The New Human Rights Defender of Artsakh: A Commitment to Serve the Nation4 min read
AUA alumnus Gegham Stepanyan (MPSIA ‘16) is the Human Rights Defender of the Republic of Artsakh. Although he was appointed to this position in March 2021, he has been working at the Human Rights Defender’s office with Artak Beglaryan since the beginning of the 2020 Artsakh War in September. During our interview, he shared about his current responsibilities, the situation in Artsakh, as well as the impact of his AUA education on his career path.
Tell us about your academic background and the initial steps in your career journey․
I graduated from Yerevan State University in 2014 with a degree in International Relations and started my graduate studies in the Political Science and International Affairs program at the American University of Armenia right afterward. As a citizen of Artsakh, I was honored to be awarded a full scholarship by the Government of the Republic of Artsakh with a pledge to return to Artsakh upon completion of my studies and work as a civil servant for three years. Working in Artsakh was not only an established provision but also my personal choice as a citizen, which I was happy to fulfill.
The first job offer I received after completing my studies was from the National Assembly of Artsakh, which was followed by a few other positions in government, including my position working as the Assistant to the Speaker of the Parliament, as well as lecturer of the political conflict course at Artsakh State University. It is an amazing feeling to share knowledge gained with the next generation. I feel truly blessed. Recently, in March 2021, I was appointed as the Human Rights Defender of Artsakh by the Parliament.
How has the education you received at AUA influenced your professional growth?
AUA played a huge role in my personal and professional development. I have always asserted that the AUA education decidedly differs from that in other higher education institutions in Armenia — at other universities you learn to memorize, while at AUA you learn to analyze. Critical thinking is a very valuable skill I developed at AUA. I can also state that graduating from AUA opens an array of opportunities in Artsakh. Employers know that AUA graduates have a strong knowledge base and are well-trained professionals.
AUA truly educates the future generation of leaders by teaching them not only to collect evidence but also to systematically analyze the data they have collected before drawing conclusions. As a student, I tried to grasp every bit of information, knowledge, and skills taught. I remember when I was studying at AUA, we had a course on policy making and policy cycles. I used to think that what we learned would not be relevant to Armenia. But now I realize that by taking small steps it is possible to make a change in the state system if more of those who believe in that and possess the knowledge get engaged in the change process.
How would you describe the situation in Artsakh nowadays after the 2020 Artsakh War?
It is gradually getting more stable. People are striving to return to their normal life, but unfortunately, the uncertainty about the future is not helpful in embracing life to the fullest. Of the 40,000 displaced citizens from the territories we have lost, 15,000 have found their way back to Artsakh with assistance from different local organizations. The other 25,000 remain in Yerevan or in other regions of Armenia, with the hope of coming back to their homeland as soon as possible.
We are still grappling with the housing issue here in Stepanakert. The shortage of housing was a challenge even before the war erupted but it gradually became more critical in the post-war reality. Turning cellars into shelters is a case in point that best describes the desperate situation prevailing in Stepanakert.
What strategy does the Government have to ease the current situation?
The plan is to relocate the families displaced from Shushi and Hadrut to Stepanakert or the outskirts. Those displaced from rural areas will find a new home or build one in the villages of Artsakh. This is a tedious and time-intensive process, no doubt, and even a year or two would not be enough to make sure all the displaced people have a roof over their heads.
What are the biggest challenges you face as the Human Rights Defender of Artsakh, a country that has been through a war?
Just a week before the war broke out, I was assigned the position of chief of staff in the office of the Human Rights Defender of Artsakh. Our team became significantly smaller during the war — the Ombudsman, the chief of the department, and myself. The three of us had set out to contribute to the Artsakh Government as much as we could. Our primary duties were and still are to document the human rights violations and systematically catalog the war crimes that have occurred during the war. As you are aware, there have been innumerable cases of both, so the amount of work that has been completed to date and what still needs to be done to adequately voice those is enormous.
Currently, we are working in two major directions: inner and outer. On the inner front, our mission is to ensure the protection of human rights by state and local self-government bodies. We accept individual appeals and conduct constant monitoring of vulnerable groups. After the war, the scope of our work in this domain has expanded to include thousands of displaced people who are vulnerable and experiencing social and health-related issues. In addition, many people have lost their identity documents, which is exacerbating the process of getting social support from the state. Our job is to help them get enrolled in the social assistance program as fast as possible. Besides, I regularly tour the centers for displaced people to learn about their needs firsthand and relay relevant information to the appropriate state bodies. I also visit areas that have become borderline. Although most people have returned to their homes and life appears to be returning to normal, there are still security issues that concern them. These families live in fear watching Azerbaijani military troops driving by to Shushi.
As for the outer direction, we continue to be committed to our fact-finding mission initiated earlier during the war. Since September 27 we have issued 15 reports on various war crimes committed by Azerbaijan: human rights violations of people from Artsakh, hate propaganda against Armenians, vandalism of cultural heritage, violence against Armenian children, and the illegal use of white phosphorus by Azerbaijan, just to mention a few. We also collaborate with several Armenian and Diasporan organizations to collect facts for submission to international judicial bodies. At that front, our staff is involved in fact-finding operations to provide evidential data to the Armenian organizations involved in judicial processes.