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When 50 world leaders roll into town this week for the Nuclear Security Summit, road closures won’t be the biggest headache they cause in Washington. Figuring out how to work in partnership on important security issues while making clear to some of the more abusive leaders in attendance that their human rights violations have to end will be the real challenge. Let’s hope the Obama administration takes up that challenge when President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan shows up.

Azerbaijan stands out as one of the more “successful” of the former Soviet states. Oil-rich and situated between Iran and Russia, Azerbaijan has been a critical partner for the US, providing overflights and ground transportation approvals for US and other NATO troops to Afghanistan, and providing significant intelligence and security-related information to the US. Azerbaijan is on the Caspian Sea, so its oil and gas can be transported to Europe without going through Russia.

Members of Journalists Without Borders protest against Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev during his visit to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in front of the Chancellery in Berlin, January 21, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

A secular Muslim country and early supporter of the US response to the September 11 attacks, Azerbaijan received “most favored nation” trade status. US investment is encouraged, and members of Congress demonstrated their support by forming the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus and traveling to Baku - on at least one occasion was not without scandal.

But in the last few years, Azerbaijan has harshly cracked down on human rights defenders and other government critics, including independent journalists and lawyers, which the US has struggled to come to terms with. In December 2014, the offices of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty were raided and sealed shut. Since 2009, their ability to broadcast had been limited to the Internet. Dozens of lawyers, journalists, and activists have faced politically motivated spurious charges, and many have received long prison sentences. Those lucky enough to have escaped prison so far face harassment and other persecution; often their families do too.

Azerbaijan has tried to shield itself from international scrutiny, denying entry to the country to international human rights monitors and some journalists. The government closed down the Baku office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights canceled its plan to send observers to Azerbaijan’s 2015 parliamentary elections, citing Azerbaijan’s restrictions on the number of observers it would permit.

Despite these developments, you could be forgiven for thinking that the US-Azeri alliance remained undeterred. Instead of using its leverage to influence its close ally, the US has spoken out about some of the arrests - usually from Washington - while still conducting high-level visits to Baku that largely involve praising the close relationship between the two countries.

Things are not static for Azerbaijan. With falling oil prices, it has begun talks with the International Monetary Fund, which may eventually lead to a request for financial support. It is also seeking substantial project financing from the World Bank and regional development banks. And many of its non-US international partners have not remained silent about its brutal crackdown. 

Statements from key international actors demanding release of political prisoners may finally be making a difference. These include the European Parliament; governments (including the US) and most EU states in a 2015 Human Rights Council statement; Congressman Chris Smith, who introduced a bill proposing sanctions for the crackdown; and the Council of Europe’s secretary general and human rights commissioner. But the US statements are few and far between, and more is needed - particularly from the executive branch - to make clear that the status quo on Baku is unacceptable.

Likely in part because of these clear and unambiguous demands for release, Aliyev signed a decree for this month’s Nowruz holiday, pardoning 148 prisoners, including 14 journalists, human rights defenders and activists prosecuted on politically motivated charges. Also on March 28, the Supreme Court ordered conditional release of a human rights lawyer Intigam Aliyev, who spent 19 months behind bars on politically motivated charges.

But other outspoken activists remain imprisoned, including the political analyst Ilgar Mammadov and Azerbaijan’s prominent investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova, who had worked for Voice of America in Washington. Moreover, authorities have continued to refuse to allow Azerbaijan’s most outspoken human rights defenders, Leyla and Arif Yunus, to leave the country for much-needed medical treatment, in spite of their transfer to house arrest late last year.

The recent pardons tell us Azerbaijan is not impervious to international influence. Aliyev’s invitation to the summit was widely reported in Azerbaijan as an example of the close relationship between the countries. All the more reason for the US to persuade Aliyev to release the remaining political prisoners. But releases are not enough. The legal architecture of the crackdown remains in place, leaving rights defenders and activists vulnerable. Regressive amendments that restrict freedom of expression, assembly, and association should be repealed. And an important signal of a change in approach would be to allow Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to reopen in Baku.

It is a harsh reality that the US needs to work with governments of all stripes to maintain US security. But not at any cost. As Robert Cekuta, the US ambassador to Azerbaijan, noted, a legitimate partnership requires honesty, and there is simply no excuse for the US to remain muted in the face of Azerbaijan’s human rights emergency. Yes, Obama should have Aliyev at the table this week, but only if he is also prepared to send a definitive message that US support is not unconditional. In his public meeting with Aliyev on March 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry made no mention of human rights. The Nowruz pardons are good, but only a first step. Washington should publicly demand that Azerbaijan act like the democracy it claims to be.

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