Freedom House “Troubled” By Armenian Government’s Proposed Bill To Cut Funding To The Human Rights Defender’s Office.

In response to the Armenian government’s legislative proposal to deprive the Human Rights Defender’s Office (HRDO) of its financial safeguards and a dramatic increase in harassment of civil society organizations (CSOs) by opponents of democratic reform in Armenia, Freedom House issued the following statement:

“The Armenian authorities must ensure the unobstructed functioning of democratic and human rights institutions in the country, including civil society,” said Marc Behrendt, director for Europe & Eurasia at Freedom House. “In addition to a disinformation campaign to smear civil society as a whole launched by opponents of democratic reform, the government is attempting to cut the funding independence of the HRDO. These troubling developments will only exacerbate Armenia’s political crisis.”

In light of the conflict in Artsakh and the current political crisis, it is more important than ever to preserve the ability of the HRDO and CSOs to raise awareness of the human rights violations committed during the conflict and call out restrictions on fundamental freedoms in the country. The Armenian authorities should support the HRDO and CSOs by maintaining active dialogue with them, upholding the rule of law, and holding the perpetrators of violence and hate speech to account.

Arman Tatoyan, Armenia’s Human Rights Defender said at a press conference that he will apply to the Constitutional Court if the National Assembly adopts the bill developed by the government, which provides an opportunity to reduce the annual budget of the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia.

“This is an obvious unconstitutional project. “If this bill is adopted, I will immediately apply to the Constitutional Court to challenge the constitutionality,” Tatoyan said.

The ombudsman added that he would immediately petition to suspend the provision because he believed it would cause problems for the country’s legal security and democracy.

Tatoyan said that Azerbaijan is trying to achieve what they want to deprive the Armenian ombudsman of funding.

Azerbaijan applied with the same provision as the RA Human Rights Defender for financial independence in order to obtain “A” status for the Human Rights Defender Institute. Armenian Human Rights Defender Arman Tatoyan stated this at the March 13 press conference.

Tatoyan said “we have an “A” status, which allows us to elect and be elected to leadership positions in various international organizations. In addition, it is possible to speak on platforms that countries with a “B” status, such as Azerbaijan, cannot claim. This shows that they are dependent on the government and their report is less reliable.”

Tatoyan stressed that “If it were not for our status, they would have believed in Azerbaijan’s numerous false reports at the international level.”

It should be noted that the Armenian authorities intend to deprive the Human Rights Defender of the constitutional guarantee of financial independence. Such independence is provided for in the Constitutional Law on the Ombudsman, according to which the annual allocations provided by the state budget for the financing of the ombudsman and his staff may not be less than the allocations provided for in the previous year’s state budget.

Today, the Office of the Human Rights Defender of Armenia issued the following statement:

“The only topic of today’s press conference of the RA Human Rights Defender was the issue of guaranteeing the Defender’s institutional independence.

Instead of substantively discussing and proposing a solution to this issue, the Government only responded to the secondary issue with the Speaker’s statement regarding the ombudsman’s personal participation in Government sessions.

We would like to emphasize that it has been a common practice for many years when the ombudsman’s representative, not the ombudsman himself, participated in government sittings. This practice has been practiced by all human rights defenders at all times.

For objective reasons, the Human Rights Defender did not have the opportunity to personally attend several sessions of the Government resumed after the war due to the sharp increase in work and applications, as well as frequent visits to Syunik and Gegharkunik regions to summarize the results of those visits and present them to international organizations.

Moreover, during all this time, no one has provided the Government with either oral or written information to the Human Rights Defender’s staff that the Government expects the Human Rights Defender to attend in person.

The ombudsman’s participation in government sittings is not a duty but a right and it is unclear how this issue can be discussed in the light of causing negative consequences for the ombudsman institution.

We note that the Constitution does not give officials, especially high-ranking government officials, the right to respond to the ombudsman’s statements in a more aggressive, political manner, but a direct obligation to support the ombudsman’s activities.

This is the responsibility of all state, local self-government bodies, organizations and officials enshrined in Article 191 of the Constitution and Article 9 of the Constitutional Law on the Human Rights Defender, undertaken by international treaties of the Republic of Armenia.

The Human Rights Defender’s Office stated that the publication of the high-ranking representative of the Government, the Speaker, was immediately followed by the statement of the deputy of the ruling faction of the National Assembly. That statement, repeating the same words of the Government representative, diverted the only topic of the press conference.

Moreover, the MP’s statement contains obvious ironic remarks addressed to the Human Rights Defender, and under that statement are full of insulting and hateful remarks addressed to the Human Rights Defender and the Defender’s Office.

Moreover, the MP’s statement was posted almost immediately on the official Facebook page of the ruling “My Step” faction of the National Assembly, where the legal status and role of the Human Rights Defender were obviously distorted, insulting and not removed with hateful remarks addressed to the Defender.

We emphasize that the state is obliged to ensure the normal, protected activity of the Human Rights Defender in the conditions of real independent work with institutional guarantees.

Therefore, we consider the only issues and discussions deviating from the topic of guaranteeing the institutional independence of the RA Human Rights Defender to be closed.”

The announcement on November 10 of the highly controversial nine-point ceasefire statement between Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia on the cessation of hostilities in Artsakh sparked a wave of demonstrations and political crises across Armenia. In addition to attacking government and parliament buildings and severely beating the Speaker of the National Assembly, radical groups looted the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Open Society Foundations, and numerous civil society and media organizations continue to receive threats. Efforts to portray these organizations as antagonists to Armenia’s national interests include a film made by the group Veto that calls CSOs “enemies of the people,” calls to shut down their offices, and attempts to launch criminal investigations against them. Complaints filed by the CSOs about the threats and incidents of harassment have been largely ignored by the prosecutor general’s office and state investigative bodies. 

On February 26, the Armenian authorities moved to deprive the HRDO of government vehicles, and at the sitting of the government on March 11, the Ministry of Finance introduced a bill to remove Part 5 of Article 8 of the “Constitutional Law of the Republic of Armenia on the Human Rights Defender.” This new bill, if passed, will further constrain the independence of the HRDO and impede its mandate to protect human rights in Armenia.

Armenia is rated Partly Free in Freedom in the World 2021 and Free in Freedom on the Net 2020.

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