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By Emil Danielyan
A leading international human rights organization urged the European Union Friday to do much more to promote political reform in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, describing as “poor” the bloc’s track record of human rights protection in the South Caucasus.

Human Rights Watch said the EU leadership should set “concrete benchmarks on torture, freedom of expression and other key human rights issues” at its upcoming annual meetings in Brussels with the foreign ministers of the three nations.

“This meeting gives the European Union a unique opportunity to press Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia for concrete progress on human rights,” Holly Cartner, the New York-based watchdog’s Europe and Central Asia director, said in a statement. “EU governments should not miss this chance to encourage tangible improvements on human rights in these countries.”

The meetings will take place on Tuesday within the framework of the “partnership and cooperation” agreements signed by the EU and the three South Caucasus states in the late 1990s. The agreements have provided a legal framework for their political and economic integration into the union.

“The European Union has a poor track record in using its Partnership and Cooperation Council meetings to extract concrete commitments in human rights,” said the Human Rights Watch statement. “Although significant human rights problems have plagued each of the countries of the south Caucasus since their independence from the former Soviet Union, the conclusions issued after past Cooperation Council meetings have failed to reflect these concerns adequately.”

“Despite limited progress in some areas, reforms have been slow and inadequately implemented in all three countries,” added the statement. “Torture and ill-treatment in custody, abusive law enforcement authorities, lack of independence of judges and lawyers and restrictions on freedom of the press remain ongoing problems in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia.”

The EU decided last year to step up cooperation with the three countries by including them in its European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which entitles them to a privileged relationship with the expanding bloc without the prospect of joining it in the foreseeable future. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are each to negotiate with the European Commission a separate plan of actions stemming from the ENP.

Armenia’s action plan is expected to be based on a report which was released by the European Commission in March. The 30-page report calls for democratic elections, the rule of law, respect for human rights, anti-corruption measures as well as further economic reforms in Armenia. But it does not specify what concrete actions need to be taken by its government.

The EU criticized last week the Armenian authorities’ handling of the November 27 referendum on constitutional amendments. A statement issued on behalf by of it by the British embassy in Yerevan said serious fraud reported during the vote calls into question President Robert Kocharian’s “commitment to democracy.”

The EU’s involvement in political reform in Armenia has been otherwise minimal. Its Brussels-based special representative to the South Caucasus, Heikki Talvitie, has rarely spoken out against human rights abuses and chronic vote rigging during his frequent trips to Yerevan as well as Baku and Tbilisi.

Unlike the United States and the Council of Europe, the EU never officially reacted to last year’s unprecedented government crackdown on the Armenian opposition that was condemned by domestic and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch. The latter documented “the cycle of repression” in a report issued in April 2004.

The respected global watchdog’s latest appeal to the EU contains separate sections on the situation with human rights in each of the three regional states. “The Armenian government continues to use its powers to limit political activity, restricting freedom of assembly and persecuting those that it perceives as a threat to its hold on power,” read its statement. “Human rights defenders critical of the government are particularly targeted for abuse.”

“Torture and ill-treatment in police custody are widespread in Armenia, particularly in pretrial detention with the aim of coercing a confession or evidence against third parties. Abuse and mistreatment within the army is also common, with dozens of suspicious deaths occurring every year,” added the statement.

Human Rights Watch also said the Armenian government “continues to restrict full media freedom in the country.”
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