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(New York) – The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a prominent international coalition, on October 26, 2016, declined to restore Azerbaijan’s full membership status in the organization, Human Rights Watch said today. EITI gave the government four months to reform its laws shackling civil society or face suspension.

At its meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, EITI’s board found that Azerbaijan had not made satisfactory progress on meeting the initiative’s standards for fostering a free environment for independent groups, and outlined further steps that the government needs to take before the next board meeting in April 2017.  

An Azerbaijan state flag on an oil platform in the Caspian Sea east of Baku, January 22, 2013.  © 2013 Reuters

“The Azerbaijani government has spared no effort to dismantle independent groups, so it’s no surprise that EITI didn’t restore its status,” said Giorgi Gogia, South Caucasus director at Human Rights Watch. “Now it’s up to the government to enact meaningful reform and it’s up to its international partners to make sure it happens.”

The EITI brings together 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. The EITI requires the governments to foster “an enabling environment for civil society” and to “refrain from actions which result in narrowing or restricting public debate in relation to implementation of the EITI.”

In April 2015, as the government was in the midst of a sweeping crackdown on independent groups and activists, the EITI board downgraded Azerbaijan’s status in the initiative and issued a list of steps the government had to take to have its status restored. These included ensuring that nongovernmental groups involved in EITI could freely access and use funding to carry out their work, and be able to speak freely about natural resource governance without threat of reprisals.

The Azerbaijani government has been engaged in systematic efforts to undermine activists and independent organizations, Human Rights Watch said. In a new report, Human Rights Watch documented government prosecution of leaders of nongovernmental groups, and new draconian laws and regulations that make it virtually impossible for critical independent groups to operate, particularly for those working on human rights, transparency, and government accountability.

Even after the EITI downgraded Azerbaijan, its government continued to adopt new restrictive laws and regulations, requiring both donors and grantees to separately obtain government approval of each potential grant and giving the authorities broad discretion to deny the approvals. As a result, many groups have had to downsize, suspend their activities, and even close.

In the lead up to the EITI board decision, the Azerbaijani government took some limited positive steps, unfreezing bank accounts of some groups involved in the initiative and relaxing travel restrictions on some activists.

Several days before the board meeting, President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree tasking the government with simplifying some of the bureaucracy associated with the registration and operation of funding for nongovernmental groups, but leaving in place the government’s wide discretion to control these groups’ funding.

To avoid further sanction in the EITI, however, the Azerbaijani government has to substantially reform its domestic laws and policies, by easing the registration process for nongovernmental organizations and allowing them to receive foreign funding.

“It is going to take more than the change in form if Azerbaijan is serious about its EITI commitments,” Gogia said. “It has four months to ensure the change in substance by repealing restrictions on the registration and operation of nongovernmental groups.”

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