By Ruzanna Khachatrian
More than a dozen non-governmental organizations urged the Armenian parliament on Tuesday to delay final passage of a government-backed bill that would create the post of a state ombudsman responsible for the protection of human rights.
The civic groups, among them the Yerevan Press Club and the Armenian Helsinki Committee, object to a key clause in the bill that empowers President Robert Kocharian to appoint the official. In a joint statement, they said the proposed legislation should be put on hold pending passage of constitutional amendments that would give that prerogative to parliament.
The statement was issued during parliament hearings on the bill which was approved by the previous National Assembly in the first reading earlier this year. Introduction of the post of a human rights ombudsman is among the commitments assumed by Armenia when it was admitted into the Council of Europe in 2001. The organization wants the official to be independent of the executive and be chosen by lawmakers. However, the Armenian constitution does not give the legislature such authority. This would have changed if a package of constitutional amendments proposed by Kocharian had not been defeated at a referendum last May.
“We are glad that the NGOs shared their opinion with us,” the Council of Europe’s representative in Yerevan, Natalia Voutova, told RFE/RL after the hearings.
But Voutova said they are wrong to demand a postponement because constitutional reform will likely take years. “This is part of Armenia’s commitments to the Council of Europe and we can not just wait for one or two more years until the constitution is amended.” “Temporary solutions” should be found in the interim, she added.
Such a solution was announced on Tuesday by parliament’s influential deputy speaker, Tigran Torosian. He said that under a new version of the bill to be debated by the assembly in the second, final reading this fall the presidentially appointed ombudsman will have to resign and give way to a parliament nominee immediately after a constitutional change.
The critics, however, argue that an official named by Kocharian is unlikely to challenge the head of state and his government over human rights abuses which remain serious and widespread in Armenia.
The presidential administration already has a commission on human rights that has shown few signs of activity in recent years. Unlike other local and international watchdogs, it refused to denounce the arrests on dubious charges of hundreds of opposition supporters during this year’s disputed presidential election. The unprecedented crackdown was also condemned by Armenia’s Constitutional Court.