U.S. Ambassador to Armenia Marie Yovanovitch has been granted a prestigious State Department award for pressing the Armenian authorities to tackle chronic vote rigging and respect the rights of opposition members arrested following last year’s presidential election.
The State Department said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bestowed the annual “Diplomacy for Human Rights Award” on Yovanovitch in recognition of her “extraordinary commitment to defending human rights and advancing democratic principles” in Armenia.
The decision was part of the U.S. government's efforts to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10. Yovanovitch, who took over the U.S. mission in Yerevan in September 2008, will receive the award early next year.
“Ambassador Yovanovitch’s principled leadership and innovative use of a full range of diplomatic tools underscores that defending human rights and democracy is an essential component of U.S. policy in our bilateral relationships,” the department said in a statement.
“Ambassador Yovanovitch and her embassy team pressed for due process of those arrested after contentious February 2008 elections, advocated for transparent investigations, and worked to improve the electoral process, all while maintaining a positive relationship with the government of Armenia,” read the statement.
“While I am honored to be selected for this award, this award really honors human rights reformers in Armenia, whether they are in government, civil society, or the media,” Yovanovitch said in a separate statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan.
“I believe Armenia has made much progress in 18 years, but that there is still much more work to do on human rights. I want to help with that process, and I want to do it constructively,” she added.
The current and former U.S. administrations have criticized the Armenian authorities’ handling of the disputed presidential ballot and the ensuing suppression of street protests staged by Levon Ter-Petrosian, the main opposition candidate. In its last global human rights reported released in February, the State Department said the authorities’ human rights record has “deteriorated significantly,” citing “numerous human rights abuses” committed by them during and after the presidential race.
Washington has repeatedly expressed concern about the fate of dozens of Ter-Petrosian loyalists which it believes were jailed for exercising their political rights. Accordingly, it welcomed a general amnesty that was declared by the Armenian government in June and led to the release of over 30 oppositionists. A senior U.S. official subsequently called for the release of more than a dozen other oppositionists remaining in prison.
Nevertheless, Ter-Petrosian believes that the U.S. and other Western powers have done little to get the authorities to release all “political prisoners” and respect dissent. The opposition leader and his associates have repeatedly accused the West of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Armenia in hopes of artificially speeding up the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.