(London) – The Steering Committee of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a voluntary initiative promoting government transparency and accountability – decided on June 28, 2017 to extend Azerbaijan’s “inactive” status in the initiative for another year. Publish What You Pay (PWYP), ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS, and Human Rights Watch said the decision was a positive step and an indication of the OGP’s strong commitment to protecting civic space as an essential part of promoting open government.
The OGP Steering Committee declared Azerbaijan’s membership inactive on May 4, 2016. It was the first time the committee had made a member country inactive.
The OGP Steering Committee acknowledged that the Azerbaijani government had made limited progress in reducing some of the regulatory impediments preventing civil society organizations from operating freely. But the committee again highlighted the serious problems in the authorities’ treatment of civil society and called on the government of Azerbaijan to undertake meaningful and substantive reforms to regain full membership. The decision gives Azerbaijan 12 months to work with the OGP Steering Committee and its Support Unit, local civil society, and external partners to address fundamental legislative and practical obstacles to civil society organizations’ participation generally and influence in Azerbaijan’s OGP Action Plan.
For years, Azerbaijan has systematically dismantled the country’s once vibrant civil society through the arrests and convictions of many activists, human rights defenders, and journalists on bogus politically motivated charges. As well as by adopting laws and regulations restricting the activities of independent groups and their ability to secure independent funding.
Some of the restrictions the government imposes are noted in the OGP Steering Committee decision. For example, government regulations require groups to register grants, and authorities have discretion to arbitrarily deny grant registration. The regulations also require a positive assessment from the Finance Ministry for each grant from a foreign donor, and require foreign donors to get permission from the government to make a grant. The government has frozen bank accounts of several human rights groups.
In addition, the authorities pursue politically motivated criminal prosecutions against activists. In recent weeks Azerbaijani authorities have also blocked websites of some media outlets critical of the government, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Voice of America, and Meydan Tv.
“We believe open government cannot be achieved without an active citizenry that is free to associate and has access to publicly available government data and information, the four organizations said. The OGP Steering Committee decision gives Azerbaijan a chance to renew its commitment to the principles of open and accountable government. Until and unless that happens, the OGP and the international community should continue to pressure Azerbaijan to release prisoners arrested on politically motivated charges, end the systematic harassment of government critics, and ensure that laws regulating civil society are brought in line with international standards.”
The OGP Steering Committee decision to declare Azerbaijan inactive followed a process set in motion by a policy the OGP adopted in 2014 to deal with concerns about restrictions on civic space in participating countries. Together with CIVICUS, and Article 19, PWYP decided to invoke the policy and submitted the first letter of concern in March 2015 to call out the Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on civil society, which started with the adoption of restrictive legislation regulating nongovernmental organizations and their funding.
The 2016 decision reflected the OGP Steering Committee’s recognition that government restrictions had seriously hampered Azerbaijani civil society from effectively promoting government transparency and accountability.
The 2016 decision gave the Azerbaijani government one year to implement reforms to restore an enabling environment for civil society. During that year, it received continuous support from the OGP Steering Committee and Support Unit but was excluded from high level meetings. By prolonging this period of “inactivity,” the OGP Steering Committee is giving Azerbaijan another year to implement meaningful reforms that will improve the operating environment for civil society organizations. However, Azerbaijan could be re-instated as a full member much earlier if it decides to make headway on OGP recommendations that will be elaborated in the coming month. In April the Azerbaijani government decided to leave the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), after the organization’s board suspended Azerbaijan for failing to ensure an enabling environment for civil society and reform the laws shackling the country’s non-governmental groups. “We hope that OGP would remain a space for collaboration between civil society and the government” the groups said.
ARTICLE 19 is an international non-governmental organization, working on freedom of expression and information at the international, regional and national levels.
CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is an international alliance of civil society at the local, national, regional and international levels, dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world.
Publish What You Pay (PWYP) is a global network of civil society organizations that are united in their call for an open and accountable extractive industry that contributes to improving the lives of women, men and youth in resource-rich countries.
Human Rights Watch is a global human rights organization that documents and exposes human rights abuses around the world.