Features & Analysis

Azerbaijan to chair Council of Europe, amid the wave of repression against human rights defenders


©Council of Europe

©Council of Europe

Despite the dire situation of human rights in Azerbaijan, the country assumes the six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe as from 14 May 2014. Council of Europe describes itself as the continent’s leading human rights organization and it includes 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union.

Azerbaijan assuming the leading role in the Council of Europe has stirred aggressive criticism, as the council’s credibility is at stake. The wave of repression against human rights defenders in Azerbaijan are in disagreement with the Council of Europe’s core values.

Deteriorating human-rights situation

Azerbaijan has never excelled in valuing human rights, but since the presidential elections in October last year, the situation got even worse. Following the Azerbaijan’s 2013 presidential elections, three human rights defenders are facing 12 years in prison for charges of conducting organized group business activities without registration, abusing official powers and other allegations. Recently, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai, urged Azerbaijan to drop charges against the three. The UN Special Rapporteur mentioned the human rights defenders are being prosecuted “in retaliation for their legitimate work in documenting alleged widespread irregularities and human rights violations around the presidential elections of 9 October 2013.”

Chairman of the Azerbaijani Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, Anar Mammadli and Executive Director Bashir Suleymanli, are being accused in Baku, along with the President of the Volunteers of International Cooperation Public Union, Elnur Mammadov.

The court held the third hearing in this case on Monday 5 May and, at the end of it, decided to hold a fourth hearing on the case on Tuesday 6 May. It held a hearing every day since, according to Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF). Mammadli is still being kept on pre-trial detention. The Court explained that he might try to flee the country, although his passport along with the ones of Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov were confiscated.

On 6 May, eight members of the youth opposition movement NIDA were sentenced to 6 and 8 years imprisonment, after being found guilty of organizing mass disorders and possessing illegal drugs and weapons. Ten journalists are also now in prison, as well as five bloggers.

Azerbaijan’s most prominent human rights campaigner, Leyla Yunus, has been detained with her husband, the historian Arif Yunus, while trying to leave the country, at Baku’s airport. They were released after a night in custody, but her passport was withheld. Yunus was interrogated about the case of the arrested journalist of the Russian-language newspaper Zerkalo, Rauf Mirkadirov. She was questioned about the relation between the journalist and the Institute for Peace and Democracy which she runs. The journalist is now facing charges of treason for his efforts in the peace building process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by participating in many joint projects between the Institute for Peace and Democracy and Armenian NGOs, according to HRHF website.

Clashes between Azerbaijani police  and opposition activists in Baku. (Photo Credit: Aziz Karimov)

Clashes between Azerbaijani police and opposition activists in Baku. (Photo Credit: Aziz Karimov)

Geopolitical advantage

Azerbaijan’ strategic position, at the doorway to Europe, Asia and the Middle East, and its role in Europe’s energy security, might make Western officials to overlook the widespread criticism of the role Azerbaijan will play in the Council of Europe for the next six months.

The recent turmoil in Ukraine, followed by Russian intervention in Crimea and the diplomatic and economic dispute between Western countries and Russia, has made Azerbaijan a critical partner for European energy security more than ever. Azerbaijan plays a key role in the diversification of oil and gas supplies from the Caspian Basin to Europe, and in significantly reducing Europe’s energy dependence on Russia. The first stage Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and South Caucuses gas pipeline consolidated cooperation between Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey and freed Georgia and Azerbaijan from dependence on Russia for gas trade. The second phase of the Southern Gas Corridor will directly connect Europe with Caspian gas, cutting the dependence on Russia for transit. Southern Corridor projects could offer the necessary transportation capacity to deliver the 60 to 120 billion cubic meters per year of Caspian and Central Asian gas directly to Europe.

Azerbaijan’s location on the Eurasian Corridor is at a vital crossroads for the US supply route to Afghanistan. Azerbaijan’s strategic partnership with the United States includes cooperation in countering terrorism, nuclear proliferation and narcotics trafficking, as well as promoting security in the wider Caspian region and beyond. The energy security issue leaves Europe in a delicate position towards Azerbaijan.

Russian diversion

However, Europe’s energy dependence on Russia is far from being the only factor in the equation. Azerbaijan itself has a challenging relationship with Russia. Azerbaijan is one of the sides in the dispute with Armenia over Nagorno Karabakh region. Russia is one of the members of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and it plays the role of the mediation in the peace talks. In 1994, was Russia that brokered a ceasefire which led to Armenian troops controlling Nagorno Karabakh and surrounding areas in Azerbaijan, a territory internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan. Nagorno Karabakh frozen conflict stands at the bottom of Aliev’s regime avoidance of any backlash against Russia over the last few months in the Crimea issue.

The officials in Baku are already divided over the recognition of Crimea annexation by Russia and have not yet declared their official position. Moreover, the Head of the Department of Public and Political Issues of the Administration of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Ali Hasanov, said recently that “bilateral interesting and good neighbor relations with Russia is one of the priorities of foreign policy of Azerbaijan”, according to APA.

These tangled geopolitical issues ironically leave Europe in an hypocritical posture and with not much alternative but to choose its strategic interest over human rights. Azerbaijan, a champion in human rights violations, will chair the Council of Europe, a human rights outrider. Even if for some it might seem a necessary and insignificant sacrifice, what Europe might miss to consider is that it gives a green flag to a country to breach the same human rights which are the fundamental of the international law used to bash Russia’s Crimea annexation and led to a diplomatic and economic split between Russia and the West in the first place. Besides, it will not be the first time a country with a poor human rights record chairs the Council of Europe. It was Russia first, in 2006.

Source: various organizations

124th Session of the committee of Ministers  (Photo Credit: Sandro Weltin; ©Council of Europe)

124th Session of the committee of Ministers (Photo Credit: Sandro Weltin; ©Council of Europe)

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