July 4, 2013

Constitution Day: Dignity and Justice for All

Every July 5, the Republic of Armenia observes Constitution Day. This official holiday commemorates the adoption of a new Constitution and a new era in Armenia’s history.Armenia is a beautiful land fraught with historical travesties. Having endured one of the worst genocides in written history and then being occupied by iron Soviet rule with intermittent wars and battles throughout, Armenia was able to finally break free and gain its independence on September 21, 1991.

Like most new nations in the last century, Armenia sought to adopt a Constitution that would allow it to glimpse at its unfortunate history and ensure it did not get repeated again in the future. Armenia’s Supreme Council Constitutional Commission approved a draft Constitution to be voted on in a referendum and on July 5, 1995, the Constitution was approved by the people with 68% voting in favor of it according to official statistics. Years after the birth of an independent Armenia, the country finally had a framework and foundation for democracy, citizenship, and the rule of law.

The Constitution provided for freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of press, and freedom of assembly among other things. It also had a number of shortcomings, such as concentration of power in the presidency and a lack of independence of the judiciary. Calls for political reform as well as Armenia’s international obligations led to the proposal of constitutional amendments. Numerous drafts were submitted and it was the draft written by the coalition of ruling parties, as well as the recommendations of the Venice Commission, that was voted on and passed in another referendum on November 25, 2005.

The amended Constitution was a huge step towards democratic reform. Though far from perfect, the amendments introduced a separation of powers, more independence of the judiciary, and higher regard for human rights and human dignity. It opened up dual citizenship, abolished the death penalty, and gave Yerevan community status-allowing for election rather than appointment of the mayor.

Reflecting on the current state of human rights in Armenia, and especially the treatment of LGBT people, it is important to revisit what the Constitution says about human rights and discrimination.

The first chapter of the Constitution starts by boldly asserting in Article 3 that “the human being, his or her dignity, fundamental rights and freedoms are the highest values. The State shall ensure the protection of fundamental human and citizen’s rights and freedoms, in conformity with the principles and norms of international law. The State shall be bound by fundamental human and citizen’s rights and freedoms as directly applicable law.”

The Constitution then begins to outline these rights in Chapter 2 beginning with Article 14.1 stating that “all human beings shall be equal before the law. Discrimination based on sex, race, skin colour, ethnic or social origin, genetic features, language, religion, ideology, political or other views, membership to a national minority, property status, birth, disability, age, or other personal or social circumstances shall be prohibited.”

Though there is nothing constitutionally that explicitly protects the rights of LGBT people, the spirit of the language on human rights outlined in the Constitution clearly is something that is applicable to all. Additionally, Armenia adopted the UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in 2008. Yet discrimination claims currently fall on deaf ears and there remains institutionalized discrimination against the LGBT community, despite the Constitution’s initial language above swearing to uphold fundamental rights “in conformity with the principles and norms of international law.”

Armenia’s history gave birth to the idea of establishing a Constitution that would once and for all to give its people what they havehistorically lacked over the last few hundred years: fundamental inalienable rights. However for several reasons, we are yet to see the effects of this Constitution take hold. Armenia is no different with respect to many lands and peoples across the world in that culture is harder to break than the new rules that govern it. There is also the problem of the authorities having no desire to uphold the Constitution and often acting in opposition to the spirit of it. Thus on Constitution Day, it is important for Armenians to reflect on the meaning of the Constitution and to fight for the rights of all, especially the most vulnerable groups, to finally be realized.

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