In October 2019 Armenia was elected to UN Human Rights Council for 2020-2022. Mediamax talked to Armenian Deputy Foreign Minister Artak Apitonian.
Armenia presented its candidacy for the Human Rights Council membership back in 2012 launching long preparatory works in earnest. Let me remind you that previously Armenia had been a member of the UN Human Rights body in 2002-2006 (formerly it was called the Commission on Human Rights and was elected by 54 members of the UN Economic and Social Council - ed.). At that time, we had an active role as the Coordinator of the Eastern European Regional Group and then assuming the position of the Deputy Chairperson of the Commission.
In 2006, the Commission on Human Rights was replaced by the Human Rights Council. The status was upgraded and it became a body elected by and accountable to the UN General Assembly.
In October 2019, Armenia was elected a member of the Human Rights Council by the first ballot receiving 144 votes (among our competitors - Poland and Moldova received 124 votes and 103 votes respectively). Our election with the overwhelming majority of the 193 states’ votes is the result of coordinated diplomatic work, but first and foremost, it is a strong testimony to the recognition of democratic transformation and substantial progress in terms of protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Armenia.
Armenia has been a member of the Human Rights Council since January 2020. What are the issues that Armenia intends to raise during its membership?
Armenia’s human rights agenda is very broad and we are planning to ensure very active engagement to promote it on the international arena.
One of the most important issues on the international human rights agenda for us is the prevention of genocide. Armenia has been actively engaged in this issue since 1998 initiating relevant resolutions at first in the Human Rights Commission, and then in the Human Rights Council.
Initially it was focused more on the promotion of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Since 2005 the resolution has profoundly changed, with new elements being added on a yearly basis. Today, it stipulates that the countries use and expand the existing international legal, institutional instruments to prevent genocides, to cooperate with relevant mechanisms, responding first and foremost to the early warning signs of grave and massive violations of human rights.
The resolutions inititated by Armenia also recommend states to implement human rights education programs aimed at genocide prevention and fight against denialism, establish national days of remembrance of victims of genocide, and so on. It is also noteworthy that in 2015 by the initiative of Armenia, December 9 was declared as International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime through the relevant resolution of the UN General Assembly (Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted on December 9, 1948 – ed.).
Thanks to our consistent initiatives towards genocide prevention, a cooperation has been established between the UN Human Rights mechanisms and the UN Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide. The Special Adviser has also been requested to present a report on the efforts of the international community to prevent genocide. This gives us an opportunity to assess the measures exerted by the states in that direction, outline the existing challenges and the best practices.
It is important to emphasize that the efforts of Armenia to promote the agenda of genocide prevention internationally will be continuous. Moreover, this refers not only to the conceptual amendment of the above mentioned resolution and its presentation to the Human Rights Council but also to the organization of the Global Forums against the crime of genocide. The Global Forums represent a platform that consolidates renowned scientists and figures in that field and contributes to the efforts of building a global community to fight against that crime.
Indeed, Armenia is very active when it comes to the agenda of genocide prevention, but like many other countries, it cannot ignore the political expediency. In particular, what is Armenia's position on the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar (Burma)?
As I have already indicated, we consistently work towards genocide prevention. Of course, the recognition of genocides is an important component of prevention. Armenia, for example, has recognized and condemned the genocide committed against the Yezidi people in 2014 and is actively raising the imperative to protect the rights of minorities in the Middle East at the international platforms.
Nonetheless, we attach more importance to the prevention of new atrocities and crimes, and by advancing our agenda we attempt to identify such mechanisms that will enable that prevention.
Particularly on Rohingya issue, we reiterate that violence should be stopped and condemned, the perpetrators should be punished, and the people should have an opportunity to return to their homes. With this in mind, Armenia votes for the resolutions initiated in the UN General Assembly that condemn human rights violations, violence and crimes against Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar.
Besides the issue of genocide prevention, what other issues does Armenia intend to raise in the Human Rights Council?
Armenia has always taken a constructive and active stance on issues of the international human rights agenda issues. Of course, our initiatives are not limited to just one direction. Armenia has set its own standards in terms of the rule of law, independence of courts, freedom of assembly and press, and our internal and foreign policies are formed in compliance with them. We have established close partnerships with relevant international bodies to ensure that the reforms and achievements in these areas are continuous.
Speaking of the political and civil rights, we can highlight women empowerment and the creation of equal opportunities for them in political, economic and social spheres as one of the top priorities of our agenda within the Human Rights Council. The urgency of this issue for Armenia became even more evident when we witnessed the decisive role and the unleashed potential of women, especially youth, in the democratic processes of 2018. I should also add that this year Armenia will chair the UN Commission on the Status of Women, which is yet another testimony to the significance of this direction in our foreign policy.
Civil society empowerment is also considered as a precondition for sustainable development, which can act as a watchdog in the implementation of international human rights obligations. Armenia is committed to create all the necessary conditions for the protection of the rights to freedom of expression, opinion and assembly. Today we can state that a number of well-known organizations have recognized the substantial progress made by Armenia in protecting those freedoms.
Armenia also attaches great importance to the issue of prohibition of discrimination on all grounds. We consider this issue also in the context of protecting the rights of ethnic and religious minorities as a country which is very well aware of the challenges they face, especially in conflict zones and in war situations.
In this regard, I would like to once again underline the importance of the collective commitment of “leaving no one behind” that the international community has and which is based on the principle of universality of human rights. It means that the individual and collective rights of each person, regardless of their status and place of residence, must be protected. This is the principle which Armenia strongly advocates for and acknowledges as the cornerstone of its activities on the international arena.
In this direction we will also attach great importance to the further intensification of global efforts in the fight against hate speech, ethnic and religious discrimination.
When and how was it decided that human rights should become an important component of our foreign policy. Can we say that we didn't have such an approach previously?
I should mention that there has always been a human rights component in the foreign policy priorities of Armenia, whether in terms of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue or the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide.
Nevertheless, human rights have been defined as a complete and important component of our foreign policy by the current Government formed after the Velvet Revolution, when it became clear that we can advance this direction more confidently, being not merely a follower of the process but assuming the role of its pioneer.
This direction has been enshrined in the Government program and has become one of the most important foreign policy priorities. It has also found a reflection in the structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Previously we had one division responsible for human rights functioning within the Department of International Organizations, but now a separate Department of Human Rights and Humanitarian Issues has been established within the Ministry.
Today, we have more confidence to speak about human rights protection and the engagement of civil society in it. However, it should be noted, that previously we made attempts to “get ahead of time” too, to use foreign policy tools in order to strengthen democracy and human rights protection in the country. The open invitation extended to the UN Human Rights Procedures to visit Armenia back in 2006 was an example. I am inclined to believe that Armenia’s entry into the Council of Europe at its time was also a foreign policy initiative rather than a demand coming from the society.
We are also a member of the EAEU, the members of which do not have a reputation of frontrunners in the protection of human rights.
Armenia clearly differentiates its political priorities, since we have issues in the fields of security, development and human rights.
We try to tackle current challenges in accordance with our interests. In order to solve the security problems, we work closely through the existing formats and as a member of the CSTO we promote the agenda jointly formulated with the CSTO members.
Regarding human rights protection, it is not merely a foreign policy tool for us. Human rights are one of the pillars of our state and a prerequisite for the stability and development. Practice shows, that, when human rights are disregarded, serious trust issues emerge within the society and that is unacceptable especially for a country with limited resources.