On December 18, 2017 — The Open Society Foundations Armenia (OSFA) organised a discussion on the role of civil society in public policy making. The representatives of the RA National Assembly, Government, Human Rights Defender, diplomatic missions, international organizations, civil society and media were invited to attend the event. The speakers included the Head of the EU Delegation in Armenia H.E. Dr. Piotr Antoni Świtalski, Ambassador of the United States to Armenia H.E. Richard M. Mills, Jr., Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Garen Nazarian, Deputy Minister of Justice Vigen Kocharyan, Deputy Minister of Economic Development and Investments Garegin Melkonyan, Armenian Helsinki Committee President Avetik Ishkhanyan, Journalists’ “Asparez” Club Chairman Levon Barseghyan, “Article 3″ Human Rights Club Founder Gayane Abrahamyan, OSFA Justice Group Expert Davit Khachaturyan, Union of Informed Citizens Programs’ Director Daniel Ioannisyan, Analytical Centre on Globalization and Regional Cooperation Board Chairman Stepan Grigoryan. The discussion was facilitated by OSFA Executive Director Larisa Minasyan.
The speakers reflected on the role of civil society in: ensuring justice and the rule of law; safeguarding accountable governance of state and local self-government bodies; developing and implementing human rights protection policies, and in forming public opinion. The reflections were also made about the perception and interpretation of the concept of “policy”, the ways it influences the content of civil society-government dialogue, and the impact of policies by authorities on the image of civil society in Armenia. The event highlighted the importance of the EU-Armenia Visa Dialogue in promoting good governance and human rights, and the EU-Armenia Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) — as a platform and safeguard for government-civil society constructive collaboration.
The main discussion evolved around the current dynamics of civil society – government relationship, with a particular focus on the importance of accountable governance in Armenia. The development of civil society in the country by the Government representatives is seen from the development of expert capacity perspective. When replying to the questions on the role of civil society in policy making, they highlighted several times that it will be great to see civil society providing expert capacity to the Government on ad hoc basis over the various policies. Provision of expert support was highlighted as the main (and only) function seen by the government of civil society contribution. The officials demonstrated their “vision” on civil society function in its relationship to the government as solely consultative. Such remarks, or policy adopted by the government shows the attempt to publicly indicate the value civil society involvement as a partner, by at the same time limiting cooperation on a consultative level. Whether such existing consultative function leads to a policy change remains an area of additional enquiry (and uncertainty), as the “partnership” defined as “consultation” usually lacks any results. Such process has so far proved to be disregarding civil society expert opinion in the final decision making, or product as a result. The “consultative cooperation” between the two ‘domains’ is most relevantly described as artificial engagement of civil society into the dialogue – due to lack of serious consideration of civil society recommendations into the final policies.
Throughout the discussion the speakers several times referred to the question on how to “organise” the work with civil society, or that the mechanisms and measures are yet to be developed for an effective engagement of two sides. The references were made to the “lack of platform” or a space, for the two sides to engage. Government representatives mentioned the availability of public council committees working in each sector– as a justification to the lack of mechanisms of engagement. Work with members of parliament was mentioned as another possible area of engagement. To quote the EU Ambassador, “For an improved civil society – government dialogue, civil society shall involve in political process”, who spoke about more functions for civil society than providing solely a consultative engagement. The Armenian government needs civil society energy (and not vice versa) in general, and especially today, when the country speaks about reforms and plans on implementing those.
The discussion also evolved around purposefully negative criticism of independent civil society spread in the media, and particularly the government-controlled sources of information. On the numerous evidence-based indications provided by civil society representative-speakers on the government targeting independent civil society through media and manipulations, the government representatives’ sole feedback or, resistance, was the statement on the importance of pluralist society where everybody can express their opinion.
The US Ambassador mentioned that journalism and the importance of transparent media performance has never been greater as it is today. It comes as a priority to be able to differentiate between the right to express opinion, on the one hand and the right to exercise facts on the other. When opinions can (and should) be plural, the facts are singular, as is the truth. When we enter the space of “many facts”, we enter a space of disinformation and propaganda. In order to counter it we need to find the right balance between advocacy of plurality and diverse public opinion on the one hand, at the same time recognising the reality where facts are exclusive. Artur Sakunts mentioned, when pluralism is used to counter human rights standards, there shall be no room for any kind of “pluralism”. The society enters a space of distorted information which is allowed, and moreover, executed legally. The protection, filtering or differentiation of reliable information from propaganda therefore remains the challenge.
Considering recent numerous latent and manifest attempts on behalf of the government to shrink the space for civil society in Armenia, organising the event was important. At the same however, it is sad to realise that towards the closing of 2017 – the society is bound to speak about “the role of civil society in public policy making” – a subject which for developed countries is way beyond contest. We need to start moving forward from the process of identifying the role of civil society function, towards effective collaboration – a process necessitating Government’s will, preparedness and knowledge.