By Emil Danielyan
President Robert Kocharian on Thursday formally appointed Armenia’s first-ever state ombudsman tasked with protecting human rights, in accordance with a recently enacted law that has been criticized by his opponents and rights activists.
The appointment of Larisa Alaverdian, a member of the presidential commission on human rights, was widely anticipated after Kocharian nominated her for the new job three weeks ago. The nomination was promptly endorsed by the parliament majority loyal to the head of state.
Under the law in question the ombudsman’s candidacy must be discussed by all factions of the National Assembly. However, their opinion is not binding for the president who has the exclusive authority to appoint the official.
The parliament’s opposition minority strongly protested against this provision, saying that a presidentially appointed ombudsman would be too dependent on the authorities and therefore unlikely to challenge government actions infringing on citizens’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. Alaverdian, who met with leaders of the pro-Kocharian factions, was snubbed by lawmakers from the opposition Artarutyun bloc and the National Unity Party. They refused to even consider her candidacy, saying that would lend more legitimacy to the whole procedure.
The authorities argue that the ombudsman would have been named by the parliament if a package of amendments to the Armenian constitution had been approved at the national referendum last May. They promise more attempts to amend the constitution in the near future and say the current selection procedure will only exist in the interim. Similar arguments have been made by officials from the Council of Europe which was instrumental in the passage of the law on ombudsman last December.
The opposition concerns are shared by over a dozen local civic groups. In a joint statement last fall, they called for the controversial legislation to be delayed until the passage of the relevant constitutional changes.
In the words of Mikael Danielian of the Armenian Helsinki Assembly, the very fact of the ombudsman being chosen by the president is “not normal.” He also questioned Alaverdian’s commitment to combating human rights abuses, describing her as “a person who is far away from human rights issues.”
“Larisa Alaverdian has very well cooperated with the authorities, even with those government bodies against whom any human rights organization is supposed to fight,” Danielian told RFE/RL.
As well as sitting on the presidential commission, Alaverdian headed of a non-governmental organization that has fought for the release of Armenian prisoners of war and civilians captured by Azerbaijan during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. The group also engaged in social and women’s rights advocacy.
The commission was disbanded by Kocharian in a separate decree on Thursday, nearly six years after its creation. The human rights body has rarely been critical of senior government officials.