Azerbaijan wrapped up its chairmanship on November 13 of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, one of the continent’s leading human rights organizations. Civil society activists used the occasion to lob verbal brickbats at Baku, assailing the Azerbaijani government for accelerating a domestic crackdown on dissent during its tenure at the helm in Strasbourg.
Azerbaijan took over as chair of the Committee of Ministers, the Council of Europe’s executive arm and decision-making body, back in May. Over the course of its six-month term, authorities in Baku bullied and imprisoned scores of local journalists and rights advocates, jailing some of the country’s most prominent civil society figures, including Leyla and Arif Yunus, on what watchdog groups contend are trumped-up, politically motivated charges.
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov attended a ceremony in Strasbourg on November 13 marking the transfer of the chairmanship from Azerbaijan to Belgium. He also presented an assessment of Azerbaijan’s performance as the committee chair. A document posted on the Council of Europe’s website, titled “Stocktaking of the Azerbaijani Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe,” said that “Azerbaijan deployed considerable efforts in furthering the objectives of the Council of Europe around its three key pillars – human rights, rule of law and democracy.”
Such an assertion raised hackles among civil society activists. In a commentary distributed by the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, Giorgi Gogia, a senior researcher for the organization, highlighted the dichotomy between Baku’s words and actions on rights-related matters.
“It can be said without exaggeration that Azerbaijan’s tenure represented an assault on the institution and everything it [the Council of Europe] stands for,” Gogia wrote. “It [Baku] also failed to implement [a European Court of Human Rights] judgment finding Azerbaijan in violation of the European Convention for imprisoning an opposition activist on politically motivated charges.”
Meanwhile, rights groups and activists belonging to two regional networks, the Human Rights House Network and the South Caucasus Network of Human Rights Defenders, addressed an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev, detailing government rights abuses and calling for immediate changes.
“We specifically call upon you [Aliyev] to immediately and unconditionally release all civil society actors currently detained due to their engagement in human rights activities and for raising critiques against Azerbaijan’s authorities,” the letter stated.
Another rights network called the Civic Solidarity Platform released a video that urges policymakers in European Union member states to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its rights violations.
“We believe they can take a much harsher stance on Azerbaijan's deteriorating human rights record and not let it get away with a severe crackdown on critical voices inside the country,” Andrai Aliaksandrau, a Civic Solidarity Platform representative, said in an email interview. “It is a disgrace Azerbaijan used its chairmanship … not to improve its human right record, but, on the contrary, to jail activists and journalists and to get further away from international standards of democracy and rule of law.”