Tuesday

17th Sep 2019

Opinion

EU downgrades human rights in Azerbaijan

  • Mogherini (c) and Aliyev (l): Does Europe really need his gas that much? (Photo: eeas.europa.eu)

The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, just visited Azerbaijan, an oil-rich, former Soviet state with a spectacularly terrible human rights record.

Her visit could have been an important milestone for human rights in Azerbaijan if she had made clear that releasing everyone detained on politically motivated charges is a key EU condition for deeper political and economic ties. But her approach satisfied no one who cares about people’s rights.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

Plummeting oil and gas prices have significantly hurt Azerbaijan, which previously had the world’s fastest growing economy thanks to its hydrocarbon wealth. In the current context, the country and its leadership obviously have a lot to gain from increased business relations with the EU.

Azerbaijan’s other profound crisis concerns human rights.

It’s not like president Ilham Aliyev’s government had a clean human rights record before 2013, but in the last two years there have been systematic and relentless government efforts to crush independent voices.

The government has imprisoned human rights leaders, political critics, bloggers, and the like on politically motivated charges and stifled independent media. Many of those who survived prison decided to leave the country.

While there has been a rollback against human rights in many countries in the region, the crackdown in Azerbaijan is remarkable because it has been so swift and thorough.

However, during her two-day visit to the capital, Baku, last week Mogherini only made a few vague public comments referring to rights, giving a strong impression that one of Europe’s harshest crackdowns on civil liberties is not an EU priority.

She spoke generally of “the high importance that the European Union attaches to the respect for human rights.” She also said that during her meeting with Aliyev she had “referred to a number of individuals presently in jail.”

But she had said the day before that “differences will remain between us in some areas…. If differences are normal, we must keep in mind that our shared interests exceed by far our differences.”

The concern is that this is the only message on human rights the Azerbaijani leadership took from Mogherini’s visit.

Among those behind bars are Rasul Jafarov, a human rights campaigner who was sentenced last year to more than six years in prison.

A leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, who exposed corruption by high-ranking government officials, was sentenced in September to seven and a half years of prison.

Ilgar Mammadov, a prominent political analyst, was arrested in 2013 after he announced he would challenge Aliyev in the October 2013 elections and was sentenced to seven years later that year after a grossly unfair trial.

On the same day, the opposition political leader Tofiq Yagublu was sentenced to seven and a half years. And the list goes on.

Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s most outspoken human rights defenders, and her husband, Arif, were sentenced in August 2015 to multiple years in prison on spurious charges.

They were transferred to house arrest at the end of 2015, but their luck stops there. Both had serious health problems that worsened during their time in prison. The authorities have refused to allow them to leave the country to get much-needed treatment abroad.

Activists who are not in jail or have not fled the country are being threatened by Azerbaijan’s NGO laws - among the most restrictive in Europe - which effectively block access to foreign funding and allows the government to excessively interfere with their work.

In December, the Council of Europe’s secretary general opened a rare inquiry into Azerbaijan’s failure to carry out the European Court of Human Rights’ rulings.

The European Parliament adopted, last September, a resolution calling for the negotiations for a Strategic Partnership Agreement with Azerbaijan to “be immediately put on hold as long the government fails to take concrete steps in advancing respect for universal human rights.”

You would expect no less from the EU’s highest diplomat.

If human rights are truly at the center of the EU’s foreign policy, as set out in black and white in key EU documents, then what mandate does she have to ignore this?

Just three years ago, Azerbaijan’s disrespect for fundamental rights was still a good enough reason for the European Union to question the enhanced cooperation sought by Aliyev.

But now the message he received from the EU could not be clearer: the politically motivated detentions of dozens of critics and rights activists and the government’s blatant disregard for freedom of expression and association are just “normal differences.”

They’re certainly not a problem for business as usual.

One can’t help thinking that Azerbaijani activists might have seen in Mogherini’s visit proof that the EU disregards their fate as a marginal issue.

EU diplomats in Baku will have to explain to unjustly imprisoned activists and their families how come Mogherini’s private chat with Alyiev and her boiler plate remarks was the best that Europe could do.

Philippe Dam is Europe and Central Asia advocacy director with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

News in Brief

  1. German top lawmaker scolds Bettel over Johnson snub
  2. Greens decide on Tuesday on talks on Five Star joining
  3. Belgian mayors give Juncker a tongue-lashing
  4. Von der Leyen defends 'way of life' slogan
  5. Court hears case on UK's pre-Brexit parliament shutdown
  6. Nato rings alarm on Gulf 'escalation'
  7. Luxembourg mockery of British leader sparks 'anger'
  8. Majority of Belgians against excluding Vlaams Belang

Defending the defenders: ombudsmen need support

Ombudsmen are often coming under attack or facing different kinds of challenges. These can include threats, legal action, reprisals, budget cuts or a limitation of their mandate.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. Defending the 'European way of life' name splits MEPs
  2. Hungary claims EU 'witch-hunt' over rule of law hearing
  3. Trumpworld In Europe
  4. How EU firms and banks help fund Amazon fires
  5. Amazon fires mean EP must rethink Mercosur trade deal
  6. EU must give full support to Ukraine to dissuade Kremlin
  7. EU divided on how to protect rule of law
  8. Nordic region to become world's most sustainable and integrated

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us