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Statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi VOULE, at the conclusion of his visit to the Republic of Armenia

Armenian

Yerevan, 16 November 2018

I would like to thank the Government of the Republic of Armenia for inviting me to carry out a visit to the country, and for the full cooperation before and during the conduct of the mission.

I am most grateful to all interlocutors I have met, which include a large variety of senior government officials, including acting Ministers, members of the Standing Committee on State and Legal Affairs and Protection of Human Rights of the National Assembly, officials from the Public Prosecutor Office, the Chair of the Central Electoral Commission, the President of the National Commission on television and radio, the Chairman of the State Revenue Committee, the Chairman of the Administrative Court of Appeal, the Head of the National Police, the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Armenia and representatives of the international community and diplomatic missions, as well as of wide range of representatives from civil society organizations, social movements, activists and human rights defenders.

I am very grateful to the Government of the Republic of Armenia for allowing me to conduct this visit at a time when it is undergoing democratic transition and during a very busy period that precedes the early parliamentary elections that will take place at the beginning of December 2018.

The overarching purpose of my mission is to contribute to the efforts Armenia is undertaking in its path towards democratization, strengthening of the rule of law and achieving greater promotion and protection of human rights in the country, in particular by bringing a clear understanding on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and the conditions for the exercise of these rights.

Since the beginning of this year the people of this country decided to engage in a massive peaceful assembly movement known as the “Velvet Revolution”. This peaceful transition must be recognized and applauded as it brings hope for new beginnings and opportunities. At the same time it is crucial for political leaders to seize on the momentum to further consolidate the rule of law, capitalise on the

broader enjoyment of human rights and public participation and achieve the desired economic development needed in the country.

During my visit, I held meetings in Yerevan and outside the capital - visiting three different regions: the Lori, Shirak and Vayots Dzor provinces, where I met with Governors and participated in meetings with representatives of civil society from their regions as well as from neighbouring regions.

My visit to the regions allowed me to understand the improvement made in governance structures at the local level. In this respect, I commend the efforts made in relation to increasing efficiency through local self-governance and the improvement of public services based on the principles of public participation, transparency and accountability through Citizen Service Centres.

It was equally satisfactory to learn the impact of the changes that the revolution has brought in the regions and the importance of strengthening the role of the Governors, as they have the potential to play a mediator role in their communities during the transitional period.

The exercise of the right of freedom to peaceful assembly

Let me now address the enjoyment of the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly in Armenia.

Through my interlocutors, I had the clear sense that the people of Armenia have shown pride for the recent large-scale and unprecedented exercise of the right to peaceful assembly that has resulted in what seems a long term course for change in the country.

The right to peaceful assembly is guaranteed by the Armenian Constitution and regulated by the Law on Freedom of Assemblies. I am cognisant of the fact that peaceful assemblies in Armenia can be held without requiring prior permission but after notification to the authorities and that in some cases, the notification is not required when spontaneous and urgent assemblies are held or when participants do not exceed 100 persons. Moreover, this law provides that regardless of the type of assembly, it is incumbent on the police to provide security and enable demonstrations as long as they are peaceful.

During my visit I learnt of positive lessons from the Velvet Revolution. For example, the fundamental role that the effective and unhindered use of new

communication technologies and in particular, social media, played in the success of the peaceful protest movement.

In addition, the work carried out during preceding years by pro-bono lawyers and civil society organizations in contributing to the establishment of stronger networks and coalitions, and their role in educating citizens on their rights and duties during demonstrations, led to a remarkable peaceful movement that eventually gave way to a peaceful revolution.

Armenians from different walks of life conducted demonstrations in all regions of the country making demands for a wide-range of issues from law-related reforms to economic and social demands, including a strong stance against corruption. Protestors also represented the diversity of views and interests of a fairly homogenous society and the role of youth and women was particularly highlighted.

On this last point, I would like to stress that despite the key role women have played during the transition, this has not translated into concrete actions. I was in fact informed of the low percentage of women appointed as heads of ministerial positions and the absence of women appointed as governors. I truly hope that as a result of future elections this trend will be reversed and parity achieved and that women find themselves holding high ranking positions, linked not only to traditional themes associated with them.

During my visit, some problematic provisions in the law that restrict the freedom of peaceful assembly were brought to my attention. For example the law does not allow people to assemble in front of the entrance of certain public buildings.

Moreover, on numerous occasions I heard that the right to freedom of peaceful assembly could not be exercised when students were not allowed to protest because they were locked in their universities or were strongly discouraged from taking action on the streets.

Independent and vibrant media play an important role in the democratic life of a society.  Yet, I learnt that during the April events and manifestations held in previous years, the safety of journalists and media workers covering demonstrations and protests was not safeguarded.

It’s important that during transitions the independence of media and the safety of journalists and media workers is guaranteed by the law and in the practice and that violations are duly investigated.

Also, the access to information by rural communities is important to ensure their full participation in the democratic governance of the country and essential in the success of the revolution. Armenia must support the strengthening of independent media outlets and in particular the promotion of community radios.   

I was made aware of the fact that in some instances, the police limited the exercise of this right, by putting an end to peaceful demonstrations without a reasonable cause by forcibly taking participants to police offices or by dispersing them or their leaders using disproportionate force. In addition, allegations of a disproportionate police presence at some assemblies and the presence of plainclothes police officers during peaceful gatherings were also brought to my attention.

Another issue of great concern, with regard to the exercise of peaceful assembly, is the use of police detentions without adequate procedural safeguards. I was alarmed to learn that in previous years, as a result of taking part in some demonstrations, protestors were detained and then transferred to different detention facilities.

In this regard, I would like to recognize the preventive action of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia for the extraordinary deployment of support in Yerevan to safeguard the rights of those in police detention. During the peak of the crisis this year, the National Human Rights Institution demonstrated that the protection of the right to peaceful assembly is at the core of its mandate.  

In summing up, during my meetings in Yerevan and in the regions, cases of serious violations to the right of peaceful assembly were brought to my attention. In particular, the protest of 1 March 2008 that resulted in 10 deaths, the 2015 Electric Yerevan case that resulted in the unlawful arrest of over 200 protestors and 13 reporters, the excessive use of force in response to protests carried out in July 2016 in the aftermath of the armed seizure of the police compound by “Daredevils of Sassoun” and most recently the disproportionate policing of assemblies during protests organized on16 to 23 April 2017.

As it transpired from the discussions with the civil society and independent experts, in response to allegations of abuses or violations of the right of freedom of peaceful assembly which have occurred in the past 10 years, very few cases have resulted in the holding of law enforcement officers to account. Moreover, it has been stressed that usually investigations are slow and proceedings are often terminated without any results or sanctions.

I urge the Government to ensure that prompt, impartial and effective investigations are undertaken in relation to all pending cases and allegations of violations to the right to peaceful assembly and that the perpetrators are prosecuted and that the victims and their families are provided with redress.

Similarly, with regard to the alleged unlawful detentions which occurred during massive protests, I urge the authorities to investigate the alleged use of ill-treatment against those who were arrested and detained and to hold those responsible to account.

At this juncture, it is important that the Government deepens the trust of the people of Armenia in their authorities. In this regard, I would like to recommend that the authorities ensure that all law enforcement officers receive systematic training on the proportionate use of force, especially in the context of demonstrations, and the employment of non-violent means for crowd control. It is important for law enforcement officers to be trained on the principles of necessity and proportionality, so that they strictly adhere to these principles when policing demonstrations.

Finally, it is also important for the Government to consider the need for profound judicial reform that will strengthen the judicial authorities' ability and capacity to investigate, prosecute and sanction violations to human rights, including those restricting the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly.

Protest around natural resources exploitation

An environment that allows for the robust exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association is essential in ensuring that natural resource exploitation is fair, transparent and accountable and benefits communities.

During my meetings with environmentalist groups, I learnt of restrictions to freedom of assembly and association during previous years. I believe these limitations were counterproductive, divisive and undermined the confidence and opportunity of communities to access information, participate in public discussions and provide free, prior and informed consent when the concessions were made.

Through my interactions with different actors, I also learnt that there is a lot of frustration around governance of natural resources, especially within the

communities in the regions who feel directly affected by some exploitations carried out not in compliance with national legislation.

In particular, I visited one of the sites related to the “Amulsar” mining site exploitation and heard the concerns of the protestors who have blocked the access to the mine. It is important that the Government ensures that communities are genuinely consulted on the social and environmental impact of the exploitation as well as on its benefits.

In order to reverse this situation, I believe that one of the first steps that the government should take is to carry out genuine consultations so that these projects align with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and respect human rights.

The exercise of the right to freedom of association

Civil society is active and to a large extent able to operate freely in Armenia. Overall the legal framework regulating the life of associations is in compliance with international standards. The Law on Public Organizations and the Law on Foundations have recently been enacted with a number of positive amendments.

I welcome these amendments including the possibility to directly engage in income-generating or “entrepreneurial” activities, the provision of greater flexibility in the composition of governance structures and membership, allowing volunteerism, the possibility for environmental organizations to represent their constituents’ interests on environmental issues in courts and new financial reporting obligations when benefiting from public funds.

These are important steps in creating an enabling environment for civil society actors.

However, I was informed of a number of remaining challenges. For example, legal provisions in relation to tax obligations related to earning income that can put NGOs in a disadvantaged position compared to business entities. Ambiguous provisions regarding procedures and obligations referring to new concepts of social enterprise and paid services. The lack of clear rules in relation to access to public funding is perceived as discretionary and non-transparent and additional reporting responsibilities with an absence of a clear regulation on the use of private data.

 

I recognize that the registration of NGOs is a fairly quick and simple process. Yet, this may not apply to organizations based outside the capital who told me the difficulties they have encountered in trying to register, the lack of clarity in the procedure and the unjustified delays from the administration in charge of the procedure.

It is important that in the law and in the practice Armenia allows civil society to register, access to funds and exercise its activities without undue limitations.

I found that there is very little information on the access of public funding and that budgetary allocations for NGOs are low and scarce. Access to public funding should not be perceived to undermine the independence of civil society organizations but should rather sustain the actions of organizations especially working at the grass-root level who can have an important impact on their communities.

Armenia has the positive obligation to maintain an enabling environment for associations and to protect them from abuses and interference by non-state actors.

I also have received information on restrictions imposed on civil society organizations working with sensitive issues such as the rights of minority groups, including religious minorities, LGBT groups, and some issues related to the gender, etc.

In particular, I was dismayed to learn that during my visit the organisers of the Forum of LGBT Christians of Eastern Europe and Central Asia cancelled it because of concerns related to the safety of its participants.

This is a matter of great concern for my mandate that I have raised with the authorities. I urge the Armenian government to take all necessary measures to avoid similar situations in the future. If associations are not able to carry out their activities in an enabling environment, the State has the responsibility to implement adequate measures that allow a normal functioning of all associations and their activities, especially when these activities are carried out by groups at risk.

It is fundamental that as part of the effective measures that need to be put in place, the Government effectively combats hate speech and incitement to hatred towards minority groups, condemns the use of discriminatory statements in public

discourse, including by public figures and ensures security and safety of participants when reasonably required.

Right to Form Trade Unions

Labour unions operate in a very precarious labour environment with a culture inherited from the soviet era. Their ability to safeguard workers’ rights is restricted to a numbers of circumstances that over time has weakened significantly their effective action and limited their ability to have a strong influence in the formulation of public policies and legal reforms.

During my visit, although I became aware that the existence of trade unions is extremely weak in the country, I have witnessed that there is a lack of meaningful discussions between the trade unions, civil society actors or political organizations.

Moreover, from my discussions, it became clear that there is an absence of understanding of the real role of trade unions even by its own members because these are perceived as entities expected to provide entertainment or material benefits instead of openly engaging in labour disputes.

I am concerned by the allegations of harassment and intimidation against workers in the informal sector and encourage trade unions to establish programmes and activities for those employed in this sector. Armenian labour market is insecure and poorly regulated allowing for dismissal of workers without sufficient safeguards. This legal framework can inhibit the freedom to form, organize and operate trade unions, as employers - private and public - have almost unfettered discretion, and can find easy excuses to fire workers who try to form and operate trade unions which they may not want.

The current political environment in the country provides for an excellent opportunity to engage in a genuine social dialogue that would allow space for a debate on the structural reform in law and practice that would enable workers to fully exercise their freedom to organize.

I urge the Government to promote the rights to form and join strong trade unions that could assist workers in the claiming their rights and better working conditions.  I call on the international community to make efforts to identify relevant actors that need support to develop internally strong relationships that contribute to further creating an enabling environment for trade unions.

Conclusion and recommendations

Armenia has shown positive steps in this democratic transition, but it is at a critical juncture and further actions are needed to consolidate the democratic change and the enjoyment of human rights.

The forthcoming parliamentary elections will constitute an immediate opportunity to measure the country’s readiness to move towards a strengthened democracy where elections are carried out in a transparent way.

The expectations of the Armenian people are very high: the hope that this will be the “best elections in the history of the country”. During this critical period and beyond, I urge the authorities to make all efforts to ensure that both rights, to peaceful assembly and association, can be freely exercised by all without any restrictions and discrimination.

The course set by the country towards the development of a strengthened democracy depends on the extent to which a culture of respect of human rights, fundamental freedoms and diversity is deeply anchored in the society, and the consolidation of the rule of law and strong independent institutions, including the judiciary should be achieved.

The vibrancy of civil society should go in parallel to stronger implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and of the Agenda 2030 as a key component of efforts to leave no one behind and increase the level of participation, transparency and accountability in public governance.

As I conclude my visit, I hope that my preliminary observations and later on my report will contribute to this key process and in particular, to further advocating for the importance that the promotion and respect for the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association play at times of transition.  

I believe that it is crucial in this “post-revolution” period that the authorities sustain an extensive and structured dialogue with all segments of civil society in urban and rural areas, in order to address issues in a proactive and systematic way that will allow meeting the main goals and expectations of the revolution.

Armenians have said it themselves: they are the custodians of the revolution and I cannot agree more. I have been largely impressed by the wisdom of people I have met at all levels, working in and out of government, and I fully believe that if

tackled comprehensively, the interests of the people will remain at the forefront of developments in the country bringing the desired peaceful change.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to visit Armenia in this transition period and I believe that a full assessment of the situation should be done in the future to take stock of changes following the revolution. My mandate stands ready to support such evaluation with a follow up mission when deemed appropriate.

I would also like to encourage the authorities to benefit from any technical and capacity building support from the UN Human Rights Office and its mechanisms, for the forthcoming reforms and strengthening public institutions.

These are just my preliminary findings and my full report to the UN Human Rights Council will be ready in its 41st session in June next year.

I thank you for your attention.