August 30, 2014
Germany has spoken out about Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses in the past, such as ahead of Eurovision, and it should speak out again now. Ukraine, Iraq and other crises demand attention in Berlin, but Germany cannot risk ignoring events in Azerbaijan.

The government of Azerbaijan appears intent on convincing the world that the oil-rich country is a prosperous and important player on the international stage.

European television viewers may recall that Azerbaijan hosted the European Song Contest in May 2012. The glitzy show was marred by widely publicized forced evictions to make way for the contest venue, and other human rights abuses that preceded the event.  

Now Azerbaijan has reached another, more serious moment when its vision for the international prestige it craves is clashing with realities on the ground.  In the last few weeks two contrasting developments have shocked even the most hardened Azerbaijan watchers, who are used to the parallel world the Baku government projects.

On the one hand, the government intensified its already authoritarian crackdown on independent political and other public voices in Azerbaijan.  In the last two years the authorities have imprisoned at least 40 political activists, human rights defenders, journalists and others on various trumped-up charges, including drug possession, tax evasion, and even treason.

And in a dramatic escalation since late July, the government rounded up the country’s most senior human rights and other public figures, imprisoning  them on politically motivated charges. These include Leyla Yunus, the well-known director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy, and her husband, the historian Arif Yunus; Rasul Jafarov, chair of Azerbaijan’s Human Rights Club; and Intigam Aliyev, the highly respected chair of the Legal Education Society. All were part of a group compiling a comprehensive list of victims of politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan. Now they are on the list.

In addition, the government’s already tough restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organizations have been further tightened. Many groups have been effectively forced to shut down after their bank accounts were frozen or their sources of funding blocked.

On the other hand, Azerbaijan is making the most of new opportunities to boost its international profile. In a perverse twist, Azerbaijan in May assumed a prestigious position in Europe’s leading human rights body - the rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.  On June 24 President Ilham Aliev used his speech before the council’s Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg to deny any human rights problems and to call his critics liars. “We have freedom of political activity (and) freedom of assembly and association… in Azerbaijan” he said.

Moreover, Baku is preparing for the first European Olympic Games next June. Baku was the only bidder for the Games, which will provide new opportunities to showcase at least some sanitized aspects of life in Azerbaijan.   

Germany has spoken out about Azerbaijan’s human rights abuses in the past, such as ahead of Eurovision, and it should speak out again now.  Ukraine, Iraq and other crises demand attention in Berlin, but Germany cannot risk ignoring events in Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan’s oil wealth and geo-political role in the sensitive Caspian Sea region make it a potentially important partner for Berlin. Azerbaijan is Germany’s seventh-most-important oil supplier, while Germany is Azerbaijan’s most important European source of imports. Berlin also supports peace initiatives on the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, the autonomous enclave in Azerbaijan primarily populated by ethnic Armenians.

Yet partnership cannot work unless brazen human rights violations are addressed. Germany could take three immediate steps to show Baku that there will be no business as usual in diplomatic relations until those imprisoned on bogus, politically motivated charges are released, and the clampdown on civil society is lifted.

First, Berlin should raise its voice, bilaterally, through the EU, and in the Council of Europe over the crackdown in Azerbaijan. The EU in recent days expressed its “deep concern” about the “deterioration of. ..human rights” but Azerbaijan must grasp that consequences will follow unless it ends its rights abuses.  

Second, Berlin needs to identify those consequences and if necessary apply them. These could include, as a start, insisting that the European Commission freeze negotiations over a new EU “strategic modernization partnership” with Azerbaijan, and suspend co-operation with Baku in the Council of Europe.

Third, Germany should target Azerbaijan’s efforts to polish its international image. For example, Baku boasts about its membership of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an international coalition promoting government openness in natural resource management, even though it violates the coalition’s rules on ensuring the right for independent groups to operate and be heard.  Germany, which supports EITI, should add its voice to calls to suspend Azerbaijan’s EITI membership until its human rights record improves.  

Such steps would show Azerbaijan that it cannot be an important international player without respecting the fundamental human rights of its own citizens.  

Hugh Williamson is the Berlin-based director, Europe & Central Asia division, Human Rights Watch.