29 September 2014

Azerbaijani human rights activist and defender of the right to free and fair elections, Anar Mammadli, is the 2014 winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize.

This is a promising, fair, and even courageous decision by the jury members in charge of awarding this prize, for it also highlights a dramatic failure – by the very institution on whose behalf this prize is awarded, the Council of Europe (CoE).

It is imperative that the Council of Europe act now, following this strong signal. At the very least the following should happen immediately:

  • All activities of the Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Council of Europe should be boycotted or suspended until Anar Mammadli (winner of the 2014 the Havel Prize winner) and Ilgar Mammadov (former chair of Council of Europe School of Politics and, according to ECtHR, a political prisoner) are released. It is unacceptable that a Council of Europe chair is under serious suspicion of systematic repression.
  • The secretary general of the Council of Europe should appoint a panel of respected European judges to examine the list of Azerbaijani political prisoners and reports by eminent human rights organisations, and report back to the Committee of Ministers (CoM) of the Council of Europe and to PACE with their findings.
  • Members of the Committee of Ministers in the CoE should sternly warn Azerbaijan about its treatment of prisoners, and demand full and unconditional cooperation with international monitors, including full access for outsiders to visit prisoners, given the serious allegations of abuse.

Awarding Anar Mammadli with the Vaclav Havel prize is a strong signal and critical first step. But without further action by the Council of Europe, handing out an award is meaningless – and will definitely not save this institution’s soul. Recent months and this award have also made it obvious just how far the Committee of Ministers, PACE, and the Secretariat have diverged from their original mission to protect and ensure human rights.

The time to correct this is now.

Anar Mammadli

 

Background on why the Havel Prize 2014 was given to the right person

In recent months, it has become obvious that the Azerbaijani government has decided to finish, once and for all, any opposition in the country.

New NGO laws make the critical work of civil society organisation impossible. Dozens of NGOs have had their bank accounts frozen, including those with grants by the European Union. Staff members of human rights organisations are in prison, in hiding, or expecting criminal charges. International organisations such as Transparency International, Open Society Foundations, NED, NDI, IREX, etc. have not been spared in this onslaught. Reports and accounts of torture in jails are multiplying. Monitoring mechanisms have long since broken down. Recently, a UN team sent to investigate cases of torture had to cut its visit short due to obstruction by the Azerbaijani authorities.

It is obvious that the Aliyev regime expects to get away with all of this, emerging unscathed. The government in Baku ignores the occasional complaints, viewing them as no more than a nuisance, (a non-binding resolution in the European Parliament here, another report or statement from an NGO there). Azerbaijan’s government rests assured that when senior officials from Western Europe and the United States come to visit, the issue of human rights remains very low on their agenda.

In this regard, the failure of the mechanisms within the Council of Europe is particularly disheartening. Ever since PACE rejected the January 2013 resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan (See: Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013), all dams have burst:

  • There were the arrests of NIDA activists in 2013, who were detained for protesting violence against conscripts in the military. The young activists were sentenced to jail-terms of up to 8 years – on the very day Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014. (See: NIDA’s “Live not by Lies” Baku Court Speech – May 2014)
  • There was the arrest of Ilgar Mammadov, who was head of the Council of Europe School of Politics at the time of his arrest. Mammadov was sentenced to 7 years in prison in March this year. The fact that his case has been identified as a politically motivated by the ECtHR has not made any difference.
  • There was the arrest and sentencing of Anar Mammadli, the former advisor of the rapporteur on political prisoners, arrested just before the UK Foreign Secretary arrived in Baku in autumn 2013.
  • Then this past summer came the arrests of Leyla Yunus and Rasul Jafarov – the very people who coordinated Azerbaijan’s civil society to draw up a comprehensive list of political prisoners – despite the risk and despite lack of support from the Council of Europe. Almost immediately after releasing this list, Leyla, her husband, and Rasul were all arrested. (The list is a document of shame: www.esiweb.org/thelist)

These prominent arrests are only the tip of an iceberg. The government is blackmailing activists and journalists with sex tapes, pressuring their family members (who end up losing jobs or are threatened with arrest themselves), illegally seizing files related to cases brought to the ECtHR, and intimidating and threatening the few remaining lawyers who still take on political cases. And all of this is happening while Azerbaijan holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

Additionally, PACE appointed Spanish PP member Pedro Agramunt as the new rapporteur on political prisoners. Agramunt is a man who has solidified his reputation as an apologist for the government in Baku, speaking out and voting against the adoption of a standard definition of political prisoners, presented in 2012. (See: Showdown in Strasbourg: The political prisoner debate in October 2012). Agramunt also voted against a January 2013 resolution that would have addressed the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaiijan — a resolution that Anar Mammadli helped prepare. The appointment of Agramunt as rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan adds insult to injury. (See also: A Portrait of Deception. Monitoring Azerbaijan or why Pedro Agramunt should resign).

A debate on the recent wave of repression has emerged within the Committee of Ministers recently. However, there has been no serious reaction by member states in the CoM or by the secretariat. It seems that everyone is waiting for the end of the Azerbaijani chairmanship, hoping that by then the limited interest in Azerbaijan’s human rights record will dissipate completely.

Perhaps the government will even release one or two political prisoners (its carousel policy), and claim that the “mechanisms” of protection are indeed working. However, as long as the Aliyev government is allowed to continue its repression, it may eventually succeed in destroying one of the most courageous human rights movements in Europe. Furthermore, with the 2015 parliamentary elections – and another corrupt and unfair electoral process – the authoritarian consolidation will have been completed.

Will awarding Anar Mammadli the 2014 Vaclav Havel prize mark the point at which the Council of Europe becomes aware of what is actually occurring – the capture of an established European institution tasked with protecting human rights – and start changing? One can only hope so.

Ilham Aliyev

More reading on this crisis:

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Council of Europe — Gerald @ 2:08 pm
11 September 2014


She – they – deserve a prize from the EU. But which prize should it be?

Celebrate the courage of Euromaidan! Honor its activists! Support democratic Ukraine! Remind Europeans everywhere just how important events in the largest country of Eastern Europe are for the future of the continent.

These are all things the European Union and the European Parliament can and should do. They have many tools at their disposal to do so. But is giving the 2014 Sakharov Prize to Euromaidan, as the EPP, the largest political group in the European Parliament, has now proposed, the most effective tool to use?

There are good reasons to doubt that it is. These reasons have nothing to do with what happened in Ukraine in early 2014, but rather what is not happening in the EU now. Tens of thousands of Euro and a ceremony on TV is not the prize that Ukrainians have fought for, and will do little for them in this dark hour.

 

What is a real prize?

Let us first ask: what do Ukrainians need from the European Union today?

With their country under attack, their territory occupied, their people displaced and their soldiers locked in battle with Russian and Russian-backed forces, Ukrainian society hopes for substantive support from the EU – material, financial and moral. This includes credible and sustained sanctions against Russia, holding them accountable for the annexation of swaths of Ukrainian territory. It includes economic aid, assistance in coping with rising numbers of internally displaced and support for the cold winter that is looming. And, perhaps most important of all, it includes the promises made in Article 49 of the Treaties of the European Union: that once Ukraine meets the specified criteria, it might also have the chance to join the European Union, without any neighbouring country holding the right to veto. Just as the Baltics and Poland have.

It was in order to keep such a perspective alive that many Ukrainians risked their lives last winter, waving the blue European flag. To sustain the momentum of the Maidan protests, the Ukrainian people voted for political parties that promised to work towards a European future. During his inauguration, Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, again referred to the goals of Euromaidan. The European People’s Party also spoke of the movement’s vision, when it met in Dublin earlier this year.

This democratic vision is what the new European Parliament should be supporting today – through policy reform and concrete action. It is a vision that needs to be sold actively, both on the international stage and to European constituencies. The goals and ideals born out of Euromaidan need to be defended in the face of both indifference and skepticism. A strong restatement of this vision from the European Parliament – and meaningful and tangible support – would remind Ukrainians of what they are fighting for.

Of course, awarding a prize is much more simple than implementing palpable change.  Standing on a podium next to people who have already become global stars in their own right, is easy. Perhaps it is too easy. It appears as a gesture of solidarity, but it is one without substance. At a moment when Ukrainians feel abandoned by Europe, a prize and accolades are not likely to reassure them.

There are other, more effective steps that could be taken to support Euromaidan, instead of giving the Sakharov Prize. For instance, the European Parliament could recognize the efforts of the Ukrainian people by bestowing a real award – the lifting of visa requirements for all Ukrainians. This is something that would truly benefit the people of Ukraine, carrying a strong promise of future EU integration.

By contrast, a symbolic gesture by the new European Parliament, at a time when Ukraine is facing profound existential threats, is a substitute for real action. This is not the first time such empty gestures have been made on the part of the European Parliament, though. In 2011, the EP took the obvious step of giving the Sahkarov prize to the activists of the Arab uprisings. The prize raised the hopes of brave activists for sustained support from Europe as they, like the activists in Ukraine, faced a watershed moment in their countries. But these expectations were never fulfilled.

An Egyptian prize winner was asked in 2011: “What could the EU and EP do to support the transition to democracy in the Arab world?” She noted: “I am against any form of foreign intervention, but I think the EP should insist on the application of universal humanitarian laws.” Today, many of the Tahrir Square activists are in prison, their organisations banned. The only European country that reacted strongly to this repression was Turkey.

Another 2011 Sakharov Prize winner, from Libya, explained: “[The Sakharov Prize] will be of great help to me and the Libyan people, because this is the first time that a Libyan received such a prize. So if you help me to do my job properly, it will help the Libyan people.” Today, Libya is in chaos.

The Syrian activist, Razan Zaitouneh, was a recipient in 2011 as well. Then in hiding, Zaitouneh was a human rights lawyer who had created the blog, “”Syrian Human Rights Information Link” (SHRIL), (which has since been taken down). On her blog she publicly revealed murders and human rights abuses committed by the Syrian army and police. Zaitouneh is quoted as saying: “The most beautiful part of the Syrian revolution is the high spirits of the Syrian people, who turned the protests into carnivals of song, dancing and chants of freedom, despite the bullets, arrests and tanks.” Since then, millions of refugees have had to leave Syria – although it is not the European Union that has given them shelter. On 9 December 2013, Zaitouneh, along with three other Syrian activists were kidnapped east of Damascus, in the city of Duma.

It was an easy decision to award a prize to courageous Arab activists in 2011. It was much more difficult to find practical ways to protect them and uphold their ideals. Awarding the Sakharov Prize was a gesture that failed to meet the expectations of long-repressed populations – much like the Arab Spring itself.

 

Shining the spotlight of attention

Euromaidan was the central story in Europe in 2014. The people who led it – Mustafa Nayem, Ruslana Lyzhychko and others – will be featured heavily in any review of this year’s events. They are famous, and they deserve to be.

In other words, by awarding them a personal prize, the European Parliament will add little to what the media and European leaders have already said. It will not bring the change that is now needed in Ukraine – Euromaidan is past the point where paying lip service and attention to their cause will solve the problems their country is facing. It is similar to awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the first African-American president, right after he was elected. The White House suspected that the award was more about getting Obama to visit Oslo, than the achievements of a newly elected president. It certainly left the world – and human rights – unchanged. Is this really what human rights prizes are for?


Making a difference?

Alternatively, one should ask the question: what can awarding such a prize actually accomplish? Can – and should – the Sakharov Prize be used to make a real difference? Not just to the way we look at the past, but also to the future?

Today, human rights are under assault across Eastern Europe, from Russia to Azerbaijan. Ukrainian political prisoners have fortunately been released as a result of Euromaidan. But 2014 has also seen dozens of dissidents elsewhere become targets of persecution.

In Azerbaijan, there are dozens of activists in prison; not victorious, but languishing; not celebrated, but isolated and unknown to much of the world. They are there for defending the values of free speech – the core idea behind the Sakharov Prize. They are paying the price for protecting the European Convention of Human Rights, but remain largely ignored by democratic Europe.

By nominating these human rights defenders for the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament would celebrate the same values for which Ukrainians took to the streets. But it would also do something that has been difficult to achieve thus far. Something that Azerbaijani civil society is in desperate need of.

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan is not getting the attention or media coverage that Euromaidan has. Both causes are undoubtedly worthy of recognition. However, bringing attention to the plight of Azerbaijani activists by nominating them for the Sakharov Prize will result in substantive change, more so than would nominating Euromaidan. Ukraine is instead in need of a much different reaction from the European Parliament. It would be a missed opportunity not to take advantage of the power that the Sakharov Prize can have. The EP was successful in using the award to raise awareness about a dire situation in 2006, when it drew the attention of the world to the fate of Alexander Milinkevich, leader of the opposition in Belarus.

In this way, the European Parliament would also assert the value of human rights in petro-states, such as Azerbaijan – even those that have already invested millions in buying friends throughout Europe. After assuming chairmanship of the Council of Europe in May 2014, Azerbaijan has used its influence in the Council to launch an unprecedented assault on civil society. It is an autocracy with the same values and the same approach to “freedom” as Russia under Vladimir Putin. And we have seen what can come from such leaders, should they ostensibly be allowed to run free with their repressive tactics.

So, will European parliamentarians take a path that is obvious and uncontroversial? Or will they send a signal that could make a real difference? Honouring dissidents in Azerbaijan could have real impact. It might even save lives. It would be acting with a strong voice, not reacting passively.

Let me repeat: this is not about the relative merits of the various candidates. Euromaidan deserves the highest recognition. It deserves a prize from the EU. So this is our proposal: recognise Ukraine’s struggle with actions that will truly benefit its people, with the kind of support that is appropriate for where Ukrainians are in their fight towards liberalisation: put Ukraine on the white Schengen list and grant visa-free travel. And give the Sakharov Prize to the forgotten activists of today; human rights defenders who are suffering in the shadows as you read this, in prison for speaking out on behalf of others.

For more information:

ESI on Ukraine 2014

 

ESI on Azerbaijani human rights defenders

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Council of Europe,Europe,Ukraine — Gerald @ 3:33 am
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