A recent article by New York Times based on an investigative report about child sexual abuse by the Afghan security forces shook even the most ardent supporters of the US action in that volatile country. According to that report, systemic sexual abuse of young boys by top military commanders was allowed to go free by the US army, despite available evidence and presence of laws preventing US funding for offending units. Ironically, the Taliban all but eradicated this practice during its rule.
This incident reveals one very dark side associated with the way some officials—military and foreign service—seek to advance what they may perceive as US interests in a country or a region they are involved in. While indeed difficult to quantify and often not clearly spelled out by political leaders, it is safe to say that US long-term interests in any country and at any time cannot possibly be advanced (and may in fact be endangered) by cover-ups and subsequent revelations of such nature. What is bad for the Taliban cannot be acceptable for the United States, which—apart from maintaining a higher moral ground—needs to win the hearts and minds of people of Afghanistan to succeed in that country.
Armenia is another country where US diplomats have over the years chosen to look the other way in the face of credible evidence of abuse of an entire population. The abuse in question is the massive election fraud and systemic corruption that enabled a criminal Russian puppet regime to rule Armenia for many years and enrich its top members to unprecedented levels. The head of the regime, Serge Sargsyan, will soon be allowed to govern without term limits, following a fraudulent Constitutional Referendum of 2015, which he manipulated under the watchful eye of Western observers. Diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks and our conversations with US diplomats over the years show how well the US embassy staff in Armenia knew about the corrupt nature of the Armenian regime. Yet, they limit their action to inconsequential rhetoric and often chose to look the other way.
More recently, the issue of political prisoners in Armenia came to the forefront of public discussion, among them a US citizen and seasoned political activist, businessman, and lawyer, Garo Yegnukian. The video footage of Mr. Yegnukian being taken out of a hospital ER in handcuffs by several special police a few weeks ago was beyond shocking. Garo, a father of five, was active in the late-80 movement that advocated for Armenia’s independence from the Soviet Union. Up until his detention in July 2016, he has remained a vocal supporter of civil reform, ecological awareness, and democratic ideals in his ancestral Armenia. Over 18 months have passed since his detention on charges that challenge his right for free speech and assembly during July 2016 standoff in the capital of Yerevan. All this time he has been denied bail and subjected to moral and psychological pressures. His health condition has worsened to the point where he was taken directly out of the court room to the ER.
In the wake of the high-profile death of activist Arthur Sargsyan in prison in March 2017, there is little doubt that the oligarchic regime in Armenia wishes to make an example of Garo—even up to the point of causing his death—to frighten and subdue other Diaspora Armenians who would dare challenge its corrupt practices and pro-Russian foreign policy orientation. Other prominent political prisoners, such as Jirayr Sefilian, Andreas Ghukasyan, and Gevorg Safaryan, have been held in pre-trial detention for even longer periods without normal due process or possibility of bail. While “awaiting a trial date” they are subjected to constant moral and physical abuse designed to break their spirits and force them to give up hope for a more just, democratic, and secure Armenia.
To our disappointment, although the life of a US citizen is in danger, the State Department has proven itself utterly oblivious to the patent violations of Armenian and international laws in Garo’s case. Despite repeated appeals by Garo’s lawyers, as well as petitions from friends of Garo and letters from Policy Forum Armenia, the State Department and the Embassy in Armenia have chosen to turn a blind eye to facts and have instead taken the word of corrupt apparatchiks in the Armenian government that “Garo is being treated well” during his 18-months long pre-trial detention. One wonders what level of human rights abuses must be recorded before the US State Department deigns to take action to protect a US citizen.
Within this reality on the ground, the words of Ralf Fücks, President of Germany Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Foundation, about the West’s moral leadership and value-based foreign policy most likely fell on deaf ears. He argues that “[a]uthoritarian regimes are not simply transient phenomena on the way towards democracy. They constitute a form of government in and of itself, and they are unapologetic about it. This also means that we cannot pretend they will disappear tomorrow.” He then goes on to suggest that “[w]e need to openly criticize rigged elections, arbitrary rule and grave human rights violations. … Political and economic sanctions designed to inflict costs for grave violations of international law are foreign policy tools of last resort.”
Political maneuvering and horse-trading with a client regime of Russia should not be done at the expense of fundamental freedoms and human rights of citizens of any country, but especially of US citizens. The only result of the current policy of turning a blind eye can be a further deterioration of governance and human rights in Armenia, ultimately undermining the credibility of the US and weakening its position in the country and indeed the region. Armenia can only prosper and be a strong partner for the US if human rights are respected and government works for all instead of a select few. It is therefore imperative for those who care about interests of the US in the region to impress upon Serge Sargsyan and his administration that systematic repressions of political activists and dissidents in Armenia cannot be tolerated and that the empty rhetoric about political reform will no longer be acceptable.
Photo/art: The New York Times.