Oil derricks are silhouetted against the rising sun on an oilfield in Baku, on January 24, 2013.

© 2013 Reuters

(New York) – BP should tackle a harsh government crackdown on independent groups and activists in Azerbaijan, Human Rights Watch said in a letter released today. The crackdown has seriously compromised an international natural resource transparency initiative in which the company plays a leading role. On September 20, 2014, BP and the government of Azerbaijan, a member of the same group, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), held a high-profile ceremony to mark the official start of a major new project to supply gas from Azerbaijan to Europe.

BP helps lead EITI, a coalition of governments, companies, and nongovernmental groups to encourage better governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used. BP is a founding member of the effort and currently serves as an alternate on its international governing board and the lead company on its national steering group in Azerbaijan. The initiative relies on the “multi-stakeholder” participation of governments, companies, and independent organizations at all levels, but the government of Azerbaijan is impeding the activities of independent groups, flouting its commitments as an EITI member.

“BP’s leadership role in a global coalition to promote transparency gives it a responsibility to uphold the initiative’s core principles of civic participation,” said Lisa Misol, senior business and human rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It should press Azerbaijan’s government to end its unprecedented crackdown on independent voices.”

The government of Azerbaijan has often highlighted its participation in EITI. It is a founding member of the initiative, currently sits on the EITI international board, and is rated as a “compliant” country.

Free and active civil society participation is a cornerstone of EITI. Rules for candidates and participating countries unequivocally require respect for fundamental freedoms.

But Azerbaijan is now using restrictive new laws regulating nongovernmental organizations and other tactics to try to silence independent groups, including leading groups participating in EITI. The government has cut off funding by freezing the bank accounts of organizations and their leaders arbitrarily and without recourse, and refusing them the authorization to register new grants. Authorities have also opened politically motivated investigations for alleged tax or other violations and employed other intimidation tactics.

In its September 12 letter to the company, Human Rights Watch called on BP to raise concerns about restrictions on activists both publicly and privately and to support calls for Azerbaijan to be suspended from participation in the transparency initiative until it stops targeting activists and independent groups.

BP has requested that its reply be treated as a private communication.

The EITI board is expected to discuss Azerbaijan and decide how to respond at the next board meeting, October 14-15, in Naypyidaw, Burma. A fact-finding mission by a delegation the EITI board sent to Azerbaijan to assess conditions for nongovernmental organizations was in Baku September 20-22 and is expected to report back to the board soon.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Jonas Moberg, the head of the initiative’s secretariat, said that if EITI determines that Azerbaijan is not adhering to the rules, the board could consider suspension when it meets.

“BP and other leaders of this prominent transparency initiative should not delay action to get Azerbaijan to change its course,” Misol said. “If they don’t send a clear message soon that the government’s intimidation and harassment of activists has to stop immediately, there may be no independent groups left to participate in the effort.”