Armenia's new human rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdyan, who took up her post beginning this month, is already defending herself against fierce criticism that she is a mere servant of the president.
"The institution of human rights must not only provide defense in specific cases or for specific problems, but it should also have a preventative role," Alaverdyan told IWPR in an interview.
Establishing the post of human rights ombudsman was one of the obligations Armenia undertook when it joined the Council of Europe in 2001. The government is now saying that Alaverdyan's appointment to the post on March 1 shows that they are taking these obligations seriously.
She is now busy recruiting her staff, which will consist of 75 people.
Before her appointment as ombudsman, Alaverdyan worked as an executive director of the Foundation Against Legal Arbitrariness and served as a member of the presidential Human Rights Commission.
The commission had operated for more than five years but has now been disbanded. The old commission mainly dealt with grievances from ordinary citizens and processed over 6,000 complaints during its years in operation.
"The functions of the ombudsman and her staff will not just be limited to communicating with people with complaints," said Alaverdyan. "The field of activity of the ombudsman is much wider." She says she wants to work on improving the legislative base in Armenia , raising public awareness and sharpening the actual application of the law.
The main challenge, she says, will be working with the judicial system. "This is our weakest link," she said. "However, monitoring can be a very powerful weapon."
Alaverdyan believes that there is a huge difference between the old and new system, "There, all members were appointed by the president. Here, the president appoints only one person. Here, the authority and duties [that come with the post] are enormous."
And she dismisses the charge that her appointment by President Robert Kocharyan makes her politically dependent on him. "I know that the president never interferes in the work of those sectors whose leaders he trusts," said Alaverdyan. "And if we are raising the question of independence, then is parliament really independent?"
This does not convince critics, however, from the opposition and other sections of the human rights community. They charge that Alaverdyan failed the test of independence when, as a member of the old Human Rights Commission, she did not investigate the string of human rights violations committed during last year's presidential elections.
Following Kocharyan's controversial re-election, dozens of opposition activists were arrested during rallies.
In response to this, Alaverdyan said, "No one ever appealed to me over this issue, and I never dealt with it." Commenting on the elections themselves, she said she shared the concerns of international observers but "I've never doubted that Robert Kocharyan was elected with a majority of the votes cast".
Her critics also point out that, during the election campaign, the office of her foundation were used as an election headquarters for Kocharyan's camp. Alaverdyan says this is a misunderstanding, "The office space was our property and we rented it out during the elections. Not a single member of our organization worked for Kocharyan's campaign."
Armenia 's ombudsman is appointed for six years. However, for this to be fully established by law, the post and its remit must be written into the constitution and this amendment needs to be approved by a national referendum. After the constitution is amended, the parliament will be take responsibility for the appointment.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe had called on Armenia to appoint someone who had the approval of the entire parliament, including opposition parties. But this did not happen, angering anti-presidential deputies. Viktor Dallakyan of the Justice bloc said that his group refused to meet Alaverdyan because she was appointed without their consent
Avetik Ishkhanyan, chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Committee, said that as a result Armenia now has the "ombudsman of the president".
Alaverdyan rejects these criticisms. "The limits offered to me are quite broad. The ombudsman's independence does not depend on who appoints him," she said. "Only society and the ombudsman himself can make this institution independent."
The chairman of the Armenian Helsinki Assembly, Mikael Danielyan, has a broader criticism, "I am against the ombudsman being appointed in countries like ours - authoritarian or military-police states. The institution of ombudsman can function only and solely in democratic countries."
While the parliament was deliberating the law, a group of public organizations signed a statement, alleging that the establishment of the ombudsman in Armenia was premature. "The current constitution and legislature restrict the process of creating this institution, its character and structure," said the petition signed by the Armenian Helsinki Committee, Yerevan Press Club, International Union of Lawyers and others.
International experts also gave a negative review to the draft law on the ombudsman. "There are no guarantees that the ombudsman will be independent from the executive branch," said head of the ombudsman office in Poland Andrzej Malinowski. "Your ombudsman is appointed by the president of the country, which is dangerous enough."
Alaverdyan says that she regards Poland as a
model. "We are similar to Poland in some
extent," she said. "That country also
went through the crucible of totalitarianism,
but the post of human rights ombudsman was established
there earlier. The lessons of Poland , its reforms
and bitter experience are very useful for us."
The Institute for War and Peace Reporting offers extensive coverage of issues effecting the Caucasus and other developing regions. For stories such as the one above, visit www.iwpr.net .