May 13, 2004
National Minority Rights on ACNIS Agenda
YerevanThe fourth specialized policy seminar of the Armenian Center for National and International Studies (ACNIS) and the Council of Europe's Confidence-building Measures Program convened today at the Armenia Marriott Hotel. Held within the framework of the "Coordination among National Minorities and Information Exchanges on Minority Rights in Armenia" Project, the meeting was entitled "The Key Provisions of the Draft Law on National Minorities: Old End or New Beginning?," and brought together the leaders of national minority and NGO communities, relevant government officials, human rights advocates, academic circles, politicians, diplomats, public figures, and representatives of mass media and international organizations concerned about minority issues in Armenia.
Karapet Kalenchian, ACNIS's director of administration, greeted the capacity audience with opening remarks on behalf of the Center, wishing the participants a productive deliberation. "Armenia should be the guarantor of the national minorities residing here and we, as full members of society, should support final resolution of these problems." Kalenchian called on the audience to engage in a robust and open discussion.
ACNIS analyst and project director Stepan Safarian underscored the importance of the adoption of a law on national minorities, which is a public imperative today in several aspects. "Though the national minorities residing in Armenia are granted rights stipulated in the Constitution, laws, and international agreements and treaties, they are often deprived of the mechanisms and procedures to enjoy them. In addition, the law will promote the precise definition of the state's obligations in the fields of culture, education, language, and the protection of traditions. Finally, it will delineate minority problems, means and competent levels of resolution, and decision- making mechanisms," he said.
During the first session, entitled "Defining 'National Minority' by Law," Shavarsh Khachatrian, minorities expert at the Helsinki Committee of Armenia and research fellow of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, reflected on the difficulties one encounters in applying the definition of national minority found in the legislation of European states. In his paper, titled "Defining 'National Minorities' in the International and National Arenas: The European Experience," he presented the contradictory perceptions of the definition of "national minority" against the backdrop of European experience, as well as the trends that are assumed and should be considered while applying the law. "There are several key issues to pay attention to: the Framework Convention does not provide a universally accepted definition of 'national minority', and then the definitions used today by states are very often arguable, since no agreement has been reached on the criteria for such definitions by the consultative committee set up by the Framework Convention," said Khachatrian.
"Major risks of the law on national minorities and means to overcome them" constituted the focus of an address by Hranush Kharatian, chairperson of the National and Religious Minorities Board of the Government of Armenia. She expressed concern that the referenced law might also bring forth certain limitations, as a result of which rights relating to the language and culture of individual representatives of the national minorities or persons finding themselves out of the "community" group will remain solely within the framework of individual rights. "In any case, this or that manifestation of the right may be viewed as advantageous for some, and 'risky' for others," Kharatian concluded.
Armenian ombudsperson Larisa Alaverdian, who concentrated mainly on the mechanisms that can effectively provide the rights protection of national minorities, was of the opinion that the problem should be comprehensively discussed and a consequent concept paper should be worked out before adoption of such a law. "No matter how hard it is, we should have the law if there is a demand for it. Otherwise it can turn into a formal document without force, unable to protect the group rights of the community," noted the rights defender.
The second session on "Active State Policy in the Educational and Cultural Life of National Minorities and Its Stipulation in Armenian Legislation" began with the presentation by Nouridjan Manoukian, chief of the Control Department at the Board of Secondary Education of the Ministry of Education and Science, on "The Key Provisions of Active State Policy in the Sphere of National Minorities' Education." The major obstacle one encounters while receiving education in a mother tongue, he maintained, is not the lack of the law but the lack of educators and textbooks which results a close circle. "For want of educators there is a lack of graduates, for want of graduates there is a lack of applicants to higher educational institutions, for want of applicants to higher educational institutions there is a lack of educators," stressed the government official.
The session concluded with a paper on "The State's Cultural Policy in Preserving, Developing, and Disseminating the Culture of National Minorities Residing in Armenia" delivered by Garnik Guyumdjian, chief of the Department for State Programs, Cultural Cooperation, Education and Science of the Ministry of Culture and Youth Issues. In his view, the following benchmarks are of importance in this field: encouraging creative activity, preserving cultural heritage, disseminating cultural values, realizing human potential, and the legally and economically regulating cultural development. As to the need for a law on national minorities, Guyumdjian argued that sufficient protections already exist. "We moreso need today to support the cultural organizations and compatriotic unions of national minorities with clear-cut programs and to make them participants in policy making and implementation processes."
The seminar was followed by a lively roundtable of views among Siaband Bakoyan, chairman of the "Ezdikhana" association's political council; Alikhan Shababian, representative of Nor Nork district council; Hasan Hasanian, head of the Yezidi religious organization "Followers of Sharfadin"; Rabbi Gersh Bourstein, head of the Mordekhay Navi Jewish Community of Armenia; Arsen Mikhailov, chairman of the "Atur" Assyrian union; Irina Gasparian, representative of the Assyrian community; Charkyaze Mstoyan, chairman of the "Kurdistan" committee; Slava Rafaelidis, representative of the Greek community and chairman of the Council of Armenian Nationalities; Romania Yavir, chairperson of the Ukrainian community in Armenia; Aida Haroutiunian, chairperson of "Harmony" NGO; ACNIS analyst Hovsep Khurshudian; Armenouhi Hovannisian, executive director of Junior Achievement of Armenia; Vardan Astsatrian, the coordinator on national minorities and religious issues of the social department of the Armenian government; parliamentarian Vazgen Khachikain; Gayane Terzian, representative of the "Mkhitar Sebastatsi" educational complex; Mara Sahakian, chairperson of the Civitas NGO; Avetik Ishkhanian of the Armenian Helsinki Committee; and Gayane Markosian of the "Harmonious World" NGO.
Despite some reservations, the discussants underlined the importance of the law on national minorities, and made practical proposals for enforcement of national policy in educational, academic, and cultural life and in other domains.
The fifth and final seminar in ACNIS's minorities series, entitled "The Rights of Armenian National Minorities in 2003: An Annual Report to the Council of Europe," will take place in June, and will be followed by preparation of a comprehensive report on Armenia's minorities for the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
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