Azerbaijan is set to celebrate what it will tout as a milestone in transparency and openness this week. It would be more convincing if it didn’t come in the middle of an intense campaign to silence its critics.
This Thursday, the government of President Ilham Aliyev will host an international conference in Baku to mark the 10thanniversary of the country’s role as a founder of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). EITI is an international effort to disclose data on oil, gas and mining profits as a way to discourage corruption and encourage public debate. A key aim of EITI is to promote “the principle and practice of accountability by government to all citizens” for the use of public funds. In 2011, Azerbaijan also joined the separate Open Government Partnership, an initiative designed to promote civic engagement and participation in government generally.
The reality is that while Azerbaijan touts its transparency credentials to international audiences, it employs harsh tactics against those in the country who challenge the government’s record on corruption or other sensitive topics.
The past 18 months have seen a string of arrests of journalists, political opponents and civil society activists in Azerbaijan on bogus charges. Just last week authorities raided the home of yet another journalist and arrested him for alleged weapons possession. He has been detained without access to a lawyer or his family since his September 17 arrest.
In recent months the government also has broken up peaceful protests and passed a spate of regressive laws that restrict civil society and impede access to information. A leading investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, has been subjected to a smear campaign, most recently in a newspaper associated with the ruling party, in retaliation for her anti-corruption reporting. The multi-pronged clampdown has continued in the lead-up to presidential elections scheduled for October 9, when President Aliyev will seek a third term.
The ongoing repression in Azerbaijan showcases why international transparency initiatives need to take human rights into account. Meaningful transparency and improved governance are hard to achieve when a government’s critics are languishing in jail.