On June 6, 2016, the first Armenian Law on Probation and Probation Service has entered into force. This is an important milestone towards the humanization of criminal justice system in Armenia. The principles of sanctioning system in Armenia has remained almost unchanged throughout the past 25 years and has been criticized both by the international human rights bodies and domestic civil society groups on its methods and the outcome of its work. The alternatives to the current criminal justice culture which would promote reintegration of offenders and better implementation of victims’ interests are in urgent need in Armenia.
The establishment of a completely new (in theory) Probation Service in Armenia is seen by many as such an alternative and is focused on the empowerment of victims and development of a more individualized treatment for each offender through reintegration programs and case-by-case approach.
In addition to the instruments aimed at the work with offender and his/her better reintegration into society, the law incorporated provisions on the victim-offender mediation, which is, indeed, the cornerstone of the concept of restorative justice. International restorative justice developments and especially the emergence of victim-offender reconciliation programs in Canada, USA and Europe inspired the same movement in Armenia.
The first draft law on the future Probation Service didn’t envisage the institute of mediation and only briefly touched upon the importance of reconciliation between victim and offender. In the final version of the draft Ministry of Justice, the author of the draft, nevertheless, took the risk of introduction of the mediation schemes to be delivered by probation officers themselves.
This was done despite the absence of corresponding infrastructure, capacity of staff and lack of mechanism to regularly train mediators in Armenia. Unfortunately, there have been no evaluated pilot projects on the victim-offender mediation implemented before the adoption of the law. Concerns may also been raised about the fact that according to the Law on Probation mediation services will not be provided by an independent private or public service, but by the mediators appointed by the Head of Probation Service from his/her own staff.
At the same time, in the defense of the new law it should be mentioned, that by default the criminal justice system in Armenia is very strictly regulated by laws and lacks the flexibility to introduce initiatives, which are not supported by pre-existing statutory developments. As to the independent mediation services, for the time being there are only a few isolated agencies in Armenia, which provide professional mediation and other services in alternative dispute resolution field on civil matters.
All that being said it’s too early to say if the institute, transplanted into Armenian reality from the best international practices, will have any rejection issues. However, for the mediation institute to be truly absorbed by the system and accepted by the society, there should be genuine political will and serious effort to promote that the just and equitable system is achievable through the new developments. When it comes to ensuring that "justice is done" every possibility should be explored and everyone involved in the criminal process should strive to find the answer to the critical question of any mediation process: “what can we do to make it right”. It is also critical that it is well regulated depending on the stages of justice process and staff is trained on how to work with victims in particular, especially vulnerable ones.
Let’s hope that the new instrument will meet the pressing and urgent needs of the people had fallen victim of a situation, regulated by criminal laws, because even the very best initiative will be stillborn unless victims know that their voices are heard and taken into account.
Author: Evgenia Ivanova