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Focus on Azerbaijan at OSCE Human Dimension Meeting

26 September 2014

The increasing repression of independent and opposition voices in Azerbaijan was highlighted on several occasions during the first week of the 2014 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of the OSCE. The NHC, together with the Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, held a side event with speakers from Azerbaijan explaining the severity of the crackdown on civil society. NHC Executive Director Harry Hummel spoke about the range of options available for international actors to stimulate changes in the repressive policies of the Azerbaijani government.

On September 23, a silent demonstration was held in the plenary meeting room: NGO representatives from a range of countries wore T-shirts with the images of the imprisoned human rights defenders, while statements about Azerbaijan were read out loud. The side event on September 25 featured four speakers from Azerbaijan: investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova and NGO representatives Gulnara Akhundova (Institute for Reporters Safety and Freedom), Leyla Alieva (Center for National and International Studies) and Zohrab Ismayili (Public  Association for Assistance to Free Economy). They deplored the demise of independent  civil society at the hands of the government, after civil society had developed in an effective and varied way after the end of the Soviet Union. Increasingly, senior figures in the human rights movement are being imprisoned.

The bank accounts of dozens of organizations, including the personal accounts of their leaders, have been frozen. One of these is the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, active in the Azerbaijani chapter of the Extractive Energy Transparency Initiative, an international initiative in which governments, companies and civil society organizations cooperate to promote openness in natural resource management. In his presentation, Harry Hummel referred to the call by Human Rights Watch to suspend Azerbaijan’s membership of the Extractive Energy Transparency Initiative, as proper civil society participation is made virtually impossible by the government.

This shows only one of the options to underline the unacceptability of the government’s actions, Hummel said. Institutions and companies involved in the 2015 European Games, organized under the auspices of the International Olympic Committee, should speak out clearly against the repression, all the more so as doing away with civil society activism linked to the Games is likely to be one of the underlying factors in the repression. Civil society organizations are already¬†approaching companies that sponsor the Games.

The main intergovernmental human rights protection body in Europe, the Council of Europe, of which Azerbaijan currently holds the presidency, should take unequivocal steps to counter the crackdown. A number of those imprisoned were closely cooperating with Council of Europe bodies (update: the decision by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly to award the 2014 Vaclav Havel Human Rights Prize to election monitor Anar Mammadli is a good step, as is the unanimous call by the Assembly’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights for the release of human rights defenders and NGO leaders).

Also, the European Union should review its relations with Azerbaijan, Harry Hummel said. The European Parliament resolution on Azerbaijan, which includes a call to consider targeted sanctions against those responsible for the human rights violations, should be followed up by the EU member states.