Armenia and Azerbaijan together have taken a sudden leap forward in the last few weeks toward full institutional integration into Europe. Yet their human rights record will continue to set them apart from their fellow "Europeans" for the foreseeable future.
On June 28, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe approved Armenia's and Azerbaijan's membership applications, which had been under consideration since 1999. (For background, see Eurasia Insight). The Council of Ministers is almost certain to ratify the parliamentary decision.
Armenia and Azerbaijan marched closer still to the heart of institutional Europe on July 17 and 18, when the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) opened offices in Yerevan and Baku, respectively. Although both countries have been OSCE member states since 1992, to date they have been virtually absent from OSCE decision-making.
What is striking about decisions concerning Armenia and Azerbaijan is the timing. The two countries, bitter enemies in the struggle for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, have consistently crossed the thresholds of membership in various organizations in lock step. The OSCE offices were opened within one day of each other; the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly approved their membership bids on precisely the same day.
Nevertheless, Armenia and Azerbaijan were the last of the eligible Soviet successor states to be approved for membership in the Council of Europe, largely because of the organization's concern for these countries' human rights practices and the prospect of inducting states that are still, technically, at war with each other. Both the Council of Europe and the OSCE have emphasized the need for Armenia and Azerbaijan to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and to insure free and fair elections.
Both organizations also have made an attempt to focus badly needed attention on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's human rights practices. OSCE Chairwoman-in-Office Benita Ferrero-Waldner reportedly raised human rights concerns with government officials in both capitals and, in Azerbaijan, with leaders of the political opposition, as well. Her visit also secured the release of at least nine prisoners of war from Armenia and the Nagorno-Karabakh region a human rights victory in and of itself.
In an effort to promote structural reform, legal experts from the Council of Europe have spent years conducting "compatibility studies" of these countries' respective legal codes with European human rights standards. Such studies identify specific areas in need of reform. Legal experts also have painstakingly cultivated ties in governmental and non-governmental circles alike, hoping such ties can potentially speed the implementation of reform.
The two international organizations have recommended each government take a distinct course of action to address their individual human rights problems. The Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, for example, recommended that Armenia "demilitarize its prison system, adopt a law on an alternative military service, amnesty conscientious objectors, and allow religious services to take place without discrimination in its reforms concerning national legislation and human rights." It asked Azerbaijan "to ensure that its planned elections be free and impartial, [that it] liberate or re-try prisoners held on political grounds and guarantee freedom of expression and the independence of the media."
Unfortunately, these more substantive issues are subsumed by the overall signals of approval the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments believe they are receiving from European powers. Part of the misunderstanding and of the disappointingly limited human rights reform that will almost certainly result -- comes from the form rather than the content of the European bodies' recommendations.
The OSCE and Council of Europe traditionally focus on technical and legal reform, such as amending laws to comply with European standards. This approach is doomed to isolated victories at best in Armenia and Azerbaijan because it is predicated on a faulty assumption: that laws there are implemented fairly and evenhandedly, and that judicial remedies exist to correct cases of failed implementation.
On the contrary, widespread corruption means that justice is routinely bought in Armenia and Azerbaijan. Police, prosecutors, and judges can all be bribed, or otherwise influenced. In addition, opposition politicians and critically minded journalists are often jailed and harassed arbitrarily. Police are willing to resort to torture to extract confessions from criminal suspects, and courts use the confessions to convict them. Laws good or bad cannot be a guarantor of human rights in an atmosphere of government-sponsored lawlessness.
Symbolic concessions to abuser governments, such as approving their membership in the Council of Europe on the same day, are not simply diplomatic politesse. They come at the cost of masking the substantive, nuanced recommendations about urgently needed reform. The implication, sadly, appears to be that institutional Europe is willing to overlook Armenia's and Azerbaijan's bad human rights records, as long as they are equally bad.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.