The statement open for signature was presented on 24th September, 2015 during the public discussion on”Constitutional Amendments in Armenia: Referendum – freedom of expression.” Please contact Karine Ghazaryan at email@example.com and send your name, surname, and the title of civil society organization/initiative by September 25, 2015, 17:00.
Armenian civil society organizations, legal experts, and human rights lawyers oppose the content of the current draft constitutional amendments and the government’s plans for a referendum. Given the scope of the changes proposed, which would convert Armenia from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government and seriously weaken human rights protections, we believe that the government’s proposal to hold a referendum in the near future providing Armenian citizens with only a single choice of accepting or rejecting all the proposed changes is unacceptable. We believe that people need more time to study the more than 250 proposed changes and the opportunity to vote separately on the major sets of changes. We urge the Armenian authorities to postpone the referendum and provide for a format that includes separate votes on each substantive set of amendments.
Why is a postponement necessary?
The first full draft of the proposed amendments was published on August 21. It included more than 250 revisions, including significant institutional changes as shifting from a presidential to a parliamentary system of government and altering guarantees of human rights and social protection. People need time and free debate, including guaranteed access for representatives of diverse points of view to all media – including public TV, in order to meaningfully debate and decide their position on such significant issues. As of today, this has not been possible, as public and private broadcasters reportedly controlled by the ruling political elite are predominantly voicing only one side of the debate. Most alarmingly there are already reports that the united civic and political front for a “no” vote has been denied public space to voice its views. Thus, time and guarantees of access to the media are essential if Armenians are to be able to make an informed and educated choice.
Why must the format of the referendum be changed?
As stated, apart from being numerous and in many cases quite significant, the proposed amendments pertain to diverse areas that are intrinsically unrelated. Thus, the scope of social guarantees has little to do with the method of regulating an independent judiciary, the electoral system, guarantees of fundamental human rights or the form of or system for forming the central or local governments. Yet, under the government’s plan, Armenians will only have one up-or-down vote on all these changes. This robs them of their right to express their views on clearly defined issues, which is particularly problematic in that this referendum concerns main law of the land. In its decision in the case of the Russian Conservative Party and Others vs Russia which was related to alleged violations of the right to suffrage in Russian Federation parliamentary elections, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) clearly stated that “…free suffrage comprises two aspects: freedom to form an opinion and freedom to express that opinion.” Similarly, the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums states that “An even more stringent requirement of free suffrage is respect for unity of content. Electors must not be called to vote simultaneously on several questions without any intrinsic link, given that they may be in favour of one and against another. Where the revision of a text covers several separate aspects, a number of questions must therefore be put to the people.”
There are other, equally strong arguments why the proposed referendum should not proceed as designed. For example, the draft worsens guarantees for fundamental human rights and freedoms as well as for social rights and fails to meet the norms called for in international treaties that Armenia has ratified. In particular, the guarantees/provisions for property rights, freedom of conscience, anti-discrimination and access to justice are all lower than in the current Constitution even though Article 43 of the existing basic law specifies that provisions for human rights and freedoms may not be lowered. In its analysis of the proposed amendments, the Venice Commission failed to mention this, yet in our opinion it is clear and vital.
Taking all of these issues into account, we believe that to preserve people’s minimum capacity to express their will in a free and accountable manner and to minimize controversy over the legitimacy of the process and thus the results of the vote, the authorities of Armenia need to postpone the referendum and alter its format so that people can express their opinion on key aspects of the country’s Constitution in a meaningful way.