Stage set for UN showdown over human rights practices in Azerbaijan

Two key UN bodies in Geneva are gearing up to examine Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record.

Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev (L) w
"The [Azerbaijani] government should approach the upcoming reviews in a positive manner, viewing them as an opportunity for constructive feedback on how to improve the human rights situation in the country," writes Vincent [AFP]

In recent weeks, international organisations present in Azerbaijan have faced growing pressure from the authorities and the pro-government press. 

The National Democratic Institute (NDI), a US government-funded non-governmental organisation (NGO), has been accused of attempting to foment revolution by allegedly supporting a series of recent protests in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku. NDI’s Azerbaijan country director was the subject of a smear campaign by the pro-government media, and a local NDI employee – who attended the protests in a personal capacity – was arrested and questioned.

When Lamberto Zannier, the Secretary-General of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), visited Baku earlier this month, it was revealed that Azerbaijan had requested to change the mandate of the OSCE Office in Baku, downgrading it from a “mission” to a “project-coordination-office”. At the same time, rumours began to circulate that the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) would not be invited to monitor Azerbaijan’s upcoming presidential election in October. 

Top government officials have also increased negative rhetoric against international NGOs. Presidential Chief of Staff Ramiz Mehdiyev accused international groups of failing to register their Azerbaijan branches, conducting “illegal activity” on the ground, and using grant funds for “destructive purposes”. 

Indeed, tensions are high on the ground.

Azerbaijan has also stepped up efforts to quash criticism by international bodies abroad, such as in January at the Council of Europe, where the Parliamentary Assembly debated a contentious resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Through extensive – and reportedly corrupt – lobbying efforts, the Azerbaijani delegation was able to defeat the resolution in a highly contentious vote that has had lasting negative implications both for the political prisoner situation in the country and for the image of the Council of Europe as a body which promotes and protects human rights.

Upcoming UN reviews of Azerbaijan

Now the stage is set for another showdown between Azerbaijan and an international organisation, as two key UN bodies are set to review human rights practices in Azerbaijan. On 30 April, Azerbaijan will undergo its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR is a state-led process in which the human rights records of all UN Member States are examined every four and half years. The last review of Azerbaijan took place in 2009.

Azerbaijan will then be examined by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) on 3 May. The CESCR is a treaty-based body of the UN comprised of independent experts, tasked with examining countries’ implementation of their obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This is Azerbaijan’s third review by the CESCR; the last took place in 2004.

Although the UN is not generally considered to have the strongest influence over Azerbaijan, these upcoming reviews have taken on added significance in light of the government’s rapidly deteriorating relations with other international bodies.

Preparations for both reviews have been underway for some time, on the part of the examining bodies, but also the Azerbaijani government and NGOs working on human rights issues in the country. 

The state’s reports for the reviews describe a situation very different from the on-ground realities, claiming that Azerbaijan has been making progress towards achieving its human rights commitments. For example, the national report for the UPR touts the mere existence of a National Action Programme on human rights as a major achievement, ignoring the fact that some key provisions of the Programme – such as decriminalisation of defamation – have not been implemented.

In contrast, reports submitted by international and Azerbaijani NGOs for the reviews describe a government that has demonstrated intolerance to all forms of dissent, and is engaged in a vicious crackdown to silence critical voices in the country. The NGO reports expose a failure by the Azerbaijani government to have implemented many of the key recommendations made by the Human Rights Council during the first UPR of Azerbaijan in 2009.

Representatives of several Azerbaijani NGOs – the Human Rights Club, the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, and the Legal Education Society – outlined their concerns at a UPR pre-session on 27 March in Geneva. The event, which was the first public discussion of the upcoming review of Azerbaijan, was attended by approximately 30 country delegations, including Azerbaijan itself.

The statements made by the NGO representatives were damning, highlighting extensive violations of the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of association. They pointed to widespread politically motivated arrests, use of excessive force against peaceful protesters, a cycle of violence against journalists and impunity for their attackers, increased pressure against independent NGOs, and acts of retaliation against human rights defenders, among other violations. 

A report submitted by the Human Rights Club for the CESCR review also revealed violations of property rights and the right to freedom of artistic expression in the country, including illegal practices of forced evictions and arrests and other forms of pressure against artists whose work is critical of the government.

What remains to be seen is how UN Member States and the CESCR will address these violations, and how the Azerbaijani government will respond. Azerbaijan rejected many of the recommendations made during the 2009 UPR, and failed to implement many of the recommendations it did accept. 

The government should approach the upcoming reviews in a more positive manner, viewing them as an opportunity for constructive feedback on how to improve the human rights situation in the country. After all, Azerbaijan did take these commitments upon itself in joining the UN and in acceding to the ICESCR. 

Regardless of how the Azerbaijani government responds, other countries should use the UPR as an opportunity to take a stance on the serious on-going human rights violations in the country. Strong and specific recommendations are needed to increase pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfil its international obligations before an already dire situation becomes even worse.

Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.

You can follow Rebecca on Twitter @rebecca_vincent