May 14 marks a new low in European cynicism: Azerbaijan, a country ruled by an authoritarian government, which in recent years has stifled a free press and muzzled free speech, is assuming the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers, the organization’s decision-making body.
Let’s not forget that the Council of Europe (CoE) is supposed to be an organization devoted to promoting human rights and democratization. It is a travesty that a country which disdains fundamental European values is now leading the Council.
Azerbaijan was admitted to the CoE in January 2001, despite well documented democratic shortcomings. The hope at that time was that CoE membership would exert a positive influence on Baku, pressing Azerbaijani leaders to embrace a more open system. However, the opposite has occurred: over the last decade Baku’s democratization performance has steadily declined, and Azerbaijan finds itself routinely at the bottom of many rankings compiled by watchdog groups concerning political freedom, corruption and rights abuses.
The most galling aspect of Azerbaijan’s chairmanship is that its government has failed to meet most of its major CoE accession obligations. Those commitments obliged Azerbaijan, among others, to release or grant new trials to political prisoners identified by human rights organizations; guarantee freedom of expression and independence of the media; and amend rules and regulations regarding registration and appeal procedures for public associations.
Almost all of the reforms that were promised back in 2001 have failed to materialize and there is a marked decline in civil and political rights. To silence government critics, Azerbaijani authorities now rely on a “revolving door” tactic, in which the targets of harassment are arrested, released and then re-arrested shortly afterwards. Just in past one year, Azerbaijani authorities have arrested dozens of several high-ranking members of opposition political parties, human rights defenders, youth activists and journalists on trumped up or politically motivated charges. Elections are rigged, corruption is rampant and the judiciary is subservient to the executive branch.
The Monitoring Committee of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), the body in charge of monitoring Azerbaijan’s progress in meeting its accession commitments, has produced eight reports assessing Azerbaijan since its accession. These reports have repeatedly highlighted glaring failures and a never-ending array of rights violations. In a recent report, Nils Muiznieks, the CoE’s Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern about “the apparent intensification of … unjustified and selective criminal prosecution of people expressing dissenting views, including journalists, bloggers and activists.” Other criticism included restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly, association, and property rights.
Today, many in Azerbaijan question the organization’s role in assisting Azerbaijan's transition to democracy. They wonder how, in light of their government’s abysmal rights record, its continues to be a member in good standing of the CoE, whose sole purpose is to ensure the protection of human rights, and hold governments to account when they are violated.
Azerbaijan’s crackdown on civil society activists has occurred in full view of the CoE. The Council has chosen mostly to avert its eyes to violations. True, the CoE has made stern statements on many occasions, but it has never backed its words with substantive action. It has stood by as President Ilham Aliyev’s administration has tightened its authoritarian grip over society and politics.
The Azerbaijani government uses the CoE membership as a badge of legitimacy. It should not be allowed continue to claim that its membership is proof of its democratization aspirations, particularly when it continues to ignore the core principles on which the CoE was founded.
To regain its credibility in the eyes of Azerbaijanis, as well as of many outside Azerbaijan, the CoE should not only become more vocal about Baku’s democratization failings, but adopt measures designed to make the Aliyev administration change its ways. Authorities in Baku should be made to understand that its efforts to eliminate all government criticism are simply not acceptable in a modern and democratic state.
Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of the CoE ministerial committee offers opportunities to exert pressure on Baku. As a key part of its dialogue with Baku, the CoE should insist on the immediate release of those languishing in jails on politically motivated charges, and that poor rights record translates into real change for those suffering persecution at the hands of the Azerbaijani government.
Vugar Gojayev is a fellow at Human Rights Watch. He writes in his personal capacity.