Transparency Resource Centre Updates and an Apology

Dear Readers,

I want to start with an apology. As I mentioned earlier, I am developing a new project for Armenia. This project has essentially taken away all the time I had allotted to this blog. While I value this blog, it’s unfortunately not something I can prioritize at the moment. I am still connecting with Armenian politics and hope to be able to comment more in the future, but for now I want to introduce my project.

Over the last year of being in Armenia, I recognized that there is huge need among the population. This need varies from humanitarian aid, youth organizations, agricultural investment, etc. If you name it, there is need for it somewhere in Armenia. One can respond in two ways, either that Armenia is a backward hopeless country and will permanently be in need of (primarily foreign) aid, or that Armenia is ripe for opportunity where those with almost any skills imaginable can make an impact. Considering my predilections, I bet you can guess which route I believe in. In fact, how much impact Diasporans can make and how all Diasporans should at least consider contributing to Armenia from within Armenia formed a core part of my talk at AGBU Focus’s Perspectives panel earlier this year.

What I can contribute to Armenia are my professional talents. There are people that are more passionate than I am, more knowledgeable about Armenia, more connected with the Diaspora or the Armenian government, but there aren’t many international law and human rights lawyers around who are determined to take on the challenges. So, I set about creating an organization that will promote Armenia’s civil society sector by increasing their efficiency and maximizing their effectiveness. The organization is called Transparency Resource Centre.

Transparency Resource Centre logo

There’s no need for a long introduction to Transparency Resource Centre here as Birthright Armenia recently put a description in their summer/fall 2013 alumni newsletter. For those too impatient to read through the beautifully laid out newsletter, I screenshotted the relevant part below. If you have any questions or are interested in contributing to the cause, post below or email me at Gabe.Armas-Cardona@nyu.edu.

Selection from Birthright Alumni newsletter summer-fall 2013

Selection from Birthright Alumni newsletter summer-fall 2013

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Incremental Progress: Reforming Prisons

Armenia’s prisons are completely overwhelmed. Through the mix of post-soviet views on being tough on crime and the fact that Armenia is a developing country has caused the prisons system to be both overused and under-resourced for the job.

On June 19, Manvel Hazroyan committed suicide at Nubarashen prison, a notoriously overcrowded prison. The 22-year old was serving a sentence of life in prison for a murder occurred during his military service. The Human Rights Ombudsman made a statement of how Hazroyan’s suicide is a reminder of the significant problems within the system, including the completely insufficient one psychologist per 100 prisoners.  While Hazroyan would be eligible for parole after 20 years, other life-termers have not received parole even after serving the 20 years, according to the Armenian Program of Innocence NGO.

Clergyman Rev. Gevorg Hovannisian, recently spoke with all 100 prisoners serving life sentences, and promotes giving convicts an opportunity for repentance and correction. Hovannisian emphasized how each story is unique and each prisoner should be considered uniquely. He even took on the role of developmental psychologist to push for a change in the law that blocks a life sentence for those under the age of 21. His emphasis on rehabilitation is commendable, but there is no response to the question of how Armenia will pay for the rehabilitation programs.

Fortunately, Armenia has agreed to a European-pushed prison reform project. The relatively cheap €300,000 project will decrease overpopulation, promote probationary sentences, and bring the penitentiary system in compliance with European and international laws and treaties.

Ideally, these reforms will help reform some of the prison culture that makes physical abuse a far-too-common occurrence. With less crowding and modern facilities, it’s possible that a higher level of professional will be expected from the prison guards.

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Blatant Nepotism

Corruption is a well-known long-term problem in Armenia. While Armenia has been making incremental improvements, the amount of blatant nepotism, especially in the regions, is astonishing. Hetq recently publicized multiple instances of no-bid contracts being given to family members of the people in power. This obvious conflict of interest is exactly what Armenia needs to fight against.

In the first link, the mayor’s brother’s company got the no-bid contract because his company was “one of the biggest road construction companies around and best capable to get the job finished on time.” First, if you primarily give contracts to only one company, then of course they’ll be one of the biggest company. Second, even if they are the best to get the job finished on time, require documented proof, especially when there is a clear conflict of interest. Here’s the list so far:

In yet another setback, the police have not investigated another small town mayor six months after Hetq reported on the 1.2 million AMD spent on gas on a car that doesn’t run, among other petty embezzlements. The media can only do so much, it’s up to the police and prosecutors to act to stop this blatant corruption.

To end on a positive note, the Freedom of Information Center of Armenia (an NGO that I just recently learned about, but I believe does great work) helped organize the Open Government Partnership Conference here in Armenia. The Partnership is an international agreement between a number of states to “promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and use new technologies to strengthen governance.”

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Necessity is the Mother of Equality

To zero fanfare, the Minister of Defense just ended one of Armenia’s long-standing formal discriminations: women can now apply to military schools. The lack of analysis or discussion stuns me as an American, something like this would have occurred only after significant public discourse in the US. Here, it seems like it’s just a side note.

My guess is this change occurred through the need for more soldiers, thus the title of this post. While the Government is saying that it’s simply part of education reform. If it was purely educational reform, then why was it announced by the Minister of Defense?

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Slowly Thawing Hibernation

Dear Readers,

I want to apologize for the apparent abandonment of this blog. This blog is not dead. What happened is that I became very busy focusing on my projects here in Armenia that I wasn’t even able to keep up with the news, let alone write professional commentary on current events. I finished my fellowship at Caucasus Research Resource Center, and as of today, extended my time here in Armenia to focus on the projects I’m working on and to find a job here. In the mean time, I plan on slowly start posting again to this blog. If I land a permanent position here in Armenia, then I can commit to continuing this blog indefinitely.

Best,
Gabe

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Why Genocide Recognition Matters

I was having a discussion with my friend who asked me about the importance of historical and political recognition of the Armenian genocide. “Should people want governments around the world making official statements acknowledging the intentional destruction done by the Athenians during the Peloponnesian Wars?” The difference between the Armenian Genocide and ancient destruction is that there are still victims of the former and their healing is stunted by the active denial of the Genocide.

The reason that the Armenian Genocide matters in modern-day politics is 1) recognizing genocide helps the victims and possible future victims and 2) because the government of Turkey and certain sectors of the Turkish community actively work to silence or punish those that raise the issue.

Recognition helps make any victims whole, whether genocide victims or victims of any other massive crime. When (the lack of) law cannot provide compensation, at least recognition acknowledges to the victims that the world knows they have suffered and provides some solace. Recognition can also help limit the creation of future genocides as the famous Hitler quote of “Who, after all, speaks to-day of the annihilation of the Armenians?” implies. To engage in human rights is to take a victim-centered approach—to empower those that have been disempowered—and to learn what the victim wants and needs. If the victims want recognition, then it’s not a dismissible idea. Considering the stream of people passing my window to go to the Genocide Memorial, expected at many hundreds of thousands of people today, the Armenian people have made their desire clear.

Feelings of solace and peace are difficult to obtain when some people deny the existence of the genocide and actively attempt to persuade others to their side. The primary culprit here is the Government of Turkey, which has long denied the Genocide. Turkey has pressured Canada to essentially “unrecognize” the Genocide and has frozen all political ties with France when it almost passed a law criminalizing genocide denial. It’s because of Turkey that US Presidents are unwilling to use the word Genocide, even when they accept all events as true. It’s clear that denial of the Genocide is a key part of Turkey’s foreign policy.

Just as criticizing the policies of Israel is not anti-Semitism, criticizing the policies of Turkey is not to hate all Turks. Turks are often unable to learn about the Genocide as speaking open discussion of the genocide often leads to criminal sanctions. Turks learn about the massacres and deportation from government approved history books that paint the Turks as protecting their homeland from inside elements that wanted to destroy it. Unfortunately, the Turkish government also tries to alter the history books of other nations. Are modern Turks responsible for all the horrible things some of their ancestors did? “No, but they are responsible for realizing that they benefited and continue to benefit from those actions and institutions, … and to try to fix that shit.”

Recognition wouldn’t be painful for Turkey, just dangerous for its political leaders. Some people think that Turkey should compensate Armenians like Germany does for the Jews, but with almost no relevant international law on the subject in 1915, no one could force Turkey to provide compensation except for property that was taken from Armenians in violation of Turkey’s domestic law. Recognition would actually ease the pressure Turkey gets from many countries and would allow them to redirect a lot of their diplomatic resources. The only pain would be for the leaders from hard-line elements that flatly reject the Genocide. Unfortunately, fanatical people are the result of a biased history education, so they’ll have to be challenged at one point or another. Fortunately, there are people working on how to resolve this issue as smoothly as possible.

What can non-Armenians and non-Turks do about this situation? Recognize the Genocide as a genocide, regardless of the threats and accusations hurled at them by genocide deniers. That is the way to do justice to the countless victims of history.

Placing Flowers at the Genocide Memorial during the candle-lit march on the night of 23 April.

Placing Flowers at the Genocide Memorial during the candle-lit march on the night of 23 April.

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Clarification: the need for Armenian Activism

I want to add some explanation to my previous post. I did not mean to say—and will never say—that the popular protest is over and that the situation is hopeless. What I meant to say is that the period of large popular rallies is past us. If the rallies were double (or even larger) the size they were, maybe rallies would have been effective, but that is simply speculation. What needs to happen is the hard work of institutionalizing the spirit of the opposition. Pre-Parliament is a great example of this, as is the Barev Foundation. I wish Raffi could have started building these institutions weeks (months) ago, instead of saying “I’ll announce my plan next rally.”

These institutions can form the bedrock for future change. These popular institutions can provide both the manpower and the skillset to do something big. Want to run for mayor in Yerevan? Fine, tap into this network to get hundreds of volunteers to pass out leaflets or go canvassing. Want to stop a polluting mining operation? Great, brainstorm with the intellectuals and elites to develop a strategy to force them to change their operations. Raffi was able to show that there are tens of thousands that will support and contribute to a strategy of change. Unfortunately, he never developed that strategy.

Developing the long-term strategy is hard but absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, a long-term strategy needs hope and commitment. Two things that too many hayastanci lack. Instead, too many of them are waiting for a leader to solve the country’s problems, while also waiting for a green card.

One great example from America’s history is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP’s) strategy to combat racial segregation in education. Racial segregation in education was legal in the US and the NAACP was able to make it formally illegal in the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. But, this case was only the latest in a long chain of victories.  The NAACP knew that with a prejudicial Supreme Court, there was no hope to try for a grand victory, so they started with the smallest and least objectionable issue they could find. They argued that Missouri was violating black students’ rights by not having a single law school for blacks within its borders, and they won. They then argued that black law students deserved access to equally good law libraries and law professors, and they won. The NAACP correctly counted on the Supreme Court being more interested in the study of law than on perpetuating segregation. Finally, the NAACP could go after its big goal of general educational segregation in Brown v. Board and the Supreme Court had to rule in its favor because of the precedents of equality it had created for itself. This victory didn’t completely solve America’s racial segregation problem, but it was a huge step in the right direction.

Barevolution as a popular movement signified by rallies is over; barevolution as a demand for change is doing just fine.

The question for Armenians is what is your strategy to improve the country?

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