Two London clubs – Chelsea and Arsenal – will compete in the Europa League football final in Azerbaijan at the end of May. As players and thousands of fans prepare to descend on the capital, Baku, the country’s authoritarian leaders expect to win their own public relations game: to whitewash their image.
Besides high ticket prices and concerns over Azerbaijan’s handling of so many visiting fans, the British press is appropriately focusing on human rights. The i newspaper notes the government’s “appalling” rights record and points out that Azerbaijan is ranked 166th out of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index, The paper says Football Supporters Europe has flagged the “repressive atmosphere” for fans and the government’s “extremely poor record on LGBT rights.’’
Azerbaijan’s approach to human rights helps us understand why it wants to host the final. Its leaders love such mega-sporting events – it also hosts annual Formula One races, and held the European Games, a mini-Olympics, in 2015 – because they hope to polish their self-image as a prosperous oil-rich country and deflect international criticism over their repressive rule.
Azerbaijan craves the international spotlight. So why not turn it back onto the government itself? Let’s raise our expectations that Azerbaijan might actually live up to its commitments to the United Nations and the Council of Europe. Let’s demand that journalists from inside and outside the country can report freely without fearing jail. And let’s expect that people joining peaceful protests near the stadium or elsewhere won’t be attacked and rounded up by police.
Human Rights Watch has long urged the UK and other governments to look beyond Azerbaijan’s self-promotion and to use the question “are human rights improving for ordinary people?” as a key measure of progress.
Following your passion for sport is always tricky when the events take place in countries with bad human rights records. Sadly, there are plenty of Azerbaijani activists who won’t be able to watch the game in person because they are in jail or have fled the country.
But we can still hope it’s a good match, that the best team wins… and that Azerbaijan feels the glare of international attention and uses that to do some good for a change.