If you come to our website often you will have noticed that ESI writes a lot about the Council of Europe. You might wonder why. Are there no other, more important European issues? And why is our stance so critical?
One reason that we keep returning to issue relating to the Council of Europe is that almost nobody else does, outside of a small group of human rights activists mainly concerned about the crackdown on civil society in Azerbaijan.
For large European think tanks and for most European media, the crisis in the Council of Europe still does not exist. Or does not really matter. Why care about debates in PACE, or about what the secretariat in Strasburg does or does not do, when there is a war in Ukraine, crises in the Middle East and challenges to democracy in old and new EU members?
We at ESI disagree. We believe that when the institution that gave us today’s European flag, and that remains the guardian of the moral constitution of democratic Europe – the European Convention on Human Rights – is fatally undermined, this points to a very serious crisis for all of Europe. It is a wound that must not be allowed to fester. Today the Council of Europe resembles Ouroboros, the snake of Greek mythology that devours itself … in this case, by destroying the moral basis on which it was founded.
Look at the European order today, and Europe’s big three organisations: the OSCE, the EU and the Council of Europe.
The OSCE has a justification as a forum for debate even with autocracies. This was its original conception in Helsinki in 1975. This is why Belarus (and Uzbekistan and the Vatican) can be members today.
The EU has to defend its own standards internally (and do a much better job at this) and externally, in particular when it comes to its ongoing enlargement talks.
For the Council of Europe, however – the first institution to enlarge to almost all of Europe in the 1990s – the current crisis of values, norms and credibility is existential. It has to be a club of European democracies, or it does not have any reason to exist.
This is why Belarus is not a member today. This is why Russia and Azerbaijan currently have no place as members, unless things change in both countries. There really is no use for an institution focusing on human rights and democracy when these standards are defined by autocracies and thus undermined for everyone else.
ESI strongly believes that the Council of Europe should matter. It should be talked about more. It should be given the resources to fulfil its crucial role better. But the key recource missing today is not money, but attention. Think tanks and media should follow what happens in Strasburg. It is a shame that the foreign ministers of influential countries attend its meetings so rarely (to begin with Germany and France) and that parliaments throughout Europe pay so little attention.
We believe that it is important to preserve the idea that one day the European Convention on Human Rights will be the normative basis for all of Europe (including Russia and the South Caucasus), not just the current European Union. Just as it was crucial to preserve this aspiration in the decades prior to 1989 in a divided Europe. It may look unlikely now; it definitely looked implausible then.
Europe’s moral constitution
For what is the European Convention? It is the basis of civilised life, in a continent known as much for autocracy and human rights violations as it is known for the enlightenment and rights.
It is comprised of the following basic commitments, that are once again under pressure across the continent:
Article 1 Respecting the rights in this convention
Article 2 The right to life – a duty to refrain from unlawful killing and to investigate suspicious deaths
Article 3 Prohibits torture, and “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. There are no exceptions on this right.
Article 4 Prohibits slavery, servitude and forced labour
Article 5 Provides the right to liberty, subject only to lawful arrest
Article 6 Provides a detailed right to a fair trial
Article 7 Prohibits retroactive criminalisation
Article 8 Provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, home and correspondence”, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 9 Provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
Article 10 Provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions “necessary in a democratic society”.
Article 11 Protects the right to freedom of assembly and association.
It is irresponsible to close our eyes to the fact that today the European Convention is being mocked by certain member states of the Council of Europe, not occasionally but systematically. Today these core articles are not only disregarded but also openly challenged.
If Azerbaijan or Russia were expelled from the Council of Europe today (or would preemtively leave voluntarily) then this does not mean that a democratic Azerbaijan or Russia might not one day join again. In fact, that would be the goal. It would give human rights defenders in these countries a clear objective. And they should be supported in this in all possible ways. Greece was not in the Council of Europe under military rule in 1968 … and later rejoined it as a democracy.
Today we have the worst of all worlds. We see the standards of the European Convention on Human Rights mocked, the institution and its bodies paralysed. We see these institutions turned against the very people in those countries who defend them there … and who risk jail and worse for doing so.
We see democrats indifferent to the institution, while autocrats invest resources to capture and manipulate this critical intervention. Things are upside down. It is time to put them back in order.
We have written before about parallels between the fate of the League of Nations and what is currently happening in Strasburg (See : Europe’s Abyssinian Moment).
Here is another thought-provoking parallel from Europe’s early 20th century history. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference East European nations signed treaties guaranteeing rights to minorities. These treaties called for religious freedom and civic equality. Minorities were granted the right of petition to the League. Governments in Eastern Europe complained about these “unjust requirements that the great powers did not impose on themselves”. These countries had a point. However, the proper response to this complaint was not to water down these rights, but to apply them equally to everyone.
Instead, the solution chosen was the worst of all. These rights were never applied and these treaties were never taken seriously. Despite there being a special League of Nations Minorities section it proved to be a “weak reed”: of 883 petitions the League received between 1920 and 1939, only four resulted in condemnation of the accused state. When the first anti-Jewish university quota system was introduced in Hungary in 1920 protests at the League of Nations failed to secure the law’s withdrawal. (For more on this see Bernard Wasserstein’s fascinating book “On the Eve – the Jews of Europe before the Second World War.)
Perhaps then too there were serious and influential people who thought that Europe had more important problems than to defend norms and treaties concerning human rights in small East European nations.
However, this assumption was wrong then and it is wrong now. The crisis in Strasburg matters not just to a few brave human rights defenders on the European periphery. It matters to all of us.
This contradiction matters
PS: For more on the crisis of the Council of Europe, see also the latest ESI newsletter:
Heading to Strasbourg this week – Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the EU
RIDDLE OF THE WEEK
Dear friends, here is a riddle to begin your week:
Why is Fuad Isgandarov, Azerbaijani ambassador and head of its mission to the EU, heading for Strassburg this week for the next session of the European Parliament? Who will he meet and what will he try to achieve in the interest of his country?
Tomorrrow the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament will chose this year’s Sakharov Prize winner. One of the leading contenders is one of the most inspiring human rights activists in the world today: Azerbaijani Leyla Yunus.
There is support for Leyla Yunus across the different party groups. And there is growing concern in Baku. More and more of the great people held in its prisons today are being recognised for their courage and awarded international human rights prizes. Millions spent on lobbying firms, on invitations, on hosting events, on paying “experts” to say how oil matters more than a handful of prisoners … all undermined by a few human rights prizes?
The prospect of an Azerbaijani woman being named together with Nelson Mandela, Wei Jingsheng, Aung San Suu, Memorial, Reporters without borders or Malala Yousafzai should delight Azerbaijani patriots. Already being nominated as one of three finalists in 2014 is a huge distinction for Leyla Yunus.
We hope the Ambassador, heading to Strassburg, will spare a moment to read this latest letter by Leyla Yunus – in jail, separated from her husband, who is also held in isolation, as are so many of her fellow human rights defenders:
“They didn’t just arrest us as a married couple. By doing so they restored a “glorious” Stalin tradition. They indicted us to such a bouquet of fantastic accusations (even Yezhov and Vishinki would lag behind), including a life sentence… While in detention, I clearly understood their goal is not just the destruction, but brutal torture, insults, and physical torment, when death becomes the desired escape from the terrible suffering. This is our reality, and I clearly realize it. In other words, our work received the highest mark on the highest scale… Arif I feel so lonely without you! For 36 years we were shoulder to shoulder, and were hoping to celebrate our 40th anniversary but they are so afraid of us… Good Lord, how could a small, weak, sick woman scare the ruling government? With what?! I know you would say, “traveler will tell the Lacedaemon, that here we lie, true to the Law”. But I still think Leonidas had it easier, simpler… One of 300s.”
And perhaps he will reflect, as he meets these MEPs, about what really serves his country’s interest.
“… they know from their own experience in 1968, and from the Polish experience in 1980-1981, how suddenly a society that seems atomized, apathetic and broken can be transformed into an articulate, united civil society. How private opinion can become public opinion. How a nation can stand on its feet again. And for this they are working and waiting, under the ice.”
Timothy Garton Ash about Charter 77 in communist Czechoslovakia, February 1984
“How come our nation has been able to transcend the dilemma so typical of defeated societies, the hopeless choice between servility and despair?”
Adam Michnik, Letter from the Gdansk Prison, July 1985
We then studied the puzzle of increasing repression / decreasing criticism on the part of the Council of Europe, and the strange pattern of international election monitoring in Azerbaijan:
There have also been a number of newsletters – many making the case for greater support to Azerbaijani human rights defenders, arguing that their fate matters to everyone concerned about the future of human rights in Europe:
Thomas de Waal is one of the leading experts in the world today on the Caucasus, author of “Black Garden, Armenia and Azerbaijan Through Peace and War” and “The Caucasus: An Introduction” and a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC. He also knows all the key actors in the region for decades, including Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif, two of the most impressive intellectuals and human rights defenders in Europe today. The fact that both are in jail in the Azerbaijan of Ilham Aliyev tells you almost everything you need to know about this regime.
The Responsibility of a Politician: Leyla Yunus and the Heirs of Andrei Sakharov
Thomas de Waal
October 11, 2014
In 1989 during some of the most tumultuous days of perestroika, Andrei Sakharov stood up in the Soviet Union’s first popularly elected parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, and called for the end of the monopoly on power of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Sakharov was an influential voice, but also a lonely one, speaking amidst a cacophony of old Communist Party nomenklatura officials on the one hand and aspiring nationalists on the other.
At the same time, in the Soviet Union’s non-Russian republics, a few brave activists were inspired by the courage of Sakharov and others. They stepped forward and spoke out about the rights of their republics to win independence and achieve democracy.
These activists were strongest in the three Baltic republics and the three republics of the South Caucasus: Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In Azerbaijan, the struggle was especially difficult. The Communist Party apparatus clung tenaciously to power. The Popular Front of Azerbaijan had a radical nationalist wing that was ready to use violence. All the while the mutually suicidal conflict with Armenia over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh was heating up.
A small band of academics and intellectuals in the city of Baku were the first to talk about democracy, the first to warn about the dangers of “provocations” and the first to speak up about the defence of the Armenian minority still living in Azerbaijan. They combined courage with intellectual insight about where their republic was heading.
Leyla Yunus, a young historian, was one of that band, together with her husband, Arif, also a historian and scholar. Yunus was one of the half-dozen founders of Azerbaijan’s Popular Front, an organization that modeled itself on the Popular Fronts of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, even as they knew how much harder the struggle was in their country.
As 1989 unwound, Leyla and her colleagues warned that two extremes–the dinosaurs of the Communist nomenklatura and the nationalist radicals–were feeding off one another in a dangerous game of bluff and provocation.
The sad culmination of these mutual provocations came in January 1990–Baku’s terrible “Black January” and the bloodiest episodes of Mikhail Gorbachev’s entire rule as Soviet leader. First the city’s remaining Armenians were subjected to pogroms and expulsion. Then Soviet tanks rolled in to the city, fired on apartment buildings and crushed demonstrators to death.
At the end of Black January, around 90 Armenians were dead and thousands had fled, 130 Azerbaijanis had been killed. Leyla Yunus spoke up again, this time in print. In an essay entitled “The Degree of a Responsibility of a Politician,” published in the journal Istiklal in April 1990, she described the situation with devastating clarity.
In the essay, she begins by praising the bravery of those who stood in the streets to face down the tanks in Baku:
They stood with linked arms. “Freedom!” The word rang over Communist Street, which would soon lose its name, along with so much that lost its meaning that night. They did not step away from the path of the armoured personnel carriers and tanks, whose tracks were already crimson with the blood of the people they had crushed on Tbilisi Avenue, Square of the XIth Red Army and other places. But even the bloodied tanks stopped before this never-before-seen unity. “Freedom!”
Yunus calls Moscow’s military intervention “red fascism”
Forty five years ago, practically unarmed–how much the armament campaign of 1941 cost us!–our people stopped the tanks of brown Fascism. On the night of January 20, the armour of red Fascism went through the streets of Baku–the very same Fascism which had crushed and overpowered the peoples of the Union after October 1917.
Until then, Leyla Yunus tells us, Azerbaijanis had been “lucky”–to a degree.
Our people saw this regime in April 1920 and experienced its charms most acutely in the 1930s. Fortunately, we did not meet the fate of the Crimean Tatars, Balkars or Volga Germans, who were deported wholesale in cattle cars to destruction. We did not lose our homeland as the Meskhetian Turks did. We did not lose a third of our population, as the Estonians did, we felt the famine of 1933-34 less than did Belarus or Ukraine. We were lucky enough to be spared Chernobyl. But all the rest that this prison-house order gave to our peoples we experienced to the full. Collectivization, the genocidal destruction of the intelligentsia, the economic theft of our riches, the transformation into a mono-cultural colony…
Only now, it seems, had Azerbaijanis woken up to the nature of the regime they lived under, but they should have known earlier…
Which of you, who threw away their Communist Party cards today, rejected the “Ruling and Guiding” Party in 1968 when our sons were sent to crush the Prague Spring? Which of you spoke out, when our boys were dispatched to Afghanistan?
Did it really have to take the rivers of blood spilled in beautiful Baku for every decent person to decide that it was morally unacceptable for him to stay in the ranks of a criminal party? There is an easy human explanation for this–it is one thing to hear and to know something, and another to see all the horror with your own eyes, to feel it on yourself. However, in my view, this epiphany which even today has come to too few people, came too late and cost us too much…
She rebukes the extreme nationalists of the Popular Front for fomenting hatred against Baku’s defenceless Armenians.
On January 13, on Freedom Square the rally was still continuing, and in the building opposite people were already assaulting Armenians. Woe, disgrace, dishonour came to our town.. The pogromshchik has no nationality. The looter and murderer does not have the right to belong to any people…
And she warns against those who want to soak Azerbaijan’s movement for independence in blood.
The responsibility of a politician is comparable to the responsibility of a doctor. In both cases lack of professionalism leads to death and injury. And if someone writes, “Sacrifice cleanses the nation! You know how much we needed this cleansing… ” it is absolutely clear to me where this patriot-politician can lead us.
Why, in the name of a falsely understood unity of the nation should we march like a herd, behind first one, then another organization, behind this “father-leader” or behind another one?
But she still hopes for the release of political prisoners and the triumph of democracy:
My greatest desire is to see the Popular Front of Azerbaijan as a single powerful organization speaking out from a position of democracy, defending with the help of lawyers today with human rights organizations everyone who has been arrested.
I dream of an overwhelming victory by the democratic forces of the Azerbaijani people headed by the Popular Front of Azerbaijan in the elections.
Our tree of freedom will not bloom soon, and we need to water it with reason and not with a pool of blood.
Leyla Yunus’ essay was so powerful, clear-sighted and morally cogent that it persuaded hundreds of young Azerbaijanis to support the country’s Social Democratic Party, which became the most progressive and democratic part of the opposition.
Leyla Yunus subsequently briefly served in the Popular Front government of 1992-3, where she was a moderating influence. In 1993 former Soviet leader Heidar Aliev returned to power as president of independent Azerbaijan. In 1996 she founded the Institute of Peace and Democracy. The list of issues they worked on was dizzying: rule of law, defence of those arrested, national minorities, land-mines. Later they founded Azerbaijan’s first women’s crisis center. In the mean time Arif Yunus was Azerbaijan’s foremost expert on a host of issues, including the plight of refugees and the rise of political Islam.
In recent years, under the presidency of Heidar Aliev’s son Ilham, Leyla and her colleagues were increasingly targeted by the authorities. They were called strident, aggressive and difficult. And they were.
In the past year, the situation in Azerbaijan has deteriorated rapidly. The old nomenklatura mindset is back in full force. The list of political prisoners Leyla Yunus compiled—now including her and Arif—has 98 names on it. Most of them are secular pro-Western activists. In April, Leyla and Arif Yunus were detained at the airport as they were about to board an international flight. They were hit with all sorts of ludicrous charges, most notably–and with the scariest echo of Soviet times– espionage on behalf of the enemy, the Armenians.
In prison, Leyla Yunus, who has diabetes and other health problems, has been subjected to verbal and physical abuse. Arif Yunus, who has a heart condition, has been kept in complete isolation in the cells of the national security committee, the heir to the KGB.
In the same week, the Russian Ministry of Justice applied to have Memorial–Russia’s strongest human-rights organization and the winner of the 2009 Sakharov Prize–shut down.
In 1989 and 1990, these people had a vision, even as they recognized with the same clarity all the dangers that lay ahead, the narrow path that needed to be trod between different forces, if the former Soviet republics were to achieve European-style democracy.
Now, unfortunately, 25 years later, in both Russia and Azerbaijan some of the worst fears are coming to pass. That increases our responsibility to support people like Leyla Yunus and Memorial, as they are punished for having that vision.
Sometimes you meet a person that is a force of nature. A person of convictions, with the modesty that comes from true charisma and the confidence that comes from not having to pretend. A person inspiring others by personal example, making words like engagement, citizenship and dignity shine in all their splendour. Somebody who makes you feel proud to belong to their generation. And who makes you wonder whether you are really doing enough yourself.
In recent weeks I felt this sense of awe working on old and new European dissidents. Meeting Khadija Ismayil and other human rights defenders from Azerbaijan, has this effect. So does rereading the writings of Havel, of the Russian Memorial generation of human rights defenders, of Adam Michnik and other Poles of his generation.
And so does meeting the mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris, to talk about what is possible in local politics at a moment of deep crisis. In a city shaped by decades of deep conservatism and fear of neighbours, from the Cold War to the Balkan wars of the 1990s and later. 72 years old, chain-smoking, with an ear-ring and tatoos, for decades a succesful entrepeneur, a recovered alcoholic, a long time civic and environmental activists, and now twice elected mayor of Greece’s second city.
I tell the tragic story of Soviet dissidents like Sergei Kovalev, who went to jail under Brezhnev, then became government human rights officials, and in 2014 face renewed pressure from their state. It is a tragic story with no happy end, with Russia like that fabled creature from Greek mythology, the Ouroboros: a snake that devours itself. Often history is like this. Too often.
Ouroboros – societies sometimes resemble this ancient creature,
Then I meet with Boutaris for an interview. This was already a rich and memorable Sunday. It only got better.
Boutaris explains the value of civic engagement, voluntarism and how he strives to make his city embrace a multiethnic past. He explains how even conservatives silently tell him that they approve of his open support for gay pride … though lack the courage to say so openly. He explains why opening to Turkey, Israel and Jews across the world is vital for his city, given its history. And why having a Holocaust museum (at a cost of an estimated 25 million Euro, the design has already been done) will be so important.
How he is happy to have a Durres Park in the city now, and hopes to build many more links with other Balkan cities. How reaching out to Izmir is vital – proposing to have “days of Izmir” in Thessaloniki, and “days of Thessaloniki” there. Why having a Muslim cemetary is the most obvious thing in a city like Thessaloniki. How “Turks are our bothers and Europeans are our partners.” And how, as a Vlach, he recognises the common regional heritage when he visits the village of his ancestors in today’s Republic of Macedonia near Krusevo.
He explains how it is possible to cut the public administration (from 5,000, when he came into office in 2011 to 3,500 today) and reduce the deficit, while moving towards green urbanism and a different traffic policy. How he is encouraged that the number of bicycle shops has gone from 2 to more than 20 in a few years. And how much remains to be done. How he has worked to encourage budget flight connections and direct links by ferries to his city, with increasing success. How this has resulted in sharply rising numbers of foreign visitors.
How his political goal is to make people proud of this, their liberal and open city. With the new slogan “I love my city and adopt my neighbourhood.” How he hopes city employees will be able to walk in the streets and citizens will respect them for their honesty and competence.
Remember: this is Greece, the EU country in its deepest economic and social crisis in decades. This is the country where the self-proclaimed fascists of Golden Dawn won 16 percent in recent local elections in Athens. With a prime minister who made his name by fostering nationalism in the early 1990s. A country all too often described in the foreign press as a hopeless case, a patient at best, an ungrateful recipient of aid at worst.
But this is also now the Greece of Boutaris and the cosmopolitanism of the new Thessaloniki.
When he became mayor, he tells me, Thessaloniki had a number of big taboos, including Turkey and the Jewish history of the town (where Jews were the largest ethnic group until 1912 and the port was closed on the Sabbath). Not long ago the City Council declared Mark Mazower, author of the great book Salonica, symbolically a persona non grata – for having described the multiethnic past of the city. This was the time when the local bishop called on people not to vote for Boutaris.
Now Boutaris looks forward to the day when citizens of Thessaloniki will be proud of the history of their city, as described in Mazower’s book. The book ends with the observation, true for all of Europe:
“As small states integrate themselves in a wider world, and even the largest learn how much they need their neighbours’ help to tackle the problems that face them all, the stringently patrolled and narrow-minded conception of history which they once nurtured and which gave them a kind of justification starts to look less plausible and less necessary. Other futures may require other pasts.
The history of the nationalists is all about false continuities and convenient silences, the fictions necessary to tell the story of the rendez-vous of a chosen people with the land marked out for them by destiny. It is an odd and implausible version of the past …”
As Boutaris tells it, being open to the past and to others is simple good sense: “if you accept differences, life is better”. This explains his support for gay pride in this orthodox city, and how he sees attidues changing. He talks about this priorities for the second term: moving towards a green city, a city in which “rich people are proud to take public transport” instead of poor people required to have a car.
When we made the 2008 ESI film on Thessaloniki Boutaris was still in opposition. Now he has been twice elected. The first time by the narrrowest of margins (some 300 votes). The second time with a clear and strong majority and 58 percent. In some elections ever single vote matters. Civic engagement matters. Having convictions matters. And fighting for them for decades can bring results.
If Bosnia had just one mayor like this in one of its big cities, ideally young and full of eneregy, so that he or she could then go on to show what is possible: the country might be a different place If only Greece or Turkey had more independents, former entrepreneurs and social activists, entering politics like this.
Thessaloniki, thank you for the inspiration. It is great to be back.
“The mayor’s greatest legacy, however, may be the city’s much-improved performance in tourism. However, his unconventional approach has made him some enemies among traditionalists. Between end-2010 and end-2013, Thessaloniki achieved 19% growth in tourist arrivals according to data from the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE), compared with a decline of 13% for Athens over the same period.
To a great extent, this has been achieved through approaching a “traditional enemy” such as Turkey as a potential tourism market, leading to allegations that the mayor was “serving foreign interests”. Mr Boutaris is unapologetic about his bid to present Thessaloniki as a Balkan “melting pot”, stressing the city’s multi-ethnic history, a place where Greeks, Turks, Jews and Slavs lived together until the upheavals of the early 20th century, when the Turks left, the Greeks from Asia Minor arrived and the Jewish population was decimated in the Holocaust. The attraction of Thessaloniki to Turkish visitors stems from the fact that it is the birthplace of Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish state. In addition, the Boutaris administration has made much of the fact that for centuries Thessaloniki had a large and vibrant Sephardic Jewish community. In broadening the city’s tourism profile, a previously rather claustrophobic city is starting to become a more open one, embracing its multicultural past.
The rebranding of Thessaloniki based on this new perception of its past has managed to increase the influx of visitors from Turkey and from Israel. Overnight stays at the city’s hotels increased during the past four years by 226% for Turks and 358% for Israelis, reaching 80,000 and 50,000, respectively, by the end of 2013. Coinciding with a period of deepening national economic crisis, the tourism revival has been welcome. The shift in public opinion in the city has been radical, and previous detractors now firmly support a similar rapprochement with all neighbouring countries … “
While European institutions are finally recognising the heroism of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – thus making clear that their struggle is of global significance – every single political prisoner so far rewarded remains in jail. Our attention needs to shift to the only real prize: to get international institutions and states to act and to sanction.
It is time for a really broad-based campaign … targetted not the authorities in Baku, who are beyond shame, but human rights institutions betraying human rights defenders. Note: Azerbaijan, the current chairman of the Council of Europe, holds in its jails today the men and women winning or considered for the very highest prizes in the field of human rights in the world. And so far the Council of Europe – including its general secretary – acts as if this has nothing to do with them.
Mr. Jagland has issued a press release on the events in Ferguson, Missouri … how about issuing a press release congratulating Anar Mammadli, the winner of the Vaclav Havel Prize 2014, who used to work with the Council of Europe, and is in jail today?
Mr. Jagland has met the Azerbaijani president already three times in recent months. How about cancelling all participation of the Council of Europe secretariat in events in Baku until there is news about the situation of Ilgar Mammadov … who is in jail, but disappeared more than a week ago, has no contact with lawyers … and who also worked for and with the Council of Europe? Or until Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov and so many other human rights defenders are released?
Mr Jagland: if you think doing nothing remains an option for your institutions you underestimate the strength and moral purpose of the broad-based coalition that is currently emerging across Europe.
The case of Leyla Yunus
Here is the most recent email ESI sent to all the members of the European Parliament who decided on 7 October 2014 on the final short list of three candidates for the 2014 Sakharov Human Rights Prize.
Today you will decide on the finalists for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize 2014.
We appeal to you to give your vote to Leyla Yunus – on behalf of all other human rights defenders and dissidents in Azerbaijan. Almost 100 of them are imprisoned like Leyla (see this list), the others face a chilling wave of repression.
These Azerbaijanis stand in the tradition of those who fought for human rights during Soviet rule. Distinguished Russian activists, some of them former political prisoners, underline this in a joint letter to the European Parliament that was published last week (available in English andRussian). Three of them – Lyudmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalyov and Oleg Orlov – shared the EP’s Sakharov Prize in 2009.
Oleg Orlov, Lyudmila Alekseeva and Sergei Kovalyov receiving the Sakharov Prize 2009
Photo: European Parliament
Your vote for Leyla will be a vital sign to Azerbaijan’s besieged human rights community that they are not alone.
It will be a sign that the European Union, led by the Parliament, does not close its eyes to repression anywhere on our continent.
It could be crucial also for this generation of human rights defenders. The fate of Leyla, one of the most respected human rights activists in the country, is telling. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are appalling. At age 58, Leyla suffers from diabetes and has caught a flu in her cold cell. She has been repeatedly beaten. Last Saturday, her lawyers stated that her health “has extremely deteriorated” and “that there is no guarantee that Leyla will survive until the end of this year”.
The authorities are now going after the handful of remaining lawyers who defend human rights defenders, and torture has returned to jails in Azerbaijan.
There is hardly any news of Leyla’s husband Arif Yunus, a historian and peace activist, who was arrested in early August, a few days after Leyla, and is held at a facility notorious for torture of inmates.
Leyla and her husband Arif Yunus, both imprisoned by the Azerbaijani authorities
For 10 days, there has been absolutely no news of Ilgar Mammadov. All food parcels sent to him by his family have been turned down. The director of the Council of Europe’s School of Political Studies in Baku intended to run against President Aliyev in the elections in October 2013, but was arrested beforehand and sentenced to 7 years in prison last March. The European Parliament demanded his immediate release already last year. Lately he announced that he faces serious pressure to write an open letter of apology to the government. Then he disappeared.
The “crime” of Mammadov, the Yunuses and the other Azerbaijani political prisoners is their desire for a pluralist society, for respect of human rights, for peace – for the values on which the EU has been built.
Azerbaijan is member (currently even chair) of the Council of Europe. It has accepted the Paris Charter for a new Europe. It is formally committed to all the norms on which Europe’s post-cold war order is built. To watch one regime dismantle all civil liberties with impunity and make any human rights work impossible, and to let it happen, creates a terrible precedent. It undermines the norms on which European security rests.
Today you can take a step to prevent it from happening.
With the very kindest of regards,
Chairman of European Stability Initiative (ESI)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a nice book for the summer: Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. Johnson writes:
“We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition.
But ideas are works of bricolage. They are, almost inevitably, networks of other ideas. We take the ideas we’ve inherited or stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. We like to think of our ideas as a $40,000 incubator, shipped direct from the factory, but in reality they’ve been cobbled together with spare parts that happened to be sitting in the garage.”
Since good ideas are the results of networks, any think tank’s success to remain fresh and innovative over a period of time depends above all on the quality of its networks. Any series of interesting reports are the result of the effort of many individuals collecting spare parts, and many long nights trying to cobble them together.
This summer it is fifteen years since we set up ESI in Sarajevo in summer 1999. Since then we have been tinkering with ideas.
The real birthday: launch meeting in Sarajevo in summer 1999.
By now we have produced a few thousand of pages of writing under the ESI logo.
Are you still short of summer reading? Then take a quick look at any of these, perhaps one strikes your interest.
Some recommendations were picked up directly by decision makers. In 2001 we wrote a report – in cooperation with Martti Ahtisaari – recommending that the Stability Pact for South East Europe focus on regional energy integration; our second recommendation then, to focus on visa liberalisation, was picked up much later by the European Commission.
In 2002 we called for a big summit on the Balkans under the Greek EU presidency, advocating also that “the states of the Western Balkans could join Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey within the responsibility of a post-2004 Directorate for Enlargement.” And we worked closely with friends in the Greek foreign ministry at the time preparing ideas for the Thessaloniki summit.
For more than a decade we shared our writing experience with others: with ESI fellows, and in capacity building seminars to help new think tanks emerge, from Albania to Kiev. Quite a number have emerged, and prosper today.
In Kosovo we published on the impact of migration on households and families (Cutting the Lifeline), on economic development in Peja and Pristina, on the failure of privatisation and on the future of Kosovo Serbs, arguing against the Spirit of Lausanne. Currently we are working on schools and education policy in Kosovo.
All of this was possible because of donors who believed that by funding our research, they could contribute usefully to policy debates. Here are the five most important ones in recent years: ERSTE Stiftung. Open Society Foundations. The Swedish government. The UK government. And Stiftung Mercator.
If this inspires you and you want to join us as a Junior Fellow, please apply here! We look forward to hear from you. (In August the ESI office in Berlin handling applications shuts down. However, you can send in the meantime send any complete applications to me directly: firstname.lastname@example.org.)