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Statement of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, as she concludes her visit to Armenia

YEREVAN, 18 June 2010 - Upon the conclusion of her visit to Armenia, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, issued the following statement:

“I would like to thank the Government of Armenia for inviting me to conduct a fact-finding mission from 14 to 18 June 2010, and for its full cooperation during the visit. I met with the Prime Minister and other senior officials from the Executive, with Chairmen from the Constitutional Court and the Court of Cassation, with members of Parliament, and the Deputy Head of the police. I also held meetings with United Nations agencies in Yerevan. Finally, throughout my mission, I met a wide and diverse segment of Armenian civil society. I am grateful to all my interlocutors for their readiness to share their experiences with me. I would also like to express my gratitude to the Resident Coordinator and the United Nations Country Team for the assistance they provided.
While I welcome Armenia’s commitment to promoting respect for human rights, as demonstrated by its ratification of a wide number of international human rights instruments, I also acknowledge the challenges faced by the Government of Armenia and its law enforcement officials.

Although I must now take some time to review and analyse the considerable amount of information I have received, and to follow up on further exchanges of information with the Government, human rights defenders and other stakeholders, I would like to provide here a few preliminary observations and recommendations.

I would like to reiterate a request I made to the Prime Minister during my meeting with him, asking him to publicly acknowledge the role and importance of human rights defenders in achieving a flourishing, pluralistic and democratic society.

While I commend the Government for the creation of the Human Rights Defenders’ Office, headed by the Ombudsperson, and for the work carried out so far, I encourage Government, civil society and the Office to recognize the role of the Ombusdperson as an important actor in Armenian society.

For example, the potential for such a role is illustrated by the support lent by the Ombudsperson to civil society efforts in opposition to amendments to the NGO Law. In this connection, I urge the Government to reconsider the necessity of the envisaged amendments to this Law.

At the same time, I would also like to stress the importance of strengthening the financial and material resources available to the Office of the Ombusdperson in order to allow the Office to fulfil its mandate more effectively. In addition it is imperative that a dedicated focal point for human rights defenders be created within the Office as soon as possible.

I note with concern the significant constraints imposed on the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly in Armenia. While regulation by the authorities of freedom of assembly is legitimate, I have received reports of unreasonable and arbitrary restrictions being imposed by law enforcement agencies. In a democratic society, the right to hold peaceful, open and public demonstrations should be available to all individuals without undue restrictions. I also note reports of restrictions being imposed upon indoor assemblies such as meetings and conferences, with regard to which human rights defenders have faced difficulties in gaining access to meeting space and facilities.

I am furthermore worried about the exercise of the right to freedom of assembly in relation to elections in Armenia. As I have mentioned in my latest thematic report on security and protection of human rights defenders, presented to the Human Rights Council in March 2010, during the period in the run up to, during and after elections, tensions often build which may result in serious and worrying human rights violations, and may severely impact on the security of civil society.

In this connection, I would like to recall that under the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, everyone has the right to have effective access, on a non-discriminatory basis, to participation in the conduct of public affairs, which includes the right to voice criticism and submit proposals for improving the functioning of governmental bodies, agencies and organizations concerned with public affairs. This participation is supported by ensuring freedom of expression, assembly and association.

Based upon the information I have received, human rights defenders, in particular journalists, face physical risks and violence as a result of exercising their freedom of expression. In consequence, self-censorship appears to be prevalent in Armenia. I would like to add my voice to those who have already expressed serious concerns about the amendments to the Law on Television and Radio. If signed into law by the President of Armenia, these amendments will further restrict and seriously hamper the plurality of voices and opinions available to Armenian society.

In regard to the exercise of the above-mentioned rights, I am worried by documented cases of ongoing violence, assaults, intimidation, harassment and stigmatization of defenders, in particular journalists. These cases would seem to illustrate an apparent culture of impunity in Armenia which impinges upon the work of human rights defenders. This impunity appears to be closely related to the deep-rooted problems within the police system, as well as to the shortcomings of the justice system.

In this connection, I would like to stress that prompt, thorough and transparent investigations of all human rights violations are crucial to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can carry out their activities. One example of violations which have not been duly investigated includes the tragic events and killings which took place following the 2008 Presidential elections. Investigations need to be undertaken with a view to ensuring meaningful and effective prosecution in compliance with international legal standards. I would like to remind the Government of Armenia of its obligations in this regard under the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

While I commend the efforts already made, I would also like to emphasize the need to fully consult, include and incorporate the views of civil society and human rights defenders in decision-making processes, including the legislative process, formulation and implementation of national policies and reports such as the National Action Plan on Human Rights, the OPCAT National Preventive Mechanism and reporting to regional and international human rights mechanisms. I urge both the Government and civil society to engage in constructive dialogue on the issues that are key for democratic development of the country.

In particular, I consider it important that the specific needs of human rights defenders, including women defenders and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) defenders, are addressed within the National Action Plan on Human Rights. Furthermore, I would like to emphasize that Armenia’s participation in the Universal Periodic Review process provides a good opportunity for the inclusion of civil society in an ongoing and sustained process of follow-up to the recommendations, which have been accepted by the Armenian Government.

I hope my visit and my upcoming report will trigger further discussions and exchange of ideas within the country, and contribute to strengthening dialogue and relations between the Government and human rights defenders. Building trust and fostering dialogue is a holistic process, which requires a sincere commitment to cooperation, collaboration and mutual respect by all stakeholders.

 

Preliminary Recommendations

Based on my findings so far, I wish to make the following preliminary recommendations:

  • Publicly acknowledge the role and importance of human rights defenders in achieving a flourishing, pluralistic and democratic society
  • Build trust and foster dialogue, based upon a sincere commitment to cooperation, collaboration and mutual respect by all stakeholders in order to strengthen civil society and the media so that they can play a meaningful role in the democratic process
  • Ensure the right to have effective access, on a non-discriminatory basis, to participation in the conduct of public affairs, which includes the right to voice criticism and submit proposals to improve the functioning of governmental bodies, agencies and organisations concerned with public affairs
  • Fully consult, include and incorporate the views of the civil society and human rights defenders in decision-making processes, including the legislative process, formulation of national policies and reporting to regional and international human rights mechanisms
  • Include civil society in an ongoing and sustained process of follow up to the recommendations made during the assessment of Armenia in the Universal Periodic Review process
  • Address the specific needs of human rights defenders, including women and LGBT human rights defenders, in the National Action Plan on Human Rights
  • Guarantee that existing laws, regulations and rulings are implemented and enforced fully, promptly and effectively, in compliance with Armenia's international obligations. This obligation also extends to local and municipal authorities
  • Ensure that the right to hold peaceful, open and public demonstrations is freely available to all individuals without undue restrictions
  • Undertake prompt, thorough and transparent investigation of all human rights violations, in particular attacks against journalists, in order to create a safe and enabling environment in which human rights defenders can carry out their activities
  • Ensure that investigations are undertaken with a view to ensuring meaningful and effective prosecution in compliance with international legal standards, including the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders
  • Implement a comprehensive program of reform within the police service, immediately take steps to ensure the full independence of the judiciary, and reform the administration of justice. This should be carried out in conjunction with the implementation of an extensive anti-corruption strategy in order to ensure accountability within government structures
  • Recognize the role of the Ombudsperson as an important actor within Armenian society
  • Strengthen the financial and material resources available to the Office of the Ombudsperson in order to allow the Office to fulfil its mandate more effectively
  • Create a dedicated focal point for human rights defenders within the Office of the Ombudsperson as soon as possible
  • Reconsider the necessity of the envisaged amendments to the NGO Law
  • Fully incorporate recommendations of civil society and international experts into the amendments to the Law on Television and Radio
  • Carry out civic awareness and human rights education programs, to foster tolerance and respect for human rights, and to ensure the dignity and respect of the individual
  • Translate into Armenian and widely disseminate the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

I also recommend that the international community cooperate more effectively and coordinate its efforts to assist civil society in forming strong networks and coalitions, building capacity and fostering unity on topics of mutual interest.”

The Special Rapporteur will present her report to the United Nations Human Rights Council at its sixteenth session in March 2011, and will make further recommendations for the consideration of the Government and other stakeholders.

Margaret Sekaggya, a lawyer from Uganda, was appointed Special Rapporteur in March 2008 by the UN Human Rights Council. She is independent from any Government and serves in her individual capacity.

 Visit the website of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/defenders/index.htm

OHCHR Country Page – Armenia :  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/AMIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Dolores Infante
(Tel.:+ 41 22 917 9730 / e-mail: dinfante@ohchr.org)