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

© 2013 Reuters

Lately it’s hard to avoid having “unprecedented” and Azerbaijan in the same sentence because of the government’s ever-harsher crackdown on critics. But today’s Azerbaijan news is unprecedented for another reason. Finally one of its international partners has made the government bear some consequences for its conduct.

That partner is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which promotes good governance of resource-rich countries by fostering open public debate about how oil, gas, and mining revenues are used.

Free and active civil society participation is a cornerstone of EITI, and members are expected to adhere to EITI rules, which require respect for fundamental freedoms.

Today the EITI board voted to downgrade Azerbaijan’s status in the group from compliant to a candidate country because of its failure to follow those rules. It’s the first time EITI has taken this step against any country, and it was richly deserved.

Azerbaijan frequently touts that it was a founder of EITI and in 2009 was the first country recognized as fully compliant with its rules. Yet since 2013, the Azerbaijani government’s concerted efforts to silence the country’s independent civil society has undermined its ability to effectively participate in EITI and compromised the initiative’s standards. The government has arrested and imprisoned dozens of activists, frozen the bank accounts of dozens of groups, and adopted new, highly restrictive laws on funding of independent groups.

In fact the government had made it so difficult to operate that many independent organizations involved in EITI had to suspend their activities, some closed down altogether, and some activists had to leave the country. In the wake of its EITI downgrade, the government can no longer claim to be a global leader on transparency.

With the EITI’s unprecedented decision, I can’t help thinking about Azerbaijan and another organization, the Council of Europe. It’s founded on human rights principles that Azerbaijan is flouting every day. Most of the country’s human rights leaders who had regularly spoken out at the Council of Europe about the crackdown in Azerbaijan are now behind bars, in exile, or in hiding. The Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner and the European Court of Human Rights have both within their own respective mandates passed damning judgments on Azerbaijani government repression, but the organization’s political bodies have resisted taking a strong principled position.

If Azerbaijan doesn’t take “corrective action” within a year, it risks suspension from EITI. I hope it will take the steps to merit having its EITI “compliant” status restored. Indeed, I hope the government goes much further to reverse the crackdown and undo the damage to its international reputation; it should immediately free the dozens of wrongly imprisoned activists who are paying with their freedom for Azerbaijan’s non-compliance.

That would be truly unprecedented