By Karine Kalantarian
The Armenian authorities’ terms for the impending creation of the post of a special state official responsible for protection of human rights faced strong objections from local and international rights advocates at the weekend.
Speaking at a seminar Yerevan, they warned that Armenia’s first human rights ombudsman is unlikely to be independent as they will be appointed by President Robert Kocharian in accordance with a bill passed in the second reading last month. Andrzej Malanowski, head of Poland’s office of ombudsman, summed up their mood when he called the crucial provision “dangerous.”
“There is a danger that the ombudsman will be subordinated to the executive branch because of being appointed by the president of the republic,” Malanowski said. He said that Poland passed its law on ombudsman back in 1987 when it was still under Communist rule and that it is “much better” than the one approved by the Armenian parliament.
Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, an independent watchdog, echoed the criticism, saying that an ombudsman chosen by the head of state is unlikely to challenge government officials guilty of human rights abuses and would thereby “discredit” the new institution.
The question of who should name the human rights defender was the main bone of contention during the parliament debates on the bill in question. The opposition minority in the National Assembly insisted that only the legislature should have the right to appoint the official. Leaders of the pro-Kocharian majority seemed to share the concerns, but argued that the Armenian constitution does not give the legislature such authority.
They pointed to the failure of the May 25 referendum on Kocharian’s constitutional amendments, one of which would have authorized the parliament to pick the ombudsman. They said the president should have that prerogative pending passage of the amendments next year or in 2005.
The temporary solution was rejected on September 2 by more than a dozen non-governmental organizations that called for the draft law to be put on hold, in a joint statement .
However, the authorities’ position was endorsed by Natalia Voutova, the Yerevan-based representative of the Council of Europe. The organization has been pushing for passage of such legislation since admitting Armenia into its ranks in 2001. “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,” Voutova told RFE/RL.
But according to Ishkhanian, an ombudsman’s appointment by the head of state is very unusual even in the former Soviet states. One of them, neighboring Georgia, enacted an appropriate law seven years ago. Temur Lomsadze, the Georgian ombudsman who attended the Yerevan seminar, said it also compares favorably with its Armenian analogue. “I would say bluntly that it is a lot more democratic than the bill which is being passed in Armenia,” Lomsadze told RFE/RL.