Helsinki Commission Briefing Discusses Declining Rule of Law & Civil Society in Azerbaijan

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By Danielle Saroyan

Armenian Agenda Associate Editor

On Thursday,
November 5, the Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe: U.S.
Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in
Azerbaijan,
” with Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL)
presiding. Panelists included former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard
Morningstar (2012-2014), International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Vice President
Natalia Bourjaily, and Dinara Yunus, the daughter of falsely imprisoned
Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus. Helsinki Commission
Policy Advisor for Economics, Environment, Technology and Trade Shelly Han
moderated the panel.

The briefing
took place a few days after the parliamentary election in Azerbaijani. Han
noted that the results were no surprise since the votes had nothing to do with
the election. “The outcome was determined well before Election Day, when the
majority of opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, when there
was no mechanism for debate on television, when voters didn’t feel free to sign
petitions for candidates that they supported, and when election monitors faced
intimidation or, as in the case of Anar Mammadli, sit in jail,” Han said during
her opening remarks.

Azerbaijan has
come under rightful criticism for its election process after refusing to meet minimum
standards for the election, such as international observers present during the
vote, and has consistently failed to do so under the authoritarian regime of Ilham
Aliyev. In a U.S. Press Statement by Office of Press Relations Director Elizabeth
Trudeau
, she points out that the Government of Azerbaijan did not allow the
OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) to field its
necessary number of observers or monitor the election. “We continue to have
concerns about the restrictive political environment in Azerbaijan and urge the
Government of Azerbaijan to respect the freedoms of peaceful assembly,
association, and independent voices including the media as part of its
international commitments, and to work with the OSCE, including ODIHR, to this
end,” the statement read.

Ambassador
Morningstar spoke about Azerbaijan’s choice to voluntarily join international
organizations which require free and fair elections. “Azerbaijan is a member of
the Council of Europe.  They are a member
of OSCE.  So they have obligated
themselves to comply with various standards,” Ambassador Morningstar pointed
out.

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The U.S. is
among many who expect Azerbaijan to improve their elections process and basic human
rights record. According to Morningstar, U.S. and Azerbaijan relations have
been deteriorating in recent years, due to two major factors due to their vast
oil and gas reserves. “The first has been continuing human rights issues,
particularly since the presidential election in October 2013, and the United
States criticism of the Azerbaijani government.
And second, the lack of progress towards a settlement of the long-standing
dispute over Nagorno Karabakh,” Ambassador Morningstar said. “Azerbaijan
believes that the United States should take stronger steps to bring about
resolution of the conflict,” he added.

Though
Ambassador Morningstar agrees that the U.S. should do everything it can to
prevent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia from escalating, he believes the
U.S. is in a tough position by trying to maintain good relations with
Azerbaijan. “At the same time, it’s important that the United States makes
clear that it fully respects Azerbaijan’s independence and sovereignty and our
goal is not to change the government, but that we do have values and that [from]
a pragmatic standpoint Azerbaijan will have more stability by breathing oxygen
into civil society, and not to take abusive actions that are wholly unnecessary
and only serve to create antagonism in the relationship,” Ambassador Morningstar
explained.

Civil
society and human rights in Azerbaijan continues to get worse, which led to a Freedom
House
ranking for Azerbaijan as “Not Free” since 2004. In 2012, according to
Bourjaily, she has witnessed “emerging deterioration of legislation affecting
civil society organizations.” Bourjaily described the difficult and hostile
environment for NGOs in Azerbaijan, making it nearly impossible to accept
foreign donations or funds. Azerbaijan is the only nation in the region which requires
foreign organizations to first formally register their offices in Azerbaijan in
order to give grants. Then, both the donor grant approval and also the approval
of grants is not seen anywhere in Western and Central Europe or the United
States. “Such a three-stage system is nonexistent anywhere,” says Bourjaily.
This process prevents human rights NGOs, whether based in Baku or from another
country, from doing substantial work in Azerbaijan. Instead, human rights
defenders are trying their best to do the same work as civil society organizations,
but end up imprisoned like Leyla and Arif Yunus.

“It seems
like this is a throwback to, you know, perhaps the Stalin era, and certainly
not a development that we would want to see in a democratic country,” Han said.

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Leyla and
Arif Yunus are being psychologically and physically tortured for trying to
improve civil society in Azerbaijan. Examples of their efforts include reporting
on the illegal demolition of 70,000 Baku citizens’ homes during the 2012
Eurovision song contest, protecting basic rights of assembly, composing a list
of political prisoners, and creating a website which brought together members
of civil societies of Azerbaijan and Armenia to negotiate future stability in
the region.

“My parents
are being punished for their human rights work. They’ve been in human rights
for 30 years,” Dinara Yunus said. “They are charged with now is economical –
trumped-up economical charges, like illegal entrepreneurship front, illegal
business. And there is also treason charge that is sent to another court,” says
Dinara.

After hearing
Yunus speak about her parents, Ambassador Morningstar asked, “What is the
Azerbaijani government gaining from the Yunuses being in jail, other than
creating difficulties in their relationships with the United States and with
other Western countries?  I mean, to me
it seems counterproductive.” Ambassador Morningstar believes that if Azerbaijan
takes more steps towards progress with respect to human rights and NGOs, then
by the end of the day the government would gain more stability, rather than less.

Comparing
the discussion on Azerbaijan’s human rights from the Senate Human Rights Caucus
before the election to the Helsinki Commission briefing afterward, there is
little variance. Without fundamental human rights, including freedom of press,
right to assembly, and NGO work, an election cannot be considered free and
fair. By not adhering to agreed-upon rules with OSCE or any other international
organization to monitor the voting process, Azerbaijan labels itself as an
authoritarian government who disregards Western democratic values and impedes
civil rights. As more “enemies of the state” and political prisoners are being
arrested, civil society will continue to be marginalized. There seems to be no
evidence that Azerbaijan will work towards improving their human rights record
by the next election.

About Armenian Assembly of America

Established in 1972, the Armenian Assembly of America is the largest Washington-based nationwide organization promoting public understanding and awareness of Armenian issues. The Assembly is a non-partisan, 501(c)(3) tax-exempt membership organization.
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