Armenia on the crossroads of transitional justice decisions, by Veronika Pfeilschifter

Since Armenia’s peaceful transition of power in May 2018, the country has been in the process of developing and potentially introducing mechanisms of what we call transitional justice (TJ). TJ includes holding perpetrators accountable, rehabilitating victims of HRV, and introducing institutional reforms - first and foremost in the judicial system. Based on that, the Armenian government hopes to nurture a culture of constitutionalism and consolidate trust in a functioning democratic political system. Already at the very beginning of his time in office, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan himself underlined the importance of addressing past human rights violations (HRV) which were committed under the previous regimes (1991-2018).

In September this year, the government published a Judicial and Legal Reforms Strategy in the Context of Increasing Public Trust and a related Action Plan. The documents give TJ toolkits, such as establishing a truth commission, one of the TJ instruments that allows victims of HRV to speak out and potentially also take perpetrators’ avowals, without leading to legally binding decisions.  A truth commission wants to investigate and report cases and circumstances of HRVs in order to contribute to conflict-resolution, protection programs, and fact-finding missions. It would be after the successful implementation of such a commission, that legal judgments and trials take place.

There are already several TJ related challenges in place and a few more ahead: the government has faced and will continue being confronted with accusations of political vendetta when it comes to the prosecution of former corrupt officials and to vetting, especially among judges. So far, the cases of former President Robert Kocharyan and current Chairman of the Constitutional Court Hrayr Tovmasyan have clearly shown that. Kocharyan, who faces charges related to the death of at least 10 individuals during 2008 violently suppressed anti-governmental protests and is, among other things, responsible for the illegal confiscation of property of at least 5000 individuals, so far couldn’t be imprisoned. The Constitutional Court concluded that Kocharyan’s several arrests were unconstitutional. It passed the case to the Venice Commission, which is closely monitoring Armenia’s progress on judicial reforms and will rate the country’s constitutionality.

Following Kocharyan’s release, the National Assembly (Armenian parliament) failed to strip Tovmasyan from judicial power. Based on allegations claiming that he was installed by the previous government in his position, he is accused of “keeping state power through violence”. The Constitutional Court, however, rejected the Parliament’s proposal. Republican Party members protested and have spoken about “fake political campaign”. The investigation has not brought any tangible outcomes. The Venice Commission commented that “It would be unacceptable if each new government could replace sitting judges with newly elected ones of their choice”.

Both instances have caused major crises in the judiciary system; they confirm autocratic legalism and currently mark constitutional deadlock.

Along the difficulty of rebuilding an independent judiciary, Armenia faces the challenge of leading and establishing a human rights discourse that is supported by the population. If the mentioned commission is successfully established, violations of political, civil as well as socio-economic rights will be addressed: They include non-combatant cases of Armenian soldiers that died under unknown circumstances, illegal confiscation of property and HRV related to corruption. A commission might face the difficulty to balance the different forms of HRV, to serve them in an equal way and contribute to reconciliation.

Finally, transitional justice is a costly instrument. Armenia continues being confronted with a row of other pressing political and social challenges, such as low salaries, poor living conditions, and a high external economic and geopolitical dependence. It will be up to the government and civil society actors to demonstrate that TJ is not just a fancy theoretical concept but might actually substantially contribute to the consolidation of just and democratic conditions in the long-term. 

Veronika Pfeilschifter is a CEERE (Central, Eastern European, Russian&Eurasian Studies) student at Ilia University, Tbilisi/University of Glasgow. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and European Ethnology. She is interested in human rights violations and foreign policy in the post-Soviet space, particularly in Russia and the South Caucasus.