Remarks at Armenian Ombudsman’s “Human Rights in New Draft Constitution”

Ombudsman Andreasyan, Ambassador Sorokin, Ambassador Switalski and other distinguished guests, I am pleased to join you today as you discuss the important topic of enshrining and protecting human rights in a possibly revised Armenian constitution, should the Armenian people chose to revise their constitution in December’s referendum.

The current constitutional reform process underway in Armenia is a process with critical implications for democracy and governance in Armenia, and it is a process for Armenians to lead and carry out. Let me reiterate, the position of the United States is that how or whether the Armenian constitution is changed at all is a decision for Armenians to make. But, the U.S. government, as a friend of Armenia who shares the Armenian people’s commitment to demonstrate values, we do believe that the decision must come about as the result of an open, inclusive debate.

The main author of the American Constitution, James Madison, also wrote the Federalist Papers, a series of articles encouraging the adoption of the Constitution. And in Federalist Number 39, he outlined that in a republic the power to govern must be derived from the willing consent of the people. It was a thought echoed by President Obama at the United Nations this year, when he said: “Inclusive democracy makes countries stronger.”

The fundamental importance of involving the citizens in their government means that for any new Armenian constitution to sustain the nation, the entirety of the Armenian public must have meaningful opportunities to participate in the debates and discussions about the constitutional amendments.  The public should be able to ask questions and voice their concerns so they can make informed and deliberate decisions during the upcoming referendum.

Discussing constitutional changes among experts, like those gathered today, is indeed quite useful.  But a larger conversation – with and among the Armenian people – is an invaluable and mandatory component of an inclusive and meaningful dialogue to identify the way forward.

As Armenia enters the referendum campaign period, it is important that those who oppose this draft constitution have equally broad opportunities to express their views, especially through the broadcast media, which is so widespread in Armenia.  It is vital their voice be heard as strongly as the voices of the “Yes” campaigns, one of which is headed by the current Prime Minister in office.

Of course, it is not possible to make constitutional scholars out of everyday voters in less than two months. But it is possible – and necessary – to ensure that voters understand what is at stake when they cast their votes, that they understand how certain provisions of the constitutional amendments will be codified by law, and that they understand the impact these decisions will have on their lives and the lives of their children.

Both the supporters of the changes and those opposed should be eager for an open and public debate of the merits of the proposals. The international community – including the United States – is committed to serving as a vigilant advocate for a transparent, inclusive, and meaningful process that lives up to Armenia’s international obligations and to the spirit of basic democratic principles.

A more inclusive and considered approach to the referendum campaign process will make for a more legitimate constitution, regardless of the referendum’s outcome. The Armenian people and the Armenian government deserve such a legitimate outcome, to aid you in building a more stable, prosperous, and peaceful nation.

Again, thank you for inviting me here today. I hope the discussions here will enliven an even larger dialogue on the issues soon to be put before the people. Thank you.