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Ani Hovhannisyan

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights: “My job is to push the Armenian authorities to do more and to move faster”

Hetq speaks to Nils Muižnieks, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, regarding his report released today based on his visit to Armenia in October 2014.

Despite the announced reforms in the judicial system, an examination of your report reveals that Armenia has not been able to ensure the independence of this sector. Thus, can we say that the reforms of the last ten years have not produced the desired results and, if so, why?

I think that Armenia is quite good in adopting the laws, strategies and programs. But implementation in such a way that leads to concrete changes on the ground is more difficult; not only in Armenia but in everywhere. Yes, I think that problems remain, some of the problems are ensured in law: for example in justice sector the role of the president is too big, the role of the Ministry of Justice in the self government body is too big. Too often judges are influenced by judges above them in the hierarchy. Judges are overworked, the caseload is growing very rapidly and by European standards there are very few judges in Armenia per capita. So, a lot of serious issues that need to be addressed. At the same time I think that there is unawareness, there is some progress on the ground in certain areas but my job is to push the Armenian authorities to do more and to move faster.

In the report you have singled out the length of court case examinations and case backlogs as a cause for concern. The judicial system has quite a large personnel staff and resources for an efficient and speedy examination process. So, what’s the problem?

I would disagree with this section that it has a lot of resources. I think if you look at comparative data by the CEPEJ: Council of Europe’s body Program of the Efficiency of Justice, the number of judges per capita is quiet law, and the caseload is growing very rapidly. So, part of the problem is the lack of resources and the part of the problem is the management skills of judges which I think exist in other countries as well. The judges have to know how to prioritize cases to keep track of moving cases through the different instances. So, improving the management skills of judges is also quiet important. But these are issues that are long term and they are not unique to Armenia at all.

The report stands out because it’s the first time that the defense of women’s and children’s rights is discussed to such an extent. Furthermore, in addition to physical and sexual violence, psychological violence is raised for the first time. Is this greater attention to the issue due to a rise in the number of such cases in our country or because you found our judicial system lacking when it comes to defending such rights?

I think that there are number of reasons why I decided to look at the issue of gender equality and women’s rights. The first was when I was in Armenia a year ago there were number of attacks and threats against activists and NGOs dealing with gender equality and women’s rights. So, that was a first signal to me that this issue deserved my attention. The second one was I wrote a piece on prenatal sex selection all over the Council of Europe. I have found out that Armenia had a very high range of boys being born comparing to girls. And this suggests us that parents choose the sex of their child and boys and girls are not valued equally. On top of these, there was a lot of discussion in Armenia about the need of specific legislation against domestic violence and violence against women. So, I thought that it would be useful for me to analyze this issue, to come with my recommendations and to try to push it a bit forward. I was quiet interested to have this discussions with NGOs but also with authorities. And I visited the only shelter in the country devoted specifically to women victims of domestic violence. That was a quiet interesting and quiet difficult experience actually.

Mr. Commissioner, in your report you found the absence of children-tailored approaches in the justice system to be of concern. How can this “lack of respect for children’s rights” on the part of the judicial bodies be explained? As far as I know, Armenian law at least has no omissions in this regard allowing that the best interests of children be disregarded.

Well, the absence of child from the justice is common problem in many judiciaries. This issue was brought to my attention by the one case of the 14 year old was going to be charged with assaulting a police officer and was threatened with 5 years in prison. This is a very extreme penalty for a young person; this can ruin a child’s life. At that time I was told that this is what the law forces, I said well, and then you have to adapt your laws. I didn’t look into great depth of junior justice but the case of Shahen Harutyunyan symbolizes the need of more flexibility and more child-friendly approach. And I was very pleased when he was released from the tension and given the conditional sentence and not given deprivation of liberty. I am glad that this took place.

During your visits to Armenia you have met with various officials. Afterwards, what have been your impressions and conclusions? Are they ready to implement the reforms noted in the report?

Well, I had very good constructive discussions with the full spectrum of the political leads: I met with the president, the prime-minister, the chairman of parliament, the number of ministers, I met with opposition parliamentarians. I was very happy with the tone, the seriousness, the attitude of my interlocutors. These things do not change over a night. I will continue my dialogue with Armenian authorities and the civil society and the coming months and years I hope to have a meeting with the delegation of the parliamentary assembly of Armenia to the Council of Europe. I hope to continue having discussions with officials and I hope that I can help push this discussion forward. I don’t expect to get immediate results as it usually takes time and effort. And this process of dialogue is ongoing one for me, so I am happy with the start of the dialogue but I look for very much to continue this dialogue and to see concrete results on the ground.

What awaits Armenia if the reforms noted in the sectors mentioned in the report are not implemented?

Many of the issues I highlighted have already been subject of complaints to the European Court of Human Rights, so if many of them are not addressed, there will be more complaints and the government will have to spend more money in paying out compensation and to change more legislation. Its reputation will also suffer. The issue of domestic violence and violence against women, also prenatal sex selection is mentioned also in UN report that was published yesterday. So, this is an issue that will continue to come back, so I am hoping that attention that I have given to these issues will help provide good political and legal reasoning and examples of best practice on how to move forward. I am hopping in coming years we will see real progress that people will actually feel the results in their daily lives. This is my hope and my wish.         

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