Azerbaijan’s government is so furious about criticism of its human rights record that it is threatening to withdraw from a Europe-wide assembly.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), to which Azerbaijan belongs, passed a resolution on the “functioning of democratic institutions in Azerbaijan” on June 23.
The resolution was based on a report by Pedro Agramunt and Tadeusz Iwiński, who are PACE-appointed rapporteurs on Azerbaijan, which expresses “deep concerns over the crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan, where working conditions for NGOs and human rights defenders have significantly deteriorated”. It notes “the increasing number of reprisals against independent media and advocates of freedom of expression in Azerbaijan” and “calls on the authorities to end this systemic harassment of those critical of the government.”
The final resolution called on the government to “put an end to systemic repression of human rights defenders, the media and those critical of the government, including politically motivated prosecutions, allow for effective judicial review of such attempts, and ensure that the overall climate can become conducive to political pluralism ahead of the forthcoming [parliamentary] elections in November 2015”.
The PACE resolution listed individuals targeted by “the intensification of the practice of the criminal prosecution of NGO leaders, journalists, their lawyers and others who express critical opinions”. It named human rights lawyer Intiqam Aliyev, election monitoring group leader Anar Mammadli; human rights defender Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif; Sports for Rights campaign founder Rasul Jafarov and journalists Khadija Ismayil and Rauf Mirqadirov.
During the debate, PACE legislators accused Azerbaijan of deliberately flouting the values and ideas of the Council of Europe (CoE). The head of Azerbaijan’s delegation, Samed Seyidov, made several failed attempts to get the wording of the final resolution softened.
Another delegation member, Ganira Pashayeva, accused PACE of ignoring its own standards by failing to tackle Armenia on the issue of Nagorny Karabakh.
Since open hostilities ended in 1994, Karabakh and several adjoining districts have been controlled by an Armenian administration with close ties to Yerevan. Although the international community still regards these lands as Azerbaijani sovereign territory, the status quo has not shifted. Talks mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have yet to reach common ground on the nature of an eventual settlement, as the sides remain far apart in their visions of what that should be – for the Azerbaijanis, reintegration; for the Armenians, independence for Karabakh.
“The rights of hundreds of thousands of [displaced] people are being violated by a country that is also a member of this organisation,” Pashayeva said during the PACE debate. “An organisation founded on human rights has taken no action against an occupying country over many years. Don’t you see this as double standards? Russia is discussed at every session. Why aren’t there discussions on Armenia, which is occupying Azerbaijani territory?”
Two days after the vote, Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry warned that continuing membership of the Council of Europe itself as well as of PACE was “under serious consideration” because of their “biased attitude and double standards”.
Earlier the same day, June 25, the deputy head of President Ilham Aliyev’s office, Novruz Mammadov, issued a warning on Twitter that the CoE’s position “places Azerbaijan’s membership in question”.
As well as arguing that the CoE favoured Armenia, the foreign ministry statement accused the body of “blatant Islamophobia” against Azerbaijan as a rapidly developing Muslim state.
The statement concentrated more on Armenia than on the domestic issues raised in the PACE report and resolution. It dealt with the latter by saying Azerbaijan already enjoyed political stability, freedom of thought and expression, economic and social progress, and a multiplicity of political parties, NGOs and media outlets. And all this was done for the benefit of the nation, “not to gain the approval of any international organisation”, it added.
Natiq Jafarli, a leading member of the opposition movement REAL, says that if Azerbaijan refuses to comply with PACE demands to fulfil its obligations as a member state, it is likely to face “serious sanctions”.
Arastun Orujlu, director of the Baku-based East West Research Centre, says the strongly-worded resolution comes very late in the day.
“The process of destroying the independent media and NGOs that are the foundations of civil society, as well as political parties, has been going on for many years,” he said. “Unfortunately, international organisations including PACE turned a blind eye to all this for a long time. This kind of resolution… should have been passed a long time ago.”
The day that PACE debated the resolution in Azerbaijan coincided with the release of the latest Nations in Transition report from the Washington-based Freedom House, which looks at the state of democracy, human rights and media freedom (among other things) in the former communist states of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. In the overall score – an aggregate of rankings for various categories – Azerbaijan was third from the bottom, outdone only by Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Azerbaijan’s threat to leave the CoE comes less than a month after it told the OSCE office in Baku to close.
Nurgul Novruz is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist.