Monthly Archives: May 2012

Primer on International Human Rights Law in Armenia

At the request for a friend, I wrote a quick primer on international human rights law in Armenia. This primer is useful for those that have absolutely no background on international human rights law and covers the basic sources of the law useful for an NGO or activist.

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Pictures, Garni Temple

I went camping near the UNESCO World Heritage Site Garni Temple. Pretty amazing.


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Human Rights as a Political Football

The UK recently declared that they would not allow any individual, including State leaders, to enter the UK for the Olympics if “there is independent, reliable and credible evidence that an individual has committed human rights abuses.” As someone who cares about human rights and doesn’t like it to be used as a political weapon, I’m against this. The main issues are who gets to decide 1) which human rights will matter in the decision, 2) what qualifies as human rights abuses, and 3) who gets a pass from evaluation?

The answer to all three questions is the Foreign Ministry of the UK.

If the Olympic committee teamed up with the regional human rights courts, then I may be able to support this. In this case, the UK is acting as judge, jury and executioner when deciding who can and cannot enter.

Evaluating States for their human rights abuses occurs all the time. Freedom House’s Freedom of the World Report, Transparency International’s Corruption Index Report, even the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report all evaluate States and often quantify or summarize their evaluation as a number or category such as “Free/Partially-Free/Not Free” or “Tier 1/2/3.” The difference here is that these organizations winnow down the number of issues they look at to be able to compare apples to apples in deciding who the worst of the worst is.

Human Rights as defined by politicians

When all human rights are considered (which, in theory, is what the UK says it will do), it will be impossible to balance the different rights as essentially every state has violated some human rights. Freedom of speech is undoubtedly a fundamental human right, but if you are literally starving, left weak and enfeebled with possibly only days of life left because of lack of food, would you rather your country respect freedom of speech or the “fundamental right to be free from hunger” as stated in Article 11 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights? For a population that’s starving, I would say that it’s not just appropriate but the government ought to focus on economic rights rather than on political rights (assuming, artificially, one had to choose between them).* If a causal connection is found between grain commodity speculation and starvation, will the UK ban the heads of Goldman Sachs? (See question #1 above).

The West has always respected civil and political rights more than economic, social and cultural rights, but even among civil and political rights, it’s likely that UK will pick and choose which rights to respect. Labor organizing is long established as part of the freedom of association, but what are the chances that the UK will block Juan Manuel Santos, the President of Colombia, because of Colombia’s massive number of killings of trade unionist (about half of the known killers being state forces)? I doubt that violations of the freedom of association of this type will qualify unlike violations involved with violently braking up protests in Bahrain. (See question #2 above).

Now, let’s assume an understanding of Human Rights that only encompasses the grossest violations of civil and political rights. If this policy existed at the last Olympics, would it not have been appropriate for China to block George Bush and Tony Blair for US and Brittan’s involvement in torture? The West would howl.

Unfortunately for the UK, this isn’t a theoretical issue. Obama did not order torture of Guantanamo detainees, but he also didn’t investigate and prosecute the torturers. Obama has the obligation to detain and prosecute anyone that is suspected to have committed torture under Article 6.1 of the Convention Against Torture. What are the chances the UK will not allow Obama to enter? (See question #3 above)

In contrast: Eurovision and Baku

What does this have to do with Armenia? Tomorrow’s Eurovision Finale in Baku. Take one guess what Armenians think of Eurovision in Azerbaijan.


The rest of the world isn’t absolutely against Azerbaijan and is willing to watch Eurovision and likely learn something about the small landlocked Muslim country. Local and international NGOs have used this as an opportunity to raise awareness of the human rights abuses of Baku. The government of Baku is obviously annoyed by this but fortunately hasn’t expelled foreign reporters that publish negative stories. Here, human rights are being promoted for their own sake and aren’t being used as a tool of politics, and I am in support of what the NGOs are doing.

* The problem with many dictators is they establish policies that perpetuate the crisis setting and thus it never becomes “the right time” to develop civil and political rights.

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LGBTI Rights

LGBTI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex.* The category of rights designed to protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The people of the former Soviet Union really disrespect LGBTI rights.

While better than the “Kill the Gays” bills introduced in Uganda and Liberia, it’s pretty bad over here. One of the differences here is that there isn’t active government persecution against gays but more of a general sense in society that they’re wrong and don’t deserve protection. It’s a lot harder for the West to punish social prejudice than government policies.

Recently, violent anti-gay protesters attacked after a march in St. Petersburg (warning: semi-disturbing video). In Kiev, the leaders of a gay march cancelled the march because of security fears; in response, the anti-gay protesters attacked the leaders. In Tbilisi, priests attacked gay marchers because the police wouldn’t stop the “indecency.” And in Armenia, a gay-friendly bar was firebombed and vandalized with swastikas, and the two suspects were bailed out by Members of Parliament. Please note that, distressingly, all of these events occurred within the last two weeks and around International Day Against Homophobia.

DIY Bar, after the vandalism

DIY Bar, after the vandalism.

Regardless of how extreme the vandals are (including drawing the swastikas and self-describing themselves as fascists) they have significant social support. One of the Members of Parliament that paid their bail stated that the suspects “acted in accordance with our society’s values and national ideology, and in an appropriate manner…. It was wrong to cause material damage, of course, and it will be compensated, but I have repeatedly said that Tsomak [the bar’s owner] and her ilk are destructive for our society….” In a video, the suspects nonchalantly describe themselves as fascists and openly acknowledge their vandalism.

I participated in a pro-diversity march on May 21, and you can see (and hear) the forcefulness of the counter-marchers. They were chanting “Shame, Shame, Shame,” “Gays to Baku!” “You’re not Armenian, you’re Turkish” among other things. A fight occurred at the beginning of the march but the police were able to keep the event mostly peaceful.

The Human Rights Ombudsman has made a statement on the issue, which is stronger and weaker than expected. The Ombudsman is mandated to only protect human rights violations caused by the state, not individuals. Legally, he’d only be empowered to act here if it was found that either the state was involved in the vandalism or the police refused to prosecute. Neither seems to be true. Regardless, the Ombudsman limits his statement to stating that he’ll wait until the police determine “if there are other motivations [for the attack] rather than interpersonal relations….” If so, then he’ll make another statement.

[Addition: The US EmbassyUN Armenia and the CoE in Armenia each made a statement condemning the attacks.]

Armenia is going to have to have a discussion on LGBT people similar to what has happened in America. America has been having the discussion since at least the 1970s (with the AIDS crisis acting as an accelerant), and only today do we have a presidential  candidate (who is also the President) in favor of marriage equality (one of only many of the rights people are fighting for). It’s been a long struggle in America and I hope that that doesn’t have to be the case in Armenia.

A good English Armenian blog on the issue is Unzipped: Gay Armenia.


* LGBTI is the generally accepted term in the Human Rights sphere instead of the more common LGBTQ or much more common LGBT.

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Election Aftermath Watch: Intermission

It’s been two weeks since the May 6 elections and while thankfully there weren’t riots and tanks in the street, not everyone is satisfied with the results. The vice-Chair of the Armenian Bar Association in the U.S. has said they were not free and fair. The ex-Foreign Minister, who is a member of the Prosperous Armenia Party, the second most powerful party, said the Republicans used “new election rigging methods.” The President of A1+ news (A1+ news became internet-only after the government refused to renew their broadcasting license) said that the election was elaborately executed to make it seem like there was free and unbiased coverage. The opposition party (Armenian National Congress) is going to the Constitutional Court to declare the whole election null and void. The “Sardarapat Movement” wants to hold alternative elections that will better represent the will of the people.

Of more significance, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) observed 978 precincts in Armenia and highly praised the execution of the election. The U.S. Ambassador also highly praised the election. The big players that have yet to release reports are the OSCE and the Human Rights Ombudsman.

Armenia really wants a thumbs-up from the OSCE, as that will substantially support the idea that they are a modern nation based on the rule of law. The problem is that this is only moderately true. While there were a number of minor glitches I reported about in the first election post, what is turning out to be the biggest issue is vote buying. Both agents of the Republicans and the Prosperous Armenia Party were found with fat stacks of cash and notebooks of voter names. It’s not clear how much payment for a secret vote would change people’s actions (“of course I voted for you, now give me my money.”). Considering in the last election at least one box of votes was taken away by thugs and then returned (and accepted!), there is reason to doubt whether one’s vote would remain secret in this election. It’s unknown whether there is an ongoing police examination on the vote buying issue but the Human Rights Ombudsman is examining the issue. In the more rural areas, the Republicans and Prosperous were blatant and gave away tractors in contests and chickens to ensure votes, so secret vote buying isn’t too surprising.

Read on to Elections: Final Statement.


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The Situation of Nagorno-Karabakh, Part 2: Self-determination vs. Territorial Integrity

This post is a continuation of this one and this one.

On the legal side, the battle lies between self-determination and territorial integrity as discussed in my previous post. Prominently listed on Artsakh’s website is a memo by my former organization Public International Law & Policy Group  on the issue. The summary of the memo is that Azerbaijan did not fulfill its obligations “in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples,” thus fulfilling the condition for the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh to declare their independence.

The UN Security Council Resolutions 822, 853, 874 and 884 are used as counter-evidence of the illegal occupation by Armenians and reaffirms the respect for [Azerbaijani] sovereignty and territorial integrity. All four resolutions reaffirm the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. Furthermore, Resolution 853 calls for the “unconditional withdrawal of the occupying forces involved from the district of Agdam and all other recently occupied areas of the Azerbaijan Republic.” However, 853 already acknowledges some degree of separation between the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia (“9. Urges … Armenia to continue to exert its influence to achieve compliance by the Armenians in the Nagorny-Karabakh region ….”). Resolution 884 has similar statements as 853. All four resolutions justifiable make Azerbaijan look like the victim as they are losing the war at this point and calls on Armenia to do more to end the conflict.

These resolutions may be used to demonstrate a violation by the Republic of Armenia, but they don’t refer to the right of self-determination. If the people of Artsakh have a right to self-determination, these resolutions wouldn’t trump their right.

With Nagorno-Karabakh being a distinct region from Armenia proper since sovietization, there is a strong argument that the people of Artsakh are distinct enough to qualify for a right to self-determination. However, with, inter alia,the shared military and passports between Artsakh and Armenia, there is doubt. If the people of Artsakh do fulfill the requirement, then there is still the open question whether Artsakh has a legal claim to all of its land or only the land of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Some Azeri commentators have mentioned that the war was a war of aggression and the nation of “Artsakh” is a ruse to hide that aggression. War of aggression to gain land has been banned in international law since at least the early 1950s. It is a violation of jus cogens, the highest breach of international law possible (e.g. it’s as bad as the slave trade). If Artsakh doesn’t exist as a separate identity from Armenia, then Armenia’s calls on holding a referendum in Artsakh that may result in unification with Armenia would amount to Armenia trying to legally claim the lands it has illegally occupied since the war. While a clever argument, it relies on the people of Artsakh not having their own claim to self-determination.

Regardless of what the law is, to the frustration of international lawyers everywhere, international law often must take a backseat to international politics. When it comes to frozen conflicts, even a clear statement from the International Court of Justice is not enough to change the minds of the people or the policies of their governments.

Read on to Part 3: The Peace Process.


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Pictures, round Yerkoo

My next batch of pictures are up. We took a bus trip and saw a number of sights including the amazing Tatev monastery. Go look.

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