The Impact of Council of Europe Membership on Armenia
Top officials at the Council of Europe say they anticipate that both Armenia and Azerbaijan will soon gain admission to the Council as full members. The decision will be made later this week during a meeting of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
According to the Armenian Service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty, PACE leaders hope that the joint admission of Armenia and Azerbaijan will provide fresh momentum to efforts to achieve a political settlement to the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
At the same time, full membership in the Council of Europe will exert pressure on both Armenia and Azerbaijan to make their respective domestic political practices and policies conform to European human rights standards. [For analysis of the impact of Council of Europe membership on Azerbaijan, click here].
In February of this year, Armenia received Council recommendations on modifications needed to bring Armenia's legal code into conformity with Council standards. Among the recommendations are: the abolition of the death penalty; the legalization of consensual homosexual relations; the adoption of new laws governing the activity of political parties, mass media and non-governmental organizations; the adoption of a law on alternative military service; and legal guarantees of the freedom of religious worship for all churches.
The Council additionally advocated sweeping reforms for local government that would grant local authorities expanded decision-making powers, and called for an overhaul of the judicial system to provide for improved legal defense for accused offenders. Also, the Council suggested that the Electoral Code be amended to promote a greater degree of transparency in the election process.
The Armenian government and parliament have expressed willingness to implement the Council's recommendations, as well as to become a party to various treaties covering human rights issues. Among such treaties are the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters.
However, human rights advocates in Armenia suggest that the introduction of at least a few of the Council recommendations may be problematic. While there is no major political force in the country that opposes outright Armenia's entry into the Council of Europe, a significant number of politicians harbor reservations about some of the recommendations, especially provisions concerning the death penalty, religious freedom and alternative military service.
During a seminar sponsored by the International Helsinki federation for Human Rights on June 12, participants identified a number of areas where the government's actions contradicted Council of Europe standards. In particular, participants said the government is intolerant towards "non-traditional" churches, including Jehovah's Witnesses. According to documentation compiled by human rights advocates, at least eight Jehovah's Witnesses have been jailed for refusing to serve in the Armenian military. Two other Jehovah's Witnesses were arrested by the Shengavit Community police on June 12 and accused of illegal religious activity.
Seminar participants expressed hope that Council membership would weaken existing resistance to the expansion of religious freedoms and other rights. They similarly were hopeful that Council membership would promote improvements in the judiciary and electoral systems in Armenia.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR), an NGO based in the Armenian capital Yerevan, said a key to the successful implementation of Council of Europe recommendations is greater public participation in policy development. The NGO urged the establishment of regular public meetings to discuss human rights-related issues.
"The formal reforms which the state is undertaking, or intends to fulfill, will effectively improve human rights conditions in Armenia only when