Exercising Human Rights in Armenia

Interactions between governmental and non-state actors

by Liana Geghamyan (Author)
©2020 Thesis 272 Pages


For the past ten years, human rights language has increasingly been employed by Armenian citizens when interacting with state actors in public spaces to protest government wrongdoings and press for change. This book examines the citizens’ exercise of their civil and political rights to put up claims regarding their social, economic and other rights through collective action as a platform for their claims-making. Through the research of key human rights actors, this book explores the ways in which universal human rights are debated, practiced, violated and experienced in Armenia. It reveals significant transformations with regard to both perceptions and practices of the notion of ‘a rights-bearing citizen’ manifest in speech and action, confrontations and interactions in ‘The Street’.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of contents
  • 1 Introduction
  • 1.1 Problem statement
  • 1.2 Rationale for research
  • 1.3 Research questions
  • 1.4 Thesis outline
  • 2 Contesting human rights
  • 2.1 Overview
  • 2.2 Human rights: An aspirational model
  • 2.3 Universal, relative or relatively universal/universally relative?
  • 2.4 Committing to comply?
  • 2.5 Human rights monitoring
  • 2.6 Conclusion
  • 3 Theoretical considerations
  • 3.1 Overview
  • 3.2 Defining human rights
  • 3.3 Sociology and rights
  • 3.4 The quest for rights and ‘legal consciousness’
  • 3.5 ‘Personhood’ in human rights theory
  • 3.6 Constructing human rights from below
  • 3.7 Collective action for human rights
  • 3.8 Collective action frames
  • 3.9 Conclusion
  • 4 Methodology
  • 4.1 Rationale for qualitative research
  • 4.2 Sampling
  • 4.3 Access
  • 4.4 Data collection
  • 4.5 Data analysis
  • 4.6 Limitations
  • 5 Soviet and post-Soviet human rights practices
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 The Soviet Period
  • 5.2.1 Human rights through different Soviet constitutions and leaders
  • 5.2.2 Soviet versus Western/American perceptions of human rights
  • 5.2.3 The rise of dissent and the Helsinki Final Act
  • 5.3 Armenia as an independent state
  • 5.3.1 Post-independence hardships
  • 5.3.2 Human rights under Presidents Levon Ter-Petrosyan, Robert Kocharyan and Serzh Sargsyan
  • 5.3.3 Domestic and international human rights framework
  • 5.3.4 Formal and informal human rights actors
  • 5.3.5 2018: A change for the better?
  • 5.4 Concluding remarks
  • 6 Research findings: Roles, perceptions and practices of key human rights actors in Armenia
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Pros and cons of researching human rights practitioners
  • 6.3 Formal non-state actors
  • 6.3.1 Soviet residues and malaise
  • 6.3.2 NGOs, related issues and [mis]perceptions
  • 6.3.3 Conceptual distortions
  • 6.4 Informal non-state actors
  • 6.4.1 Activists or active citizens?
  • 6.4.2 Is civil also political?
  • 6.4.3 Electric Yerevan protests
  • 6.4.4 Exercising rights in ‘The Street’
  • 6.4.5 Segmentation and exclusivity of activism in Armenia
  • 6.5 2016 Summer protests
  • 6.6 2018 April protests
  • 6.7 Concluding remarks
  • 7 Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Series index

1 Introduction

“By calling our actions sabotage, you insult us.

Your comments undermine and devalue our struggle

for such fundamental rights as are the right to life, the right to

access water, and the right to live in a healthy environment”.

Aharon Arsenyan*

Civic activism, manifest in locally termed civic initiatives and outbreaks of protests, has marked the public places in Armenia prominently since 2007/20081. Comprising groups of young people determined to make their voices heard about issues ranging from the environmental and the social sectors all the way to the political, activism headed by conscious citizens has overshadowed both the political parties and the non-governmental organizations in its modus operandi, perceptions and practices related to human rights, democratic governance, rule of law and state-society relations. Environmental or ecological activism, the most pronounced confrontation involving active citizens and the government, has been the cornerstone of active citizenship. It has highlighted common problem areas linked to environmental crime including Armenia’s vast mining sector, the logging industry and the hydroelectric sector2.

The manner in which mining is conducted in Armenia causes damage not only to the country’s environment but also harms the well-being of its citizens. Mining has resulted in widespread deforestation and the destruction of arable ←11 | 12→land3. Furthermore, it has led to contamination of lakes, rivers and soil, also causing air pollution putting the health and subsistence of Armenian citizens at risk4. Citizens involved in struggles to save the environment have pointed to the violation of such rights as the right to life, the right to access water and the right to live in a healthy environment. They have confronted the government and the mining companies with documentary evidence affirming that mining violates both Armenian and international legislation. Moreover, they have cited a number of documents as well as aerial pictures of mines indicating that certain mines are operated illegally5.

Environmental or ecological activism has achieved some success in Armenia. However, it is still ongoing and has, over the years, extended to other sectors beyond nature protection and to other rights, emphasising the interconnectedness and indivisibility of human rights. The civic initiatives and protests that have followed since 2007/2008 have reflected the gradual rise in civic, rights and legal consciousness among Armenian citizens, the youth in particular. Moreover, for the past ten years human rights language has increasingly been employed by Armenian citizens when interacting with state actors, assembling in public spaces to protest wrongdoings, oppose government decisions and press for change – social or political. Opposition to government decisions, whether formally (through institutions) or informally (in the streets), have revealed tension with regard to the ways in which universal human rights are enacted, debated, practiced, violated, envisioned, and experienced in Armenia. The protesters have referred to domestic laws and constitution as failing to protect their interests and have also sought justice via human rights treaty bodies and the European Court of Human Rights.

The human rights discourse in the Armenian context has evolved around specialized language used by NGO representatives to protect the rights of the citizens vis-à-vis the state as well as around a more ‘native/local language’, that is, a ‘thicker sense of the moral vernacular’ revealing tension between the Armenian citizens and the state (the “rights holder” and the “rights withholder”6). Informal non-state actors in Armenia have come to speak on their own behalf and make ←12 | 13→their cause heard, valid and justified ‘in order to restore the rights that have been withheld’7. The human rights language that has been used during confrontations, resistances and interactions in “the Street” has transformed the perceptions as well as the practices of the notion of ‘the citizen’ in the Armenian context.

1.1 Problem statement

Human rights is a diverse and challenging field of study and has been written about from the perspective of more than one discipline. All these various accounts have attempted to shed light on rights as aspirational principles8, ethical dilemmas9, contested universal norms10, political tools11, legal entitlements12 and culturally embedded values13. A prominent discourse particularly in the 20th century and at the threshold of the 3rd Millennium, human rights have played ←13 | 14→the role of moral and ethical deterrents14 and have been an essential part of people’s lexicon in different parts of the world. They have put forward definitions of rights and wrongs, acceptable or condemnable ways of state treatment of citizens, in other words, established a contract, a so-called modus vivendi for peaceful co-existence. Nonetheless, the concept has not been void of controversies and contradictions. “The problem of universals”, “the limits of particularism”, “gender-neutral or gender-specific”15, “the sovereignty discourse”16, “economic and military interventions”17 along with questions arising from globalization are some of the notable dilemmas surrounding the concept of human rights and presenting challenges to date.

The complexity becomes more apparent when the global meets the local, making it difficult for universally and internationally established ‘should’ and ‘ought to’ to proceed unhindered. Rony Brauman, former President of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), in a lecture delivered at the Carnegie Council on 14 February 2001 stated18:

In a number of cases [during the war in Mogadishu] we had to amputate because of massive infections that could not be treated properly. In our experience, the decision to amputate was a medical, technical diagnosis, which doesn’t incur any criticism because it poses a solution to a life-and-death situation. Thus we were surprised to find that most of the young people we wanted to operate on refused to be amputated. They preferred – and this took us some time to understand - to die with their entire body than to live with a visible mutilation.

←14 | 15→

Tensions have evolved around other cultural and religious practices such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – ‘a ritual commonly practiced in many African countries as well as many Islamic communities and deemed by many as a form of religious purity’19. While different versions of this practice ‘pose serious health risks that inevitably violate a female’s intrinsic right to life, dignity and health, simply abolishing the practice without pragmatic remedies would also be in violation of Article 18 which states that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion’20. Furthermore, it would also be in breach of Article 27 of the Universal Declaration providing the right ‘to freely participate in the cultural life of a community. Respect for the rights of culture is imperative when seeking potential remedies for the long-standing cultural practice’21.

1.2 Rationale for research

Human rights is a relationship between the state and its citizens. That relationship is more contested in some countries than others. Democratically governed states tend to respect the rights of their citizens more than autocracies. Human rights instruments – treaties, covenants and conventions are designed to protect citizens against the abuses of states. The abused comprise different groups of individuals, such as victims of domestic violence, political prisoners, refugees and so on. Advocacy on behalf of these groups often takes place by those who ‘speak by deputy for those whose faces we do not see, whose voices we do not hear, and whose pain we do not witness’22. On the other hand, human rights discourse ‘comes from the abused and, by showing us their human face, gives presence to their pain and immediacy to their plea for help’23. Claims to rectify injustice and provide redress for human rights violations are put up against states that bear the obligation to both refrain from breaching the human rights of their citizens and actively engage to investigate or punish human rights abuses should the latter occur.

Human rights is best placed to demonstrate the relationship between the government and non-state actors since abuses bring the “rights holder” and the ←15 | 16→“rights withholder”24 into a conflict the settlement of which requires negotiation, recognition and eventual rectification of a wrongdoing. Moreover, ‘human rights discourse can propel mobilization since it helps social groups reanalyze issues that society initially considered to be ‘problems’ and rename them as ‘violations’; that is, something that should not be accepted or endured’25. In the words of Michael Ignatieff, ‘human rights is the only universally available moral vernacular that validates the claims of women and children against the oppression they experience in patriarchal and tribal societies; it is the only vernacular that enables dependent persons to perceive themselves as moral agents and to act against practices – arranged marriages, purdah, civic disenfranchisement, genital mutilation, domestic slavery, and so on – that are ratified by the weight and authority of their cultures. These agents seek out human rights precisely because it legitimizes their protests against oppression’26.

Whereas it is challenging to reconcile cultural practices and universal absolutes, some scholars have proposed to ‘go beyond the polarities’ and ‘inform the cross-fertilisation of ideas’27 across various cultures. They have attempted to break the impasse between universals and particulars and bridge the two, noting the usefulness in ‘calling attention to the ways in which the notions of liberty and individualism can be, and have been used to rationalise the abuses of capitalism’28. In a similar vein, ‘notions of equality and collectivism can be, and have been used as excuses for arbitrary and authoritarian governance’29. Therefore, and rightly so, ‘the object of human rights discourse should be the quest for a reasonable and balanced approach to human rights that recognises the interplay between various cultural factors in the construction and constitution of human rights’30.

←16 | 17→

Such an approach places actors at the centre, researching their ‘interpretations and strategies and how these interlock through processes of negotiation and accommodation’31. Moreover, it ‘rejects linear, determinist and simple empiricist thinking and practice… [A];n actor-oriented perspective entails recognizing the “multiple realities” and diverse social practices of various actors, and requires working out methodologically how to come to grips with these different and often incompatible social worlds’32. This research is embedded in the latter approach. It aims to demonstrate the ways in which human rights ideas are appropriated, encouraged and resisted in Armenia. Through studies of key human rights actors, or as Sally Engle Merry terms them ‘translators’33, this research pursues the objective of finding out the perceptions and practices of both state and non-state actors in claiming, exercising, as well as negotiating about human rights in the Armenian context.

Translators are critical in that they ‘move between local and global sets of cultural understandings, helping each to make sense of the other’34. These intermediaries, be they Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) or social movement activists, play a crucial role ‘in interpreting the cultural world of transnational modernity for local claimants. They appropriate, translate, and remake transnational discourses into the vernacular, at the same time taking local stories and framing them in national and international human rights language’35. These intermediaries or translators (NGOs, activists, academics, local politicians, journalists or lawyers) lie at the centre of this research. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that taking their words or actions at face value invites a good amount of naiveté and runs the risk of separating them from the rest of the citizenry, thereby making them elitist. I bear this in mind as I explore their role in aiding the translation of human rights in the Armenian context, conveying human rights ideas to ordinary citizens as well as the ways they are perceived by one another and the population at large. I view the appropriation and/or resistance of human rights in the Armenian setting as a process that is evolving, gradually extending and incrementally transforming.

Since the 2010s Armenian citizens have increasingly interacted with governmental actors in public spaces through human rights language and domestic ←17 | 18→laws to question, oppose and protest government decisions and seek redress. These interactions have not been unhindered, rather, civic protests have at times been curtailed by force, and activists have been detained while journalists have become targets of police interference. It is not my aim to provide an in-depth study of the exercise and enjoyment of one particular right in Armenia. Instead, I examine the citizens’ exercise of their civil and political rights to voice concerns or put up claims in regard to their social and economic as well as other rights. I look at civic protests, collective struggles and resistances as platforms wherein ‘personal agency, laden with collectively produced differences of power is implicated’36. The terms ‘civic protests’, ‘collective struggles’ and ‘resistances’ are used interchangeably throughout this research.

1.3 Research questions

Democratization efforts, democracy building projects, NGOs, the civil society as well as relationships and differences between them in Armenia are well documented. However, the link between human rights, civic and legal consciousness, interactions between the state and non-state actors, extension of human rights ideas or their disruption thereof is understudied in the Armenian setting, and it is these themes among others that this research explores. It looks at human rights and its key actors through the lens of sociology to discover the ways in which ‘universal human rights, believed to be entailed by a common human nature, are enacted, debated, practiced, violated, envisioned, and experienced’37. In this regard, the present research attempts to answer the following questions:

What are the human rights perceptions and practices of non-state actors in Armenia?

What is the role of non-state actors in improving the human rights situation in Armenia?

In what ways do non-state actors interact with each other, as well as with the government and the citizenry at large?

←18 | 19→

1.4 Thesis outline

The research project is organized in the following order:

This introductory chapter is followed by Chapter 2 that underscores the role of the state as an important actor in relation to compliance with internationally recognized human rights norms. Human rights, after all, ‘are a profoundly national- not international –issue. States are the principal violators of human rights and the principal actors governed by the regime’s norms; international human rights are concerned primarily with how a government treats inhabitants of its own country….’38 Whether states comply with established human rights standards is a different matter and indeed, despite the existence of a large number of human rights instruments, their implementation leaves much to be desired. The softness of the international human rights system is partly to blame for this, allowing states to get away with violations. More often than not, states make careful economic and political calculations with regard to both respecting as well as violating human rights norms and it is these key points that lie at the core of this chapter.

Chapter 3 lays out the theoretical considerations that inform this research and act as the lens through which human rights are approached. The chapter argues for a sociological understanding of rights, emphasising the key actors and the process within which human rights are negotiated, contested, constructed and reproduced. It reveals a process that is uneven, prone to disruption and contingent upon intersubjective as well as idiosyncratic factors and embedded in power dynamics. Chapter 4 presents the methodological steps taken and followed to conduct the fieldwork and collect the necessary data to answer the research questions as well as the methods of data interpretation and analysis.

Chapter 5 outlines Soviet and post-Soviet human rights practices, looking at the different stages Armenia has gone through following the break-up of the Soviet Union, including 3 presidents, switching to a parliamentary system of government with a 4th president, increase in the number of NGOs as well as protest groups. The aim of the chapter is to trace the perceptions of human rights in the course of the above-mentioned periods starting with Soviet conceptions of human rights up to and including the ways key human rights actors in Armenia perceive and negotiate them with the Armenian state.

Chapter 6 presents the research findings, detailing the roles of both formal and informal civil society actors, issues and [mis]perceptions with regard to ←19 | 20→both, conceptual distortions, nuances between the ways the actors are defined and perceived, as well as the manners in which both interact with one another, the government and the citizenry at large. Through the study of different protests and civic initiatives as the latter are termed locally, this chapter reveals the ways in which activism manifests itself in the Armenian context and the role it plays in claims-making, voicing disagreement with government decisions and the functioning of the domestic laws and constitution.

Chapter 7 concludes this research project with reflections on whether the research questions have been answered sufficiently, broader implications of the research and findings as well as suggestions for further research.

←20 | 21→

* Peter Liakhov and Knar Khudoyan, “How Citizens Battling a Controversial Gold Mining Project Are Testing Armenia’s New Democracy,” openDemocracy, 7 August 2018, accessed 14 February 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/peter-liakhov-knar-khudoyan/citizens-battling-a-controversial- gold-mining-project-amulsar-armenia.

1 Armine Ishkanian, Democracy Building and Civil Society in Post-Soviet Armenia (Routledge, 2008).

2 Christoph H. Stefes and Katherine Weingartner, “Environmental Crime in Armenia: A Case Study on Mining,” January 2015, accessed 14 February 2019, https://efface.eu/sites/default/files/EFFACE_Environmental%20crime%20in%20Armenia_A%20case%20study%20on%20mining.pdf.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Armine Ishkanian (2016), “Challenging the Gospel of Neoliberalism? Civil Society Opposition to Mining in Armenia,” In Thomas Davies, Holly Eva Ryan, Alejandro Milcíades Peña (ed.) Protest, Social Movements and Global Democracy Since 2011: New Perspectives (Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change, Volume 39) Emerald Group Publishing Limited, pp. 107–136.

6 Gerard A. Hauser, “The Moral Vernacular of Human Rights Discourse,” Philosophy & Rhetoric 41, no. 4 (2008): 446.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (May)
Civic initiatives Environmental activism Social issues Political change Rights violations Rights implementation
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 272 pp., 1 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Liana Geghamyan (Author)

Liana Geghamyan was born in Armenia. She holds a master’s degree in Gender, Culture and Society from the University of Essex, UK, and another master‘s degree in Human Rights from the University of Sussex, UK. She also successfully completed a Ph.D. in Global Studies at the University of Leipzig. Her research interests include human rights theory and practice, sociology of rights, social movement studies and political participation.


Title: Exercising Human Rights in Armenia
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274 pages