The December 9, 2018 snap parliamentary elections initiated the process of creating a new Armenian statehood. Now, a new system must be developed, one with foundations and principles that will prevent the likelihood of taking a step backward.
What kind of system are we moving toward and how should it be shaped? Is there political will to guarantee state responsibilities that protect the individual’s dignity and rights for the benefit of social justice and rule of law? Will this system be able to respond to the personal and social characteristics, legal and societal demands of its citizens? Is the Velvet Revolution - in and of itself a nationwide response to long-lasting violations of human rights, systemic abuse and discrimination - taking us toward the implementation of a human rights-based state and state policy?
The following article is based on interviews with Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Zaruhi Batoyan, Minister of Health Arsen Torosyan and Deputy Minister of Science and Education Arevik Anapiosyan.
The implementation of human rights-based policy is a precondition for the establishment of the Velvet Revolution, that is the establishment of effective mechanisms for human rights protection, social justice and solidarity in Armenia. The questions I raise are based on this ideological stance. The primary goal of this article is to present the position of policy makers regarding the questions raised. However, I don’t address the context of their answers in the article nor do I express whether my opinions and positions are in line with their responses.
The article is comprised of two parts: Part 1 includes general opinions and visions. Field specific questions are presented in the second part of the article where issues are discussed within the scope of a human rights-based approach. The article includes questions on how to overcome poverty, child protection, the struggle against discrimination and abuse, protection of women’s rights, etc.
What gaps and mistakes were there in your sphere, presumably in terms of the protection of human rights before the Velvet Revolution?
Zaruhi Batoyan, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs of Armenia
Very simply, the human rights-based approach. Not only was this approach not reflected enough, that is policies were not created and developed based on this, but there were many policies where human rights in general and the needs to attain them were not taken into consideration. I can bring many examples, one of which is people with disabilities. I managed this sector in my capacities as Deputy Minister at the time. Another example is the elderly. There are cases that, unfortunately, still exist today and protocols which contradict human rights. An example of this is the legal incapacity laws that strips a person of their civil rights. This institute still exists today because legislative changes have not been made.
I believe that our Ministry looked at issues in a way that dealt with people who were already in a difficult situation or had already become vulnerable. However, I think that the Ministry, especially in terms of its international obligations, has to initiate preventive measures that will stop people from falling into vulnerability and having their rights violated. In these terms, there are few development policies and policies based on human rights. There are not enough human rights-based approaches and we have to change those approaches.
Arsen Torosyan, RA Minister of Health
In reality, rights not being protected is still relevant and not something of the past. We acknowledge that a person’s right to health is one of the fundamental human rights. We provide that right to our citizens through different conventions, our national laws and the Constitution. However, we can’t ensure its attainment completely. If we don’t ensure the very basic right to healthcare, then we are faced with what comes next - the right to life. It is not always that the state saves its citizens from death caused by different illnesses.
The issue is multilayered. That right may not be protected due to the arbitrary action of a certain official, doctor or medical center. It may not be protected because of the financial burden the provision of that right places on the state - at this moment in time the state cannot cover those expenses. Every year they try to expand the realization of that right, trying to ensure 100 percent coverage. I don’t know when we will reach that 100 percent, but that is the aim. The biggest flaw, however, in terms of health is that the health sector is the most overlooked one in Armenia. In fact, it should be the opposite, because global trends are leaning towards this.
Arevik Anapiosyan, RA Deputy Minister of Education and Science
It’s important to note that Armenia had declared it is joining the Education for All Movement. However, by joining that Movement it had to carry out inclusive education accordingly. For years inclusive education was viewed in our country as education for children with disabilities. However, if we are to adhere to the principles of the Education for All Movement, it means we have to make education attainable for all - starting from preschool and gradually to elementary schools, primary schools and then to vocational education and higher education institutions.
The protection of human rights is the RA Government’s constitutional and international legal responsibility. This means that state policies and policies in relevant fields have to be based on mechanisms that ensure individual rights and protection of dignity. That is, they have to be human rights-based. Do you share this stance? If yes, then what is your vision of human rights-based social/health/educational policy?
I believe a human rights-based approach is when a person has relevant guarantees from the government that his/her rights will be protected. This means that we have to create all the opportunities and conditions for people to work and create in their community and country, and be free from discrimination. We do provide opportunities. This means that on the one hand, we have to create equal opportunities for everyone. On the other hand, if the opportunities provided are not enough or another factor causes people’s rights to be violated or leads them to become vulnerable in certain scenarios, people have to be confident that the government will have relevant services and state guarantees that will protect them. In short, people have to be sure that they are not left alone with their problem.
We absolutely have to be human rights-based, as well as proof-based. Political decisions should not be made based on myths and fables, but have to be realized based on proven mechanisms. According to the RA Constitution we are a social state governed by the rule of law, hence everything has to stem from that and not the opposite. The right to stay healthy is at the heart of all our policies. For instance, if we acknowledge that we need healthy citizens, then we have to ensure the right to health. Everything needs to be based around that fact, starting from ensuring the rights of the unborn child, who has the right to be born healthy, followed by the right to a healthy childhood, adolescence, teenage years, and then ensuring the right to receive medical help when they are sick.
Of course, the state doesn’t say that the above mentioned rights, especially the latter, will be covered fully. The state says, “You have the right, and I am trying to help you realize that right.” The more prosperous and affluent we become as a country, the burden on citizens to realize those right will lessen; the state will take on the burden. For instance, even if we don’t voice it while developing policy to provide additional medical aid which didn’t exist before and while we may not use the word “rights” during discussions and we may not even think that we are doing this to ensure the rights of citizens, but that is what we are doing as a result.
Yes, policies in all sectors have to be human rights-based. However, we have to clearly understand what falls under the legislative field and how much work and change needs to be made to be able to define everyone’s rights and obligations.
Management of the education sector with its hierarchy is quite complicated, starting from the subordination of preschool educational institutions. The Ministry and the Government can change laws that fall within its jurisdiction. However, when we submit a decision to the Government to help alleviate the burdens of citizens, it often turns out that it is not possible to adopt that decision because it falls outside of our jurisdiction. All changes/amendments which were presented to the National Assembly before the parliamentary elections were not approved. However, with this new National Assembly it is possible to pass these decisions. This, however, will require a great amount of work in order to regulate the normative-legal field.
For years, there were abuses and restrictions of human rights in Armenia. What is the role that your Ministry sees for itself regarding the issue of ensuring the proper level of protection and realization of human rights in Armenia. Institutionally, what is the Ministry's role, where does it position and envision itself?
I can state several things. First, it is important that a society understands and perceives what a right is and what constitutes a violation of that right, because everything starts from there. Let me provide a simple example. When we talk about violence , often people don’t know whether what is taking place is violence or not. This means that the way it’s formulated or its definition is not always clear. And this is very important. The Ministry, I believe, has a role to play in raising legal awareness within society.
Second, I think that the Ministry has to take on legal initiatives in order to stop and prevent violations, even though this is the National Assembly’s role. I’m talking specifically about laws that prohibit discrimination - if not in the form of new legislation, then in proposing changes to the laws in different fields. For example, this means a law specifically regarding people with disabilities, or children.
And third, I believe that the Ministry has to take on the role of advocating for the protection of human rights in other ministries, other spheres. For example, if we are to discussing people with disabilities or women (this is because we specifically protect the rights of specific groups), then we have to support our colleagues, let’s say in the education sector. This is so they can have a human rights-based approach to the protection of a person’s right to education, or a human rights-based approach to a person’s right to health. In short, we should not limit ourselves to our sectors or policies relevant only to us. We have to play an active role in order to establish inter-ministerial cooperation benefiting human rights.
Who is a socially protected person?
A socially protected person is someone who has guarantees from the state, meaning there are clear mechanisms in a given situation...is a person who is aware of their rights, social rights, social opportunities and takes advantage of them, knows what guarantees, what services exist and feels confident and protected in that environment. On the other hand, a socially protected person is probably someone who already is at a minimum risk of becoming part of a socially vulnerable group: unprotected, poor or extremely poor. It’s the person who is least at risk.
The protection to the right to health is in our Constitution. We have the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which Armenia is a signatory. In the RA Government’s plan the following statement can be found, “The development of the health sector is the most important factor of a citizen’s happiness.” However, the plan does not refer to health as a right, does not mention the protection of the right to health or other issues regarding the realization of that right. Why?
This is a topic of academic debate - should it be worded that way? This is because there are many ways you can formulate it , however this doesn’t mean the right to stay healthy ceases to exist. When you say the state has to ensure the right to health in order to have happy citizens, that doesn’t mean the right to staying healthy is being dismissed. The issue of whether health is a means or not is a debatable topic, because even happiness is a debatable topic.
In any case, the Government plan was developed with the logic of emphasizing political priorities. I must state once again the component of rights isn’t about the particular words used but rather the results. We want our citizens to be healthy by protecting their right to remain healthy. Now whether this will be perceived as provision of rights or having a healthy citizen because the state needs healthy citizens and the state generally exists to ensure all social benefits for its citizens, isn’t essential in opinion, as long as you reach the same goal.
The Government is constitutionally obligated to ensure the right to education. It’s also an international legal responsibility. The RA Government plan presents education as a tool toward “stable and inclusive development,” which is welcoming. However, the plan does not include education as a right. Why?
That is because it is already included in the Constitution and it would be surprising if a responsibility put on the Government by the Constitution is included once again in the Government plan.
Who is that person or child whose right to education in Armenia is completely realized? What does it mean to completely realize the right to an education in Armenia?
This has objective and subjective components. Objectively, this is a person who would be able to completely take advantage of mandatory general education in the way it is defined in the Republic of Armenia. This is a person who would not be excluded from receiving general education for any reason. There is a sublayer to this - we need quality education. We are measuring attendance without measuring quality education. The system has to be set up in such a way that it can provide free education for every individual who wants to receive one. This entails that we need the means to give them free education, from vocational schools to universities. Naturally, this will depend on their social status. If they don’t have the means, then the banking system has to be flexible enough to be beneficial for students, so they can take out a loan and be able to pay for their education.
A human rights-based approach assumes that the process of developing and carrying out state policies has to be inclusive and participatory. How are you preparing to make the development and implementation of your relevant policies as inclusive and participatory as possible for different groups?
Inclusive, participatory development of policies is important for me personally and is one my priorities. I’ve always considered the opinions of different experts and groups imperative and valuable. This is because not only is it important to include people, but also because it’s necessary for me as a policy and decision maker. First and foremost, I have a need for them, a need for their knowledge, experience and expert opinion. In this regard I use all available tools - starting from social media platforms, like Facebook, ending with work discussions, meetings, sending letters, compiling issues, etc.
We need to organize productive discussions more often. For example, it is not enough for me to say that a policy uploaded on E-Draft (Unified Website for Publication of Legal Act’s Drafts) has been published or has been part of a public discussion. We need to use more productive methods or at least understand that today in Armenia not everyone has the skills or opportunities to take part in these discussions. For instance, Internet accessibility, the language and the difficulties that arise due to the way those legislative policies are presented (legal language or the language of the law) have to be taken into consideration.
There is an issue of accessibility and availability. On the one hand, these policies can really be incomprehensible for citizens in terms of content and meaning. On the other hand, they can be inaccessible for people who have a disability - hearing or visual. Yes, we can say that the policy is on the website, and if you have suggestions you can send them there. However, we have to understand that this is not enough for everyone.
On the other hand, I find the participation of the Ministry’s employees imperative as well. Unfortunately, we have seen that often this is not done on a participatory level within the Ministry. There are experts who are sometimes excluded from the process and due to the governing system don’t take part. For example, a discussion can take place on the level of department heads, however, an expert on education, a senior expert, or a chief specialist, who might be more specialized in the field, does not have the opportunity to raise and present issues. This is something we have to work towards.
Is this participation connected to needs assessment for you?
Of course. If we think of something, discuss it or make a decision on it, and then it becomes clear that it has nothing to do with people’s needs, then we have serious issue here.
Without a doubt, our global approach to developing policies stems from this. Policies in relevant fields should not be self-serving and have to stem from the interests of stakeholders. With the tools that we have, we are trying to include as many stakeholders as possible. We use online platforms, where state policies or laws are uploaded for discussion and receive opinions, as well as offline discussions within expert circles, patients and representatives from their organizations, international organizations and NGOs. A great example of this is our Public Council, which often meets and discusses all the policies that we have and we listen to their opinions. This process is continuous and will become more inclusive as we move forward.
There is one problem and that is when the representatives presenting the interests of stakeholders are sometime unhappy with our solutions, considering them insufficient in terms of ensuring rights. For example, an NGO that represents the interests of people with cancer comes to participate in a discussion. We suggest something to them and they say, “It’s good, but the issue won’t be resolved this way.” However, they have to understand that to resolve that issue we don’t have enough means. We try to explain to them, “You’re right, but we can do that in a year.” In any case, we are open. If we don’t initiate something ourselves, then we often receive and hear suggestions that might turn into policies tomorrow, something that might not have crossed our minds or we thought the time wasn’t right for it.
All legislative initiatives are uploaded on E-Draft. In reality, this is a great tool if civil society is interested in presenting certain suggestions or making changes to draft policies. Members of civil society who are interested have to actively follow the discussion on E-Draft and provide their own comments.
Afterwards discussions are organized. I think we have to understand where the line is between the Government’s jurisdiction and the inclusion of a community of experts, beyond which the Government can make decisions. When we talk about a government formed through elections we are talking about a civil contract: the Government comes forward with a clear platform for which they were elected. Accordingly all the proposals and field relevant strategies based on the Government plan stems from that platform.
There is a certain part, where after inclusive discussions, the role of making political decisions falls on the Government. And there is a part where if decisions are accepted here and on this level, if discussions are held and then decisions are made, then that decision has to be made by the Government’s authorized body. It’s important to note that we are confusing the fact that the decision maker is the authorized body and not the community of experts. The latter gives its opinion based on proper arguments.