formal in character. Nevertheless, even in the face of this contemptuous attitude, civil society used the limited platforms available for dialogue to present its standpoint and raise public awareness, simultaneously showing the conscious inaction or corrupt interest of the authorities in each case.
The OSCE Civil Solidarity Platform, the EU Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forums and the UN’s protection mechanisms for human rights defenders had a great significance for civil society activity in Armenia. However, the attitude of international institutions towards the assessments of CSOs in Armenia was not always of the desired nature. In many cases, international institutions treated the assessments, information or reports of civil society on the basis of the arrangements made with the authorities of the time or on the basis of political expediency.
Of course, international human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and Transparency International, are an exception. These organisations were often the only means of presenting the human rights situation in Armenia on international platforms.
Thus, the Velvet Revolution was preceded by the active work of civil society and numerous civil initiatives in unfavourable conditions. Despite having a limited field of activity, being subjected to, to put it mildly, the disobliging attitude of the authorities, civil society still managed to present objective information to the public and show behavioural precedents aimed at solving various problems, examples of fight and cooperation and opportunities for change. Through continuously involving society in its activity and through educational programmes, civil society contributed to raising the awareness of society and encouraging a demanding stance. It is noteworthy that active figures in CSOs and citizens who have a connection with those organisations and their initiatives were at the forefront of the people’s movement of April 2018.
For years, human rights institutions also provided institutional support for the civil fight going on in Armenia by defending citizens involved in that fight in police stations and judicial cases and providing legal help in other cases. During the April 2018 movement, that support was more coordinated: through a joint hotline, a number of human rights organisations provided legal advice to the movement’s participants and carried out rapid response activities.
After the Velvet Revolution, a wide field of activity has been created for civil society to realise the suggestions made over the years and act to improve the human rights situation in different spheres in Armenia, to protect rights, increase the level of accountability of the authorities and the transparency of their actions, and decrease corruption risks.
Of course, we are now in a transition period and we still have a number of restrictions: at the time of writing, a new National Assembly is yet to form, the judiciary has not yet been reformed and the new government has not yet fully mastered the situation.
Currently, civil society is actively involved in the process of developing electoral amendments within the committee for reforming the electoral code formed by the new government. It is known that early Yerevan City Council elections will be held in September 2018, during which CSOs, including our organisation, are planning to carry out observation missions. This will be authorities’ first test in terms of conducting free and fair elections, ahead of parliamentary elections that will be held within the next six months. Civil society is also cooperating with the government on designing the road map to implement the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement. Moreover, a concept of transitional justice is currently being developed by CSOs to be presented to the authorities for implementation. The aim of the concept is to restore the rights of the victims of human rights violations committed by the previous authoritarian regime, including the victims of political persecutions and political prisoners, systematic corruption and impunity. In particular, this approach aims to determine the legal consequences of the mass violations that occurred during national elections and referenda, as well as corruption crimes that have resulted in human rights violations and caused substantial and irreversible damage to the environment and the economy, entailing the growth of poverty. These and the activities of civil society in all other fields are aimed at restoring public trust in justice.
Hence, we are in the process of learning how to live and act in free conditions. On the one hand civil society has to cooperate with government; on the other, it has to continue to serve as a vigilant watchdog over the authorities to safeguard society against any possible abuses of the new government.