Anahit Sargsyan, 2018 Intern in the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office of the Republic of Artsakh

You know you are going to have a unique summer when your internship starts with an impromptu address to the President of the Republic of Artsakh. Our entire internship experience at the Artsakh Ombudsman’s office was full of such moments. After the ABA conference participants left Artsakh, we went to work the following Monday.

On the first day, we got introduced to the office staff. As most of the staff members were attorneys, our conversations led to interesting discussions about the legal systems of Armenia, Artsakh, and the United States.  It was very educational for both sides to learn about the other’s court structure, role of the precedent, appeal process, etc.  In the process, we also learned about legal research tools of Artsakh and Armenia, Arlexi.am and Arlis.am.

Meanwhile, we introduced to the staff the research tools we use in the U.S., such as LexisNexis and Westlaw.

As one of the staff members was going to participate in the Nuremberg Moot Court competition, we also had an opportunity to discuss the competition topic and assist in finding some cases through Westlaw. Later, we also helped edit the complete draft of the brief that the Artsakh University team was about to file.

During the first week, we also spent some time reading the RA Constitution and the updated laws regarding the office of the Ombudsman and its jurisdiction.  Throughout the next following weeks, we were assigned a few new projects.

At that time, the office was in the process of hiring a new associate. Mr. Melikyan had just implemented a new system of screening the candidates, which was heavily inclined toward testing the logic and practical application skills.  Mr. Melikyan and Mr. Beglaryan assigned us to draft the international law-related part of the questions, particularly, questions related to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.  We carefully read the documents and drafted questions from which Mr. Melikyan and Mr. Beglaryan picked the ones they preferred to add to the test.  While drafting the questions, we also strived to add a logical element to them, using the spirit of LSAT and other logic-related tests that we had been exposed to in law school.

The following week was punctuated by a few memorable highlights. That week, the students from Shogh Daycare Center of Shushi, which provides educational and psychological support to 30 underprivileged children from around the area, visited the Ombudsman’s office. We helped the staff to prepare simplified presentation slides to tell the kids about their fundamental rights, such as the right to be free from any type of physical abuse, etc. The presentation was followed by a meeting-discussion with the students. Here, Davit and I also had a Q&A with the students, which turned out to be very informative and moving.  We told them about the “prime minister” of America, the ocean that separates America from Armenia, and asked about their experiences. It turned out, out of 30 students, only 4 had visited Yerevan. One of those four had only been at a hospital, which was his “favorite place” in Yerevan. It was incredible to connect with these genuine, bright, honest children, whose world happened to be limited to “no oceans”, but who were so much more real, lively, and excited about life than some children I had met at shores of California.

Another educational aspect of working at the Ombudsman’s office was meeting citizens, who came into the office to present or follow up on their complaints. We had an opportunity to observe how the attorneys at the office responded to each case. On some occasions, we also assisted the staff in drafting inquiries to various state agencies in response to the received complaints. This experience allowed us to understand the roles and jurisdictions of various government agencies and see how they are connected.

In general, the summer of 2018 was a unique time to be in Artsakh. Following the revolution in Armenia, a wave of protests began in Artsakh in July.  It was very interesting to observe the situation and learn about the protestors’ ideas and complaints. Armenian revolution’s aftershock in Artsakh was unique, as people clearly calculated Artsakh’s geopolitical situation, but were not prohibitively hesitant to voice their concerns and the need for change in certain aspects of their lives.

The Ombudsman’s office was actively involved in monitoring the protests to ensure that no human rights violations occur in the process. Mr. Melikyan and his staff were in the protest sites most of the time and we, along with the team remaining in the office, stayed in touch, prepared statements, and provided support to them in various ways. Davit and I were often asked to edit Ombudsman’s public statements in English. More specifically, we discussed at the office and helped edit the statement on the need to pass a law in Artsakh regulating the right to assembly. It was interesting to learn that until these protests, Artsakh had not seen any mass protests since the 1980-1990s. Thus, there had never been an actual need to discuss and pass such a law.

Soon, we had another meeting with Mr. Melikyan and Mr. Beglaryan, who assigned us our main project. Unlike the Republic of Armenia, Artsakh does not have a human rights strategy in place, and the Ombudsman’s office had expressed commitment to initiate the process.  We were assigned to research how different European countries have drafted their human rights strategies and dissect those core rights and implementation mechanisms that would suit the particularities of Artsakh. After looking into over a dozen countries’ approach, we created a comprehensive list of rights, which we later also compared to the strategy of Armenia and made some additional adjustments.

After discussing the list with Mr. Melikyan, we were directed to start drafting the document, using the Armenian strategy as a template. During the rest of our time there, drafting the strategy was our main focus. At the end of the internship, we submitted our draft to Mr. Melikyan. This draft included an introduction, background history of Artsakh’s commitment to human rights, and sections on the current human rights situation in Artsakh, Artsakh’s participation in international law, principles and outcomes of the strategy, etc.

While working on this project, however, we made time to remain actively engaged in the sociocultural life of Stepanakert and explore the jewels of Shushi.

We initiated a visit to the Tomo Center in Stepanakert, where we met with the director, who gave us a tour of the center and shared some valuable insights. While there, we also had an opportunity to visit different workshops and meet the students. It was a very inspiring experience to meet these bright teenagers who were so full of creative energy and big plans for the future. I was particularly impressed to learn that Tumo Stepanakert has a shuttle bus that picks up students from surrounding villages and brings them to class. It was also notable that the center is very popular and there is a long waitlist to get into the classes.

I also toured the Karabakh Carpet factory in Stepanakert. It was very impressive to learn about the history of the company, which strives to keep the weaving traditions of Artsakh alive, while creating jobs for hundreds of Artsakhtsis. I was told that the company has factories in Shushi and Jartar as well and works hard to complete the intern

ational orders that have been flowing in. As everything is hand-made, it takes weeks, and sometimes months to create a carpet. Seeing the high-quality beautiful carpets with traditional prints and colors, it was clear that the company has a reason to take pride in its products that represent Artskhaki art to the world.

Soon, we were also invited to be a guest at Hello Artsakh (“Voghjuyn Artsakh”) show at Artsakh’s Public TV. It was very exciting to share some thoughts about our work at the Ombudsman’s office as well as our impressions of Artsakh and our involvement in the local sociocultural life.

Indeed, we took the opportunity of being in Artsakh to attend various concerts and cultural events. For instance, we attended a music night at the Roots Cafe featuring Vahag Rush and his violinist sister, Lilt Rushanyan. The proceeds of the evening were to be directed to the fund for renovating the old theater building of Stepanakert. We also attended a performance by the local dance college graduates, who impressed with their sophisticated performances.

We also managed to make time to take French classes with a local French tutor and, surprisingly, made some notable progress.

We also attended an information session on the European Union’s Peacebuilding Funds Opportunities for Artsakhtsis. During this session, the presenters described the types of peacebuilding programs they have funded in the past and suggested to help the attendees with their applications. The peacebuilding program aims to provide funds to encourage cooperation between the interested people from Artsakh and Azerbaijan. In order to get the funding, two people, one from each country, would have to come together and propose a project, which would ideally enhance peacebuilding.  It was very impressive to learn that, against all the odds, a few such projects have successfully come to life in the past. Those were mainly art-related projects, such as creating neutral films and documentaries. Following the discussion was very interesting, especially learning about how differently these projects are received in Artsakh and Azerbaijan. The Armenian side is much more open and willing to explore opportunities, while on the Azerbaijani side, people are much more reluctant to participate because they face questioning and prosecution by the government.

We also had an opportunity to observe the interview and hiring process of a new entry- level associate at the Ombudsman’s office.  This turned out to be a unique opportunity to meet the applicants. They were very bright, motivated young professionals, who have taken on the task of rebranding Artsakh and rebuilding it with new, fresh spirit. We also had an opportunity to meet the hiring committee members. It was particularly exciting to meet Mr. Gerard Guerguerian, a French-Armenian international lawyer from Paris, who has initiated various stimulating projects in Artsakh, including the Roots Café. He invited us to the café, and over a cup of tea we discussed his vision for Artsakh and ideas about his upcoming projects, which included hiring bright Artsakhtsi students and training them to develop competitive research, analytical, and presentation skills. As Davit and I are both interested in international law, we also inquired about his work as an international lawyer, asked for some career advice, and drew some comparisons between the European, American and Artsakhi legal systems. It was a very informative and pleasant meeting, which ended with a mutual desire to return to Artsakh and be a resource for one another.

Interning in Shushi was a perk of its own. We seized each and every opportunity to explore the city through weekend trips and lunch hour visits. As we quickly developed a very friendly relationship with the office staff, we planned visits together to Shush Jdrduz, Hunot Canyon, the Carpet Museum of Shushi, the Caste of Shushi, Ghazanchetsots Cathedral and the ruins of the Realakan College, which was the beautiful building right behind the office with incredible history. The staff also treated us to lunches at “secret” places with amazing views that only a local would know about.

During our last day at the office, we had lunch with Mr. Melikyan to turn in our work and wrap up our experience. On the same day, the Minister of Education of Armenia, Arayik Harutyunyan was visiting, and Mr. Melikyan arranged for us to have a quick meeting with him as well. At the meeting, we discussed our educational backgrounds and heard the minister’s vision for the educational reforms needed in Armenia.

Back in Yerevan, we were invited by Yerkir Media TV station to share some background about the internship program and our experience. We also discussed the human rights situation in Artsakh, as we observed it, and the reciprocal of having Armenian students from abroad work in Artsakh.

When starting law school, I could not have dreamed to have an opportunity to spend my 1L summer in Artsakh. I came back with a much more solid idea of what Artsakh is, why we should be advocating for it, and what are some real needs it has. Moreover, as I am taking my first international law classes this semester, I feel much more comfortable at my classes because of the exposure I had to international law during my summer in Artsakh. This summer gave me skills, connections, new perspectives, breathtaking moments, and lifelong friendships. I am very thankful for this opportunity and am happy to serve as a resource and provide any feedback to strengthen the program in the future.

Warmly,

Anahit Sargsyan