An anti-graft arm of the Council of Europe urged the Armenian authorities on Thursday to carry out “more comprehensive” reforms that would combat and prevent corruption among Armenian lawmakers, judges and prosecutors.
Describing corruption as an “important problem for Armenian society,” the Strasbourg-based Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) specifically called for stricter rules for income declaration by those officials and their families. In that regard, it also stressed the importance of greater judicial independence.
“The judiciary is perceived as being particularly prone to corruption,” GRECO said in an extensive report. “Moreover, according to various national and international reports, the independence of the judiciary … appears unsatisfactory.”
“Overarching concerns about the current system of state powers and public governance can only be addressed through a more comprehensive reform process,” reads the 66-page report. “It is essential that the necessary reforms are carried through without delay, with the support of various political and societal forces, and that they yield concrete and sustainable results.”
The report, based on an April 2015 fact-finding trip to Armenia by a GRECO delegation, recommends more powers for an Armenian state body that scrutinizes income declarations submitted by senior state officials and their family members.
The Commission on Ethics of High-Rankings Officials was formed by President Serzh Sarkisian four years ago with the stated aim of detecting possible illegal self-enrichment by some 600 officials. None of those officials is known to have been sanctioned by the commission to date despite regular media reports linking some of them with lucrative businesses.
Many senior officials have attributed their and their close relatives’ wealth to lavish financial “gifts” received from unnamed individuals. The anti-graft body has not investigated the origin of those donations.
Those gifts seem to be a major source of GRECO concerns. The group’s report says that Armenian laws and regulations should set “clearer definitions to ensure that they cover any benefits -- including benefits in kind and benefits provided to associated persons.”
The Armenian authorities, the report says, should also give more powers to the ethics commission so that it “can verify in depth the [asset] declarations submitted, to investigate irregularities and to initiate proceedings and impose effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions if the rules are violated.”
“The authorities may also wish to ensure that criminal sanctions are in place -- and are effectively applied -- in case of serious breaches of the rules on asset declaration,” it adds.
The Armenian government already announced in December plans to push through the parliament a bill that would empower the commission to fine officials refusing to file such declarations or underreporting their assets. The government also claims that Armenian courts will become more independent as a result of recently enacted constitutional changes.
GRECO indicated, however, that more needs to be done to address the lack of judicial independence in the country. “With regard to judges, further amendments to the architecture of judicial self-government bodies, to the procedures for recruitment, promotion and dismissal of judges and to disciplinary procedures are clearly required,” it said.
“Similarly, the procedures for the recruitment and promotion of prosecutors need to be reformed, as do the procedures for the selection, appointment and dismissal of the Prosecutor General,” it added.
Policy recommendations contained in the GRECO report also include tougher sanctions against conflict of interest among Armenian parliament deputies, many of them wealthy businesspeople. GRECO believes that the authorities should “prevent circumvention of the restrictions on business activities” by those lawmakers.
“By the end of April 2017 the authorities of Armenia are to report back on measures taken to implement the 18 recommendations included in this report,” concludes the report. “GRECO will assess the effectiveness of these measures in a “compliance report” in the second half of 2017.
The recommendations were endorsed on Thursday, Thorbjørn Jagland, the Council of Europe’s secretary general. “Reform should be pursued with determination and without delay,” Jagland said. “Fighting corruption is a priority.”
The Armenian government adopted last year a three-year plan of actions aimed at combatting corruption. Earlier this month, the U.S. Agency for International Development allocated $750,000 to support its implementation.