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Azerbaijan wins election to regulate NGO access to UN as crackdown mounts at home

Azerbaijan's Consultative relationship between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations set out in the UN Charter and Resolution 1996/31 is in jeopardy unless the Azerbaijani government changes its anti-NGO policy and stops harassing civil society groups at home, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS) said on 28 April 2014.

On the week of 21 April 2014, by acclamation, the UN elected Azerbaijan to its powerful 19-nation Committee on NGOs.

The move and its timing raise concern about the future transparency and fairness of the functions of the Committee. The Committee on NGOs makes recommendations to the UN's Economic and Social Council about the consultative status of NGOs, which is a requirement for their participation in many UN meetings. Azerbaijan, with its well-documented brutal crackdown on domestic and international NGOs at home, appears to be in a great position to restrict human rights NGOs access to the UN. It can also sabotage activities of human rights NGOs that currently enjoy consultative status. According to the Resolution 1996/31, the Committee may, inter alia “recommend to the Council suspension of or exclusion from consultative status of organizations that have not met the requirements for consultative status as set forth in the present resolution”.

In the recent years, Azerbaijani authorities have been stifling the development of civil society, in clear contrast of the country's international and legally bound obligations to foster conditions for non-state actors. Local and international NGOs working on democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan are increasingly becoming the target of government interference. This can take the form of harassment, or more seriously, of legal pressure. Critical NGOs face particular difficulty when attempting to register as official legal entities, often being repeatedly denied registration on claims of minor technical problems with their applications.

Here are just a few examples of why Azerbaijan should not be a member of the UN NGO Committee:

On April 23, the Baku Court on Grave Crimes started a trial in the case of human rights defender Anar Mammadli and two other NGO representatives, Bashir Suleymanli and Elnur Mammadov.

Anar Mammadli is a chairman of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDSC), a leading independent election monitoring group in Azerbaijan that has been observing elections in the country for more than 12 years. He has been in pre-trial detention since 16 December 2013 on suspicion of engaging in “tax evasion, illegal entrepreneurship, and abuse of office”. Mammadli's pre-trial detention is contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Azerbaijan is a party, which provides in article 9(3) that detaining persons prior to trial should not be the general rule.

The legal actions being carried out against Mammadli are in fact motivated by his fact-based criticism of 2013 presidential election. The EMDSC closely monitored the election and concluded that it was neither free nor fair. The organization documented extensive fraud on election day, as well as politically motivated arrests and prosecutions in the months before the vote. Other independent observers, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also found that the elections failed to meet international standards.

In December 2013, The Azerbaijani government took further steps to restrict freedom of association with the unexpected adoption of new amendments to legislation regulating the activities and registration of NGOs by the parliament. Azerbaijan adopted a set of draconian amendments restricting the activity of both local and international NGOs, which turned out similar to the bill adopted in its northern NGO-hostile neighbour, Russia.

On 10 March 2011, Human Rights House Azerbaijan, a part of the Oslo-based Human Rights House Network, was ordered to cease operations, without warning and despite the fact that the NGO had complied with all relevant legal requirements. Three years after, the Human Rights House Azerbaijan is still closed. The Baku office of the US-headquartered National Democratic Institute was also shut down several times for not having registration, despite the fact that it had applied for registration several times since 2006.

Recently, the government of Azerbaijan launched a series of raids on domestic and foreign NGOs across the country amid a wider crackdown on critics. Justified as tax and Ministry of Justice inspections, these raids are conducted on vague legal grounds are worrisome since they seem to be aimed at further undermining civil society in the country.

In addition to national and foreign NGOs, the NGOs operating in the regions of Azerbaijan are increasingly subject to harassment. The recent arrest of “Intelligent Citizen” Enlightenment Center NGO head Hasan Huseynli and the expulsion of his organization from its office premises is a clear indicator that the government of Azerbaijan does not want improvement of regional civil society.

The second Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the review by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families all pointed to serious shortcomings in Azerbaijan's implementation of its UN human rights commitments.

When examining the Azerbaijani government's implementation of the core human rights treaties, and its disregard for recommendations made by UN Special Procedures mandate holders, it becomes evident that Azerbaijan has failed to take its human rights commitments to the UN seriously.

Given Azerbaijan's new role in the UN, it is even more important now than ever to ensure that the Azerbaijani government is living up to and promoting core UN values, including human rights.

IRFS calls on the government of Azerbaijan to put an end to the pressures on the civil society and to ensure the freedom of association in compliance with its local and international obligations.

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