14 October 2014

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.

Tom wrote the following essay as part of our advocacy effort to convince the European Parliament to give Leyla Yunus the 2014 Sakharov Prize. She is already among the top three, a huge honour and recognition of her work. The final decision will be taken later this week.

 

 

 

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.

For her commitment to European values and human rights, Leyla Yunus was nominated for the 2014 Sakharov Prize in the European Parliament. Her condition and her heroism were recognized by four heirs of Sakharov: three dissidents who had worked with Sakharov, Sergei Kovalyov, Lyudmila Alexeeva and Svetlana Gannushkina and by Oleg Orlov, the head of Memorial.

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.

 

7 October 2014

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.

Now that Leyla Yunus has been chosen, these arguments remain valid as the European Parliament will chose the 2014 winner.   

 

Honourable Member of the European Parliament,

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

 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

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.

Ilgar Mammadov
Ilgar Mammadov

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,

Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus,
Chairman of European Stability Initiative (ESI)

 

Attachments area
Preview attachment Memorial – Letter to the European Parliament – Sakharov Prize Leyla Yunus 2014 – EN.pdf

Memorial – Letter to the European Parliament – Sakharov Prize Leyla Yunus 2014 – EN.pdf

Leyla Yunus for 2014 Sakharov Prize

 

1 June 2014

Today Monday, 2nd of June, at 4 pm in Berlin ESI, together with the German Federal Commissioner for Human Rights, organises  a public debate on the future of political prisoners in Europe. Our goal is to raise the awareness about this issue and about the current failure of international organisations. It is also to discuss concrete proposals on what to do next.

It certainly seems the right moment to focus on this issue. A few days ago I got a message from Leyla Yunus, one of Azerbaijan’s most respected human rights defenders:

“No support from CoE!

All of us hostages. procurator do not return our passports, which they took illegally!

Leyla”

 

Leyla Yunus Foto: Christian HassLeyla Yunus

 

We are hearing a lot from people already in prison in Azerbaijan about the economic hardships faced by their families as a result of their captivity. They also often rely on lawyers they cannot afford to pay and who therefore work pro bono, with a significant risk of later being harassed for this very work.

For all these reasons ESI and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee have put together a set of concrete proposals for discussion in Berlin. We will share it at the conference, discuss it more on Tuesday with leading practitioners, and then put it online after receiving more ideas. Here are some of these concrete ideas – an excerpt from our paper – for your feedback:


Introduction

In 2014 there are, once again, a growing number of people in Europe who are jailed for no other reason than for disagreeing with their government.

In Azerbaijan, we witness at this very moment a wave of repression against independent journalists, youth protesters, election observers, opposition leaders and Muslim believers, with many receiving long jail terms. In Russia, people who participated in peaceful protests in Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square after Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012 have received tough sentences. Many other activists and government critics have also been brought before the courts. Ukraine, until recently, held political prisoners. There are many political prisoners in Belarus.

Europe has the densest network of human rights NGOs in the world. All European states, with the exception of Belarus, are also members of the Council of Europe. They have thus signed and ratified the European Convention on Human Rights. They have committed themselves to respecting fundamental rights and freedoms. Belarus has accepted the human rights obligations of OSCE membership. But the problem persists, and is in fact getting much worse.

Proposal I: a European website on political prisoners

We propose to create a website on political prisoners in Europe, supported by a coalition of human rights NGOs. This could help focus and mobilise public attention.

The website would highlight all cases of people arrested for their views or on other politically motivated grounds in European countries.

In particular, it would include and consider as political prisoners for this project the following individuals, and make clear these sources:

–          all prisoners of conscience recognized by Amnesty International,

–          all presumed political prisoners identified by PACE rapporteurs,

–          all other relevant cases identified by reputable human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 19, as well as leading national human rights organisations, which have a methodology and resources and a definition to establish their lists.

Such a website would feature prisoners’ photos, biographies and information on developments in their cases. The aim would help raise awareness of political prisoners among the European public.

There might also be a separate section on alleged political prisoners. NGOs and human rights activists can submit information to the website administrator on who in their view should be included in this category and whose case would deserve to be looked at more closely. These would add pressure on the Council of Europe to find ways examine these prisoners’ cases and establish whether there are systemic patterns of politically motivated persecutions.

 

Proposal II: Effective support mechanisms for families

and lawyers of political prisoners

How can one most effectively mobilize support for families of political prisoners and their lawyers? What existing aid channels are there, and which organizations have already been involved? Where do gaps exists? Are there opportunities for better cooperation in raising the awareness of the need for support among different NGOs?

There appears to be a need for new support mechanisms, for ordinary people to contribute to them and for better ways to advertise them.

 

Proposal III: Establish a standing Expert Commission on Political Prisoners

The Council of Europe needs a new professional and credible mechanism to address the issue of political prisoners. The mechanism must be potentially applicable to any member state where a systemic pattern of repression is suspected. Its work must be compatible with the work of other institutions (the Court and rapporteurs) and complement their work. A new Expert Commission on Political Prisoners could meet both requirements.

The initiative for creating such a panel can come from the Secretary General or the Committee of Ministers. The panel then would be set up by the Committee of Ministers, which is authorized to set up “advisory and technical committees or commissions.”This would require a two-thirds majority of votes cast with a minimum of 24 votes in favour. No member state would have a veto. This panel would become active if one of the following Council of Europe institutions finds a systemic pattern of politically motivated repression!

The proposed panel on political prisoners could be composed of 3 to 7 experts. These should be former judges, presidents of national courts or senior human rights lawyers. . They would act in their individual capacity. The panel would receive necessary resources and a budget for travel, translation, legal aid, and other expenses.

Several institutions would have the right to independently appeal to this Expert Commission to begin work and examine the situation and cases in any country where they are suspecting systemic repression.

–          PACE rapporteurs of any committee; the president of PACE; or the PACE bureau.

A new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners could also ask the Commission to examine – with more resources than a rapporteur will ever have – whether there is a pattern of systemic repression, which would make his or her political work easier.

–          The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights.

–          The Secretary General.

–          A number (to be determined) of member states of the Committee of Ministers

The commission’s work would consist of investigating individual cases in a quasi-judicial capacity, but not leading to legally binding judgements, to see if there is a systematic pattern of abuse. Suggestions for cases to examine would be submitted both by the Council of Europe’s own institutions and by local and international NGOs or human rights defenders.

The panel would select a limited number of pilot cases and examine them first. Then, it would complete draft opinions on whether these individuals are political prisoners according to the PACE 2012 definition and ask the authorities of the country for feedback. After this, it would finalize its opinions and set a reasonable deadline for the authorities to react by granting a release or retrial and carrying out reforms to stop systemic abuse of this kind.

After the deadline, either the Secretary General or a PACE rapporteur for political prisoners or the Commissioner for Human Rights should assess whether the authorities have acted on the findings of the experts.

If this is not the case, the Assembly and the Committee of Ministers should consider sanctions, including a boycott of official Council of Europe meetings in this country and loss of voting rights. Also, no such country would be able to assume the chairmanship of the Council of Europe as long as the situation is not resolved.

A similar panel of legal experts was already successfully used by the Council of Europe in 2001-2004 for Azerbaijan. The combined efforts of the experts and PACE rapporteurs led to the determination that there were 62 presumed political prisoners in Azerbaijan and to the release of hundreds of alleged political prisoners in the country.

Currently in the case of Azerbaijan, PACE did already adopt a resolution on 23 January 2013 stating that there were not only individual cases but in fact a systemic pattern of arrests. The Council’s Commissioner for Human Rights has also identified “selective criminal prosecution” of dissenters in Azerbaijan. Either of these findings would in the future automatically trigger the Commission to look into the situation more closely.

Proposal IV: The future of the Russian delegation in PACE

In April 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military involvement in the Ukraine crisis, PACE voted to suspend the voting rights of the Russian delegation until the end of the year. It should be considered to link the restoration of voting rights to progress on other human rights issues, not limited to Ukraine, and in particular to addressing all concerns about political prisoners.

Proposal V: Azerbaijani chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers

On 14 May, Azerbaijan assumed the six-month chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers. There is consensus among human rights NGOs that the situation with political prisoners has markedly deteriorated in Azerbaijan. This has also been publicly confirmed by various institutions of the Council of Europe. On 29 April, the Council’s Human Rights Commissioner Nils Muiznieks issued a statement on Azerbaijan, in which he condemned “unjustified or selective criminal prosecution of journalists and others who express critical opinions.”

On 22 May, Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland published an op-ed in European Voice, in which he conceded that Azerbaijan was “known in Western capitals for stifling journalists and locking up opposition activists” and maintained that the Council of Europe was not blind to violations. The same day, ECtHR issued a judgment saying that the Azerbaijani authorities had arrested opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov to “silence and punish” him for criticising the government.

On 23 May, PACE President Anne Brasseur spoke in Baku, mentioning a “more than worrying state of affairs” in Azerbaijan, criticising the deterioration of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and calling on the government to release Ilgar Mammadov.

There is a consensus on the seriousness of the problem. There should now also be an appropriate reaction. One clear measure to be considered now would be to hold no Council of Europe meetings and events in Azerbaijan until Ilgar Mammadov, on whom the ECtHR has already ruled, is released.

Secondly Azerbaijan should officially agree to the appointment of a new PACE rapporteur on political prisoners and commit itself to cooperation.

Thirdly, the Secretary General and the Committee of Ministers should establish an Expert Commission as outlined above.

Proposal VI: an EU visa panel for human rights violators

The European Union has the power to sanction human rights violators. One type of sanctions (“restrictive measures”) are travel bans. Traveling to the EU is not an inherent right. It is a privilege that governments are free to deny. Sanctions can be proposed by member states and the High Representative for Foreign Policy, who can also act together with the European Commission.

The body responsible for imposing sanctions is the Council of Ministers. It does so by adopting – unanimously – a document called a “decision”. For travel bans, no additional legislation is necessary, and member states are obliged to directly implement the Council’s decision. Travel is a privilege, not a right. The EU needs to develop a forward-looking policy of denying entry and visa to human rights violators from Russia, Azerbaijan and other states.

To do this, member states could sponsor an independent commission of senior former judges, who would make annual recommendations to the Council of Ministers on who should be barred from entry.

This proposal avoids two pitfalls: it is not summary justice and it provides a mechanism for appeal. The independent commission would review its recommended blacklist annually, providing room for appeal. The whole process would also ensure transparency. This would increase pressure on EU governments to act, spur debates, and create a credible process that human rights defenders can use.

Conclusion: a campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners”

Many of the most respected human rights organisations have their roots in campaigns on behalf of political prisoners: Amnesty International (the 1961 letter by Peter Berenson on “The forgotten prisoners”), Human Rights Watch (the Helsinki committees to support dissident in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union).

After the end of the Cold War it seemed for a short moment as if this particular problem no longer haunts Europe. Now it has returned. This is a test of the ability and compassion of European civil society, and of the organisational capacity of human rights defenders. A reactive approach is clearly no longer enough.

Combined efforts pay off. Concrete initiatives and proposals can be brought together under the banner of a Europe-wide campaign “2015 For a Europe without political prisoners.” Such an effort would be a joint effort of different independent human rights NGOs. The strategy could encompass all these various elements:

–          highlighting stories of individual victims better;

–          mobilising support for victims, their families and lawyers;

–          mobilising think tanks and NGOs to monitor and analyse PACE and its members;

–          taking back and using existing mechanisms in the Council of Europe;

–          setting up a new mechanism in the Council of Europe to look into systemic imprisonments on political grounds in member states,

–          institutionalising a process for visa bans for human rights offenders by the EU.


In accordance with Article 17 of the Statute of the Council of Europe: “The Committee of Ministers may set up advisory and technical committees or commissions for such specific purposes as it may deem desirable.”

PACE Resolution 1917 (2013) “The honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan”, 23 January 2013, para. 14.

 

Azerbaijan - Chairman of “REAL” movement Ilgar Mammadov and Deputy chairman of Musavat Party Tofig Yagublu

Ilgar Mammadov and Tofiq Yagublu, two political prisoners in Azerbaijan

A few days ago a  relative of another political prisoner in Azerbaijan, Tofig Yagublu, forwarded me this appeal:

“I have been sentenced to prison term on absurd charges since I fight for democratization of Azerbaijan, for its transformation into the part of the progressive world. So that you have an idea about absence of any justification for charges against me, I would like to state that, those charges have as much relevance to you as it has to me.

Due to aggressive actions of Russia against Ukraine the humanity is on the brink of its another tragedy. It is a problem of lack of democracy. Russia’s complacent, illogical and unfair actions are due to lack of democratic society and democratic government formed in accordance with popular will. Would Russia be able to act complacently and carelessly like this, had it had democratic societies in the countries surrounding it?

Therefore, one of the most effective ways of helping Russia is seriously supporting democratization process in surrounding former soviet countries. The Azerbaijani authorities are illegitimate and corrupt. The amount of money stolen by these authorities from the people is way more than the state budget. There have not been any free and fair elections in Azerbaijan since Aliyevs came to power in Azerbaijan. The OSCE ODIHR opinion on the presidential elections held in the autumn of 2013 was the most critical and strict among the opinions stated until present. But even this critical evaluation is lenient compared to the objective reality.

The statements of the authorities with regards to absence of democracy and human rights problems in Azerbaijan is similar to what the USSR leadership used to say on the same topic, and to what the North Korean leadership is saying now. The incumbent government is using energy resources and its important geographical location to refrain from carrying out its international obligations on democracy and human rights. Unfortunately, they have been successful in this until present.

Take into consideration that, political parties and civil society organizations fighting for democracy in Azerbaijan unambiguously see the happy future of Azerbaijan in integration to the West, to EU and NATO. Under such circumstances, the interests of the Azerbaijani people and the progressive world will be ensured more effectively and in a more guaranteed way, unlike in case of existence of the regime, which is staying in power through the Kremlin’s support.

Therefore, it is obvious that, significant pressure on the incumbent regime to start democratic reforms in Azerbaijan is an objective necessity. Under such circumstances, carrying out of the June session of OSCE PA in Baku is withdrawing in front of the Azerbaijani authorities, which have closed the Baku office of this organization and have declared war against the Warsaw bureau due to its negative opinion on the elections. It is difficult to understand this step.

The First European Olympic Games will be held in Baku in the summer of 2015. Shortly after this competition the parliamentary elections will be held in the country. It is very illogical and unfair that, such an event will be held in a country which lacks basic freedoms, prisons of which are full of political prisoners, where free press is mercilessly strangled, on the brink of another election fraud. Those Games shall be boycotted. Until the start of real democratic reforms under the monitoring and guarantee of the international organizations in Azerbaijan, all possible sanctions shall be applied against the Azerbaijani authorities.

Tofig Yagublu, political prisoner 17.03.2014 “

 

13 May 2014

Aserbaidschan übernimmt den Vorsitz im Europarat – und der ignoriert die Menschenrechtsverletzungen des Regimes in Baku auf eine Weise, die Fragen nach Sinn und Zweck dieser Organisation aufwirft / Von Michael Martens

ISTANBUL, 13. Mai. An diesem Mittwoch übernimmt Aserbaidschan den Vorsitz im Europarat. „Europas führende Organisation für Menschenrechte“, wie sich der Europarat mit Sitz in Straßburg selbst nennt, hat 47 Mitgliedsstaaten (nur Weißrussland und das Kosovo gehören nicht dazu), mehr als 2.200 Angestellte und ein Jahresbudget von etwa 400 Millionen Euro. Die bekannteste Einrichtung des Europarats ist der Europäische Gerichtshof für Menschenrechte. Dort können Bürger aller Mitgliedsländer Klage gegen ihre Staaten einreichen, wenn diese gegen die europäische Menschenrechtskonvention verstoßen haben. Denn um Mitglied im Europarat zu werden, muss ein Staat diese Konvention unterzeichnet haben und sich daran halten – theoretisch zumindest.

Nun wird also Aserbaidschan den Europarat repräsentieren, und in Baku werden in den kommenden Monaten aufwendige Konferenzen über die Bedeutung der Menschenrechte abgehalten. Viele Gäste werden kommen, denn obwohl Aserbaidschan kaum mehr als neun Millionen Einwohner hat, ist es für den Westen (und für Europa insbesondere) politisch wichtig. Eine geplante Gasleitung von Aserbaidschan über Georgien, die Türkei und Griechenland bis nach Italien könnte ein wichtiger Baustein zur Verringerung der europäischen Energieabhängigkeit von Russland werden. Ein „demokratischer Lieferant“ wäre Aserbaidschan allerdings ebenfalls nicht. Aserbaidschans Präsident Ilham Alijew, der das höchste Staatsamt von seinem Vater erbte, einem ehemaligen KGB-Agenten, ist ein Diktator, der mit eiserner Faust über sein Land herrscht und Oppositionelle verfolgen lässt. Dieser Tage hat „Reporter ohne Grenzen“ (ROG) aufgelistet, wie es aserbaidschanischen Journalisten, die das Regime in Baku zu kritisieren wagen oder gar zu Machtmissbrauch und Menschenrechtsverletzungen recherchieren, reihenweise ergeht: Sie werden durch die vom Regime kontrollierte Justiz zu Haftstrafen wegen Rauschgiftbesitzes, Spionage für Armenien, Anstiftung zu Unruhen, Waffenschmuggels oder ähnlicher fingierter Delikte verurteilt. „Aserbaidschan übt in den kommenden sechs Monaten ein herausragendes Amt innerhalb Europas aus, doch gleichzeitig tritt die Regierung unter Präsident Alijew die Pressefreiheit mit Füßen“, stellt ROG dazu fest.

Auch das State Department äußert sich in seinem jährlichen Menschenrechtsbericht deutlich und stellt unter anderem fest, dass das Regime in Aserbaidschan nicht nur gewaltsam gegen Journalisten und Menschenrechtsaktivisten vorgehe, Wahlbeobachter kriminalisiere oder mit Ausreiseverboten belege, sondern auch Übergriffe gegen Regierungsgegner nicht ahnde. Die Privatsphäre von Oppositionellen werde verletzt (eine Journalistin sollte mit in ihrem Schlafzimmer aufgenommenen Bildern erpresst werden, die sie beim Geschlechtsverkehr mit ihrem Partner zeigen), die Religionsfreiheit eingeschränkt. Mehrere Dutzend junge Männer kamen während ihrer Wehrdienstzeit unter ungeklärten Umständen ums Leben. Die Menschenrechtsorganisation „Human Rights Watch“ stellt es ähnlich dar: „Die Regierung Aserbaidschans schränkt systematisch jede Art von regierungskritischem Verhalten ein.“ Über die aserbaidschanischen Präsidentenwahlen im Oktober fällte die Wahlbeobachtermission der Organisation für Sicherheit und Zusammenarbeit in Europa (OSZE) ein vernichtendes Urteil: Einschränkungen der Presse- und Versammlungsfreiheit sowie die Einschüchterung von Wählern und Oppositionskandidaten gehörten gleichsam zum Standardprogramm des Regimes. Am Wahltag selbst wurden die Beobachter auch Zeugen unverfrorener Manipulationen. In Wahllokalen wurden die Urnen mit gefälschten Wahlzetteln vollgestopft, in fast 60 Prozent der beobachteten Fälle war die Stimmauszählung von Betrug begleitet und wurde als „schlecht“ oder „sehr schlecht“ bewertet. Unter anderen wurden Stummzettel „umgeschrieben“.

Aserbaidschan ist reich an Rohstoffen und arm an Rechtstaatlichkeit. Mitte April traten acht aserbaidschanische Männer in einen Hungerstreik, um gegen einen Schauprozess zu demonstrieren, dessen Ausgang von vornherein feststand. In der vergangenen Woche wurden die Männer zu Haftstrafen von bis zu acht Jahren verurteilt. Es handelt sich nicht um Islamisten oder Rauschgifthändler, sondern um Bürgerrechtler und Mitglieder einer demokratischen Jugendgruppe. „Leider sieht es so aus, als sei Alijew mit seiner Kampagne zur Unterminierung europäischer Standards und der sie tragenden Institutionen erfolgreich“, sagt Gerald Knaus von der „Europäischen Stabilitätsinitiative“, einer in Berlin und Istanbul beheimateten Denkfabrik, die sich seit Jahren mit der Lage in Aserbaidschan befasst. „Es ist erschreckend, dass sich junge aserbaidschanische Demokraten unmittelbar vor der Übernahme des Vorsitzes im Europarat durch Aserbaidschan in einem verzweifelten Versuch, die Außenwelt auf ihre Lage aufmerksam zu machen, zu einem Hungerstreik gezwungen sehen“, so Knaus.

Sogar ehemalige aserbaidschanische Mitarbeiter des Europarats sind unter den Verhafteten. Doch im Europarat selbst ist es  nicht möglich, die Dinge beim Namen zu nennen. Jedenfalls lehnte die Parlamentarische Versammlung des Europarats im vergangenen Jahr die Annahme eines umfangreichen Berichts zur Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan mit 125 zu 79 Stimmen und zum Teil haarsträubenden Begründungen ab. Warum schweigt der Europarat zur desaströsen Menschenrechtslage in einem seiner Mitgliedsstaaten? Man soll sich Verschwörungstheorien hüten, aber drei Umstände sind bedenkenswert. Erstens: Der sogenannte südliche Korridor könnte Gaslieferungen Aserbaidschans über die Türkei in die EU-Staaten Griechenland und Italien (und von dort in weitere Mitgliedsländer) sicherstellen. Zweitens: Die Annahme eines Berichts über die desolate Lage politischer Gefangener in Aserbaidschan durch die Abgeordneten der parlamentarischen Versammlung des Europarats wurde nicht nur von den üblichen Verdächtigen (Russland, Aserbaidschan, Türkei) abgelehnt, sondern mehrheitlich auch von den Abgeordneten aus Italien und Griechenland, so von der ehemaligen griechischen Außenministerin Dora Bakogiannis. Drittens: Zur gleichen Zeit, als in Straßburg mit Hilfe der griechischen und italienischen Abgeordneten ein vom Europarat in Auftrag gegebener kritischer Bericht über Aserbaidschans Umgang mit Regimegegnern niedergestimmt wurde, führte der staatliche aserbaidschanische Energiekonzern Socar bereits Verhandlungen mit der Regierung Griechenlands über den Kauf des griechischen Gasnetzwerks Desfa. Im Dezember 2013 wurde in Athen der Abschluss verkündet. Socar unterzeichnete eine Vereinbarung zum Kauf von 66 Prozent der Anteile an Desfa für 400 Millionen Euro.

Zwischen diesen Entwicklungen muss kein Zusammenhang bestehen, aber ignorieren muss man sie auch nicht. Fest steht, dass das Regime in Baku seinen Sieg bei der Abstimmung im Europarat zu Hause für eine neue Verhaftungswelle genutzt hat. Die Nachricht des Regimes an alle Gegner in Gefängnissen und vor der Verhaftung lautete: Ihr habt keine Chance, denn wir sind gegen euch – und der Westen ist mit uns. Schon als Aserbaidschan 2001 in den Europarat aufgenommen wurde, war es alles andere als eine solide Demokratie, doch die fromme Hoffnung lautete, die Lage in dem Kaukasusstaat werde sich mit der Zeit verbessern und der Europarat werde Aserbaidschan europäisieren. Stattdessen ist es Baku offenbar gelungen, die Mehrheit des Europarats zu aserbaidschanisieren. Die Menschenrechtslage in Aserbaidschan hat sich in den vergangenen Jahren nicht nur nicht verbessert, sondern verschlechtert.  Eigentlich sollte Aserbaidschans Vorsitz eine Debatte darüber entfachen, wie ernst der Europarat seine eigenen Konventionen noch nimmt. Jedenfalls haben jene Mitgliedsstaaten, die echte Demokratien sind, Anlass zu der Frage, was diese Institution noch sein kann und soll – und was ihre Gründungsmitglieder dafür tun können, um die Werte aufrechtzuerhalten, in deren Namen die Organisation einst gegründet wurde. Derzeit ist die Lage des Europarates ebenso bedenklich wie die Lage Aserbaidschans.

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Council of Europe,Human rights — Gerald @ 1:18 am
6 May 2014

Rashadat Akhundov, NIDA activist, sentenced to eight years in jail in May 2014 with seven other activists.

A graduate of the Central European University in Budapest.


This morning Azerbaijan’s most courageous investigative journalist, Khadija Ismayilova, published (unfortunately expected) bad news from Baku: the verdict in the case against NIDA youth activists in Azerbaijan:

“Verdict is announced. Democracy activists from Nida! Civic Union are sentenced for exercising their right of freedom of assembly:
Rashadat Akhundov = 8 years
Zaur Gurbanli = 8 years
Ilkin Rustemzade = 8 years
Bakhtiyar Guliyev = 7 years
Mammad Azizov = 7.5 years
Rashad Hasanov = 7.5 years
Uzeyir Mammadli = 7 years
Shahin Novruzlu = 6 years”

This verdict comes on the eve of the visit to Azerbaijan by the secretary general of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, and almost exactly one week before Azerbaijan takes over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

ESI has written a lot on this issue recently – and I have written on it here a few days ago.  We will publish more in the coming weeks.

On this sad day for human rights in Europe – on this truly shameful day for the Council of Europe and its member states, who have failed dissidents and human rights defenders in Azerbaijan – the best is to let the NIDA activists speak for themselves. Here is the speech they delivered in court on 5 May. These voices will not be silenced:

Bakhtiyar Guliyev, Shahin Novruzlu, Mahammad Azizov, Reshad Hasanov,  Rashadat Akhundov, Uzeyir Mammadli, Zaur Gurbanli, İlkin Rustemzade

Date: 01/05/2014

To the Baku Court on Grave Crimes

 

Dear Court,

Dear trial participants,

We, as defendants, have decided to represent ourselves as one person for our last speech to the court. The reason for this is that the government does not see us as individuals, but rather targets the NIDA civil movement that we are members of and subjects it to repression. You may consider our last plea as coming both from the eight NIDA activists present here and other NIDA activists who are either free or under arrest.

Usually, defendants ask for mercy from the court, and sometimes express their regret. We don’t need mercy, nor do we feel regretful, since we have not done anything to regret. Nor do we expect justice from the court that is hearing this fabricated lawsuit, as it is not capable of maintaining the sanctity of the law and making independent and just decisions. The hollowness and meaninglessness of this lawsuit have been unconditionally proven by the truths we have told, the statements made by witnesses, as well as other evidence presented by the defense in their high quality speeches.

The start of the smear campaign against NIDA was made obvious during the first days of the arrests – when Mammad Azizov, Bakhtiyar Guliyev and Shahin Novruzlu were forced to sign completely slanderous texts, memorize them and then recite them in front of cameras after being subjected to physical violence and torture. During this, TV channels continuously disseminated videos provided to them by the Interior Ministry, and government spokespeople and members of parliament made statements implying NIDA aims to create chaos in society.

 

Ilham Aliyev, president of Azerbaijan since 2003.


There was no doubt that these repressions were politically motivated after President Ilham Aliyev named us as criminals during the YAP (New Azerbaijan Party) assembly on June 7, 2013, when investigations were still ongoing and no valid court verdict had been issued. This statement was the decision that sealed our fate. This decision framed the judicial investigation.

Under such circumstances, we are aware of the fact that neither the state prosecutor, nor you, the judges, have any other options to pursue. Your responsibilities in the court are limited to acting as notaries to legitimize this politically motivated order. Even if the law and your conscience demand you to act otherwise, you shall not dare stray from this order. We should also mention that we are not the sole victims of the regime in this trial. Your appointment as the judge and the prosecutor also makes you victims of this fabricated court case. Indeed, we – behind bars and you – at liberty are all hostages and victims in this big prison called Azerbaijan.

That’s why it is difficult to demand anything from you. How can one prisoner help another one?

We do not intend to go deeply through all the details of the case. Because it’s already obvious that even as a pseudo case they could not manage to organize it more maturely and systematically. Nevertheless, we will go through several issues.

The prosecution claims we were arrested due to a protest on March 10. This is partly true.

Why partly and why true? And why shouldn’t we regret this?

Let’s begin from the very first question. As to the prosecution’s testimony, they imprisoned us due to our social activity and particularly for our activity within the NIDA civic movement. But it was not because of events on March 10. NIDA managed to involve mature and active youth in its membership. At the time we hadn’t announced that we were totally opposed to the government. Meanwhile, the government was already against us. Because this regime is an enemy to all active and valuable people who want to spoil its plans for society to remain passive, villainous, obedient and enslaved. Thus, the government is a direct foe to the youth who are indicators of activism, dynamism and who are against slavery. As we see, the government doesn’t chase us because we are criminals. On the contrary, if we committed a crime, we would be friends of this regime. Because they  themselves are of a criminal nature. Thus, they arrested us not only because we protested the death of our brothers on March 10, but also because of our nonviolent struggle, which is not forbidden by law.

If there is any sign of a tendency for violence, solely the government is responsible for it. As the government creates unlawful conditions, people become more aggressive and want revenge. Of course, it encourages a bias towards violence. Being a civic movement, we did our best to prevent physical confrontation and propagate nonviolent struggle. We used numerous examples from global experience that prove that nonviolent struggle is far better than violence. Ironically however, we were accused of violence. Our criminal case took its place at the top of the list of ridiculous crimes in the world.

And shall we regret it?!

We are arrested for and proud of demanding freedom, rule of law, and human rights for the nation we belong to, for the land we are residents of.

Everyone has clearly seen the torture and abasement that the first three arrested activists have encountered. But unfortunately, the court didn’t even attempt to investigate the case. The court process is enough to eliminate these testimonies from the list of evidence. But of course only an independent and fair court could precisely evaluate and take the necessary course in this way, not you!

 

NIDA trial

 

Observers [of this trial] probably remember the testimony of Anar Abbasov, the main witness of the prosecution, whose addiction to drugs and mental problems was evident even without a professional examination. His testimony became an exercise in contradiction. He couldn’t describe the Venice café [where according to the indictment, he witnessed the activists’ discussion of their plan for violent action], he didn’t even know what NIDA! (exclamation) means, he couldn’t recognize the people, whom, according to the indictment, he identified as participants of the violence-planning meeting, he couldn’t remember anyone’s name, his testimony was a bunch of nonsensical  words about NIDA and Venice. That witness was in fact the best proof of our innocence.

The government accuses us of cooperation with foreign groups. Just imagine, the accusation of using violence comes from the government, which came to power via a military coup, which used arms for violence against its own people including the events of October 15-16, 2003, the assassinations of dozens of the best thinkers, like Elmar Huseynov, Ziya Bunyadov, Rafik Tagi. It comes from the government that has its own people’s blood on its hands. And yes, it is the irony of history.

Unlike the YAP members who would trade away Azerbaijan’s interests to foreign countries, who would do anything in order to maintain the dominance of the ruling party, we NIDA activists have never been slaves of the Russian KGB, nor have we worshipped the U.S. or European oil magnates’ money, nor followed the Iranian mullah’s and Turkish Nurchu’s ways. NIDA activists are patriots ready to sacrifice their youth and lives for the sake of the nation without the slightest hesitation. The charges imposed on us are simply the government projecting its ugly nature onto us.

Having touched upon the foreign affairs issues, we would like to share our opinion on the case of the Ministry of National Security stealing AZN 94,000 from Shahin Novruzlu’s father and calling it a crime. There was enough evidence provided by the witnesses at the hearing to prove that this money belonged to Shahin’s family. We can compare this to another incident. 12 September 1980, the junta that came to power by military coup in Turkey, staying loyal to their methods, executed 17-year-old Erdal Eren. A great republic with 100 years of history like Turkey still is not able to clean the stain called Erdal Eren. After 33 years, in Azerbaijan Erdal’s peer Shahin is being accused by YAP, and loyal to their values they stole Shahin’s father’s money. The military men do what they are used to – murder, YAP members do what they are used to do – theft.

While governments are transitory, be sure of the fact that Shahin’s arrest and the theft of his family’s, in particular his aunt’s hard-earned money will hang over Azerbaijan’s shoulders like the Sword of Damocles, and we as a nation and a country in general will always be ashamed of it.

Two of us have been charged with hooliganism because of a simple dance. However, this dance doesn’t have any signs of hooliganism, not to mention any criminal implications. The evidence provided and the defense speeches have proven this. Therefore, in our final speech we would rather talk about the main reason for the arrests than the legal aspects. The objective of introducing this article to our case is to present us as “immoral” to society. This is precisely why the host of the disgraceful Lider TV, who has previously presented pornographic scenes shot by secret cameras, now misinformed the public by making fun of our alleged participation in the dance (deliberately misrepresenting the facts as if the eight people sitting here are in fact the eight people who are seen in the Harlem Shake video). However, despite their cheap and meaningless efforts, the dance cannot be considered as immoral. Immorality is to steal or sell parliamentary seats, falsify elections, be an oligarch or rip off the nation of its last piece of bread. The fight against this immorality is the most honourable, glorious and moral job to do.

Our court case, with each of its details, has discredited the government and shown its real face. Please pay closer attention to the above-mentioned witness, Anar Abbasov. He is a bright example of the zombie population that Aliyev’s regime has been trying to bring up for the last 21 years. This “new Azerbaijani” is meant to be cowardly and sinful, his morality must be tainted with slavery and sycophancy, he should be able to slander even his own brother when the time comes, he should be corrupt enough not to dare to stand against even a slight injustice with a life credo of adulation of the authorities and hypocrisy. In the past 21 years, the ruling party was considerably successful with their mission of creating this “new breed of Azerbaijanis”.

Solshenitsyn (in Soviet prison)

Solshenitsyn in his “Live Not By Lies” wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in the lies. He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: Personal non-participation in lies. This is what NIDA does.

The NIDA civic movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation we came across prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy. Our determined resistance, persistent position and speaking the truth (despite the benefits of the government’s side) couldn’t have been achieved in any other way.

There is something they do not realize. If there is an evil happening in one place, even if everyone turns their faces away, those who are humane have to face it. We as free men cannot turn a blind eye to evil, immorality, and in general the government’s misdeeds; we will only bow in front of a righteous power. The ideology of the Republic sees it as evil to live under someone else’s despotic regime (will), because slavery creates the worst of its consequences- a state of vagrancy and sycophancy. We as true republicans, despite the dangers, will not trade freedom for the comforts of slave lives!

Therefore, the regime’s police and other power structures’ violent and brutal actions disguised as “service to law”, presenting our constitutional right of freely gathering as a riot, calling our peaceful struggle a violent act, and our fabricated arrests do not scare us and will not make us back away from our position. The clarity of our fundamental principles, and our loyalty to them, our complete rejection of radicalism, immorality and violence are the reasons why hundreds of people with a similar ideology joined our cause in the course of the past year.

As mentioned earlier, our participation in this court is a mere formality. Our plea to be acquitted from these falsified criminal charges is also a formality. But we are confident that acquittal will come not from the court but from our people and history. There is another reason for coming to the court and giving this “final speech”. We value the court system as a foundation of the state and guarantor of social justice. We respect and honour the splendour carried in the word – court. Therefore, despite the fact that the standards of this court falls far below these criteria, out of respect to the judge and the court we are obeying the formal procedures and continue to strive to do so.

Sahin Novruzlu, the youngest activist, was 17 at the time of his arrest

 

The final word has yet to be uttered. The final word will sooner or later come from the nation that stands for the arrested ten [meaning the eight NIDA activists in this case and Abdul Abilov and Omar Mammadov – two Facebook prisoners facing trumped-up drug charges] NIDA activists, and our counterparts.

 


Socrates

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was brought to court under the accusation that he was poisoning the thoughts of youths. He could have left the country or accepted to stay silent, to not spread his ideas.  Otherwise, he knew that he would be executed. At the trial, Socrates declared that he would not sacrifice the truth for his freedom and life, and chose death.  We will also not sell the truth for anything – whether we’re free or jailed.

We are not alone.  Our determined intellectuals and public figures – the Chairman of “REAL” Ilgar Mammadov, Deputy Chairman of “Musavat” Tofig Yagublu, Yadigar Sadigov, Gurban Mammadov, Anar Mammadli, main representative of the believers in Azerbaijan, Taleh Baghirzade, our falsely accused young friends Ebdul Ebilov, Omar Mammadov, Elsever Murselli, Rashad Ramazanli, journalists Rauf Mirgadirov, Perviz Heshimli and dozens of other prisoners of conscience and political prisoners, are kept in jail under false pretences, specifically for telling the truth. This government has to understand that, even if there is only one person in the country with a conscience, he will continue the resistance against their atrocious anti-people politics. Finally, the truth will triumph over lies.

Even though we have reached a level of corruption that has no parallels, we know that the exams for the selection of the judges and prosecutors for our cases are challenging. Because of that, our judges and prosecutors, usually, have to possess some knowledge of law. We do not doubt that the current panel of judges and the public prosecutor in front of us also possess a high degree of legal literacy.  This is also evident from the fact that Azerbaijan’s strongest lawyers are defending us and you have specifically been chosen to go against them, the political order of making a case for these absurd allegations has been given specifically to you.

The ultimate aim of the law is to provide justice. You, also, possess the qualifications to professionally determine justice.  It is impossible for you not to see that these allegations are frivolous and this, we are sure, you do not doubt.  Because of that, it will be very hard for you to give us our sentence.  Because the trial of conscience that comes forward from the honour of one’s profession and humanity is harder than the trial of this sort.  Despite this, comfort will conquer conscience and you will read out our conviction.   For this reason, we do not ask anything from you. Quite the opposite, in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentencing are not going to waste.  It is a capital investment in the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing something for this country.

We took into consideration that we are a capital investment in freedom when we started this journey.  Now, can we be sorry for the accusations, for the thoughts and actions which we did not commit?!

We declare once again that we are confident and you should be confident, that because of our desire for freedom for this nation of which we are part of, this region in which we are residing, because freedom, democracy, rule of law are of the highest value and the rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country should be respected, because of our efforts in this sphere we have been arrested and of this we are proud.

We ask our friends, peers, and specifically our parents to be ready for a heavy sentence and not to give way to hysteria, damnation, or insults. Everyone aside from the foreigners are victims in this courtroom and it is inconsequential and meaningless for a victim to curse out another victim.

We say thank you to everyone who took part in defending us, including those who share our beliefs, to our family that is always with us, to little Araz, to our lawyers who selflessly defended us. We express our gratitude to the local and international human rights organizations, parties, and other organizations, foreign states and their embassies working towards restoring our rights. We are grateful to the representatives of foreign embassies and international organizations who have participated in our trial for half a year, because they have also proven that the Western values which we have been defending are not based on oil, or geostrategic material interest, but on freedom and justice.

Lastly, from here we want to reach out to the NIDA fighters outside. During Soviet times, a seven-member organization called “Ildirim” [“Thunder”], of which all seven members were jailed for their anti-Soviet efforts, Ismikhan Rahimov-a member turned to his relatives after his sentence was read, while being placed in a vehicle and said: “We are leaving, but we will be back.”

Now, we are delivering to you the words of Sir Ismakhan in another form:  We are not going anywhere and coming back.  Because we exist anyway, we are here, with you. Even if ten members of NIDA are in jail, those of you who are free are replacing us.  We call on you to continue the fight for us with even more principal and relentlessness.  Do not ever surrender to slander! Hold your heads high, your wills strong!

Down with dictatorship and despotism!

Long live the people who do not bow to oppression and injustice!

Rashadat Akhundov

Rashad Hasanov

Uzeyir Mammadli

Zaur Gurbanli

Ilkin Rustamzade

Bakhtiyar Guliyev

Shahin Novruzlu

Mammad Azizov

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Europe,Human rights,Uncategorized — Gerald @ 11:22 am
4 May 2014

 

In recent  years the government of Azerbaijan has been playing cat and mouse with the Council of Europe. In a recent newsletter (Hunger strike, European values and an Open Letter) and in an open letter to PACE members we  suggested what might be done in response:

  • Call on President Ilham Aliyev to give amnesty to Ilgar Mammadov, Anar Mammadli and the eight young activists on hunger strike before Azerbaijan assumes the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on 14 May 2014;
  • Call on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to travel to Azerbaijan urgently, and speak out strongly and forcefully on behalf of these and many other political prisoners;
  • Support an initiative to appoint a new rapporteur on political prisoners to investigate the trend of imprisonment in Azerbaijan since the vote in January 2013.

Now at least one of these things appears to be happening:  Mr. Jagland is going to Baku.

“The Secretary General of the Council of Europe is going to discuss the topic of political prisoners

The human rights situation in Azerbaijan will be one of the main topics on the agenda of the upcoming May 8th visit to Baku of the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Thorbjorn Jagland. It is learned from sources in Strasbourg that Yangland will also affect the situation with the detention of IPD director Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunusov and pressure on them. Also touched upon will be the political prisoners and the need to address this problem due to commence in May of the chairmanship of Azerbaijan in the Committee of Ministers. “

Of course, it remains to be seen what will come out of this visit. However, the mere fact of Mr. Jagland going to Baku should raise expectations. Mr. Jagland has a legacy to defend.  He has been secretary general since September 2009. He is also running for reelection for a second term in a few weeks’ time.

There is little that a secretary general can do directly to prevent member states of the Council of Europe from violating human rights. However, one thing a secretary general must do is speak out openly about systemic violations of human rights in a member state. Today the credibility of the whole institution is at stake as a result of Azerbaijan’s years of abuse of its principles. It is thus crucial that Mr. Jagland achieves something on his forthcoming visit to Baku.

Developments in recent days have added to this urgency. There has been further harassment of distinguished Azerbaijani human rights defenders – and this at the very moment when Azerbaijan presented its program for the chairmanship of the Council of Europe (see below). In the next six months the Azerbaijani government proposes to host events to discuss the role of human rights education, the work of judges in defending human rights, the future of youth … while at the same time it hosts show trials against human rights defenders, journalists and youth activists. Can any of these events be taken seriously while Azerbaijan engages in this cynical behaviour?

Recent days saw: the arrest of journalist Rauf Mirkadirov. The arrest of Leyla Yunus and her husband Arif Yunus.  The persecution of critical thinkers on espionage charges. With rare exceptions, such as the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, most European policy makers have remained silent.  (See also this statement by Catherine Ashton and Stefan Füle).


In contrast, the NIDA youth activists, on hunger strike for two weeks, made a remarkable statement at the close of their trial in Baku last week. Their moral courage in the face of injustice puts to shame the current ineffective human rights protection machinery in Strasbourg. It also casts a shadow over the very notion of Azerbaijan as a chairman of the Council of Europe. In their final speech in court, after 15 days of hunger strike, the NIDA activists evoked the great dissidents of the Soviet period to explain their motivation:

Solschenitzyn in his “Live Not By Lies” wrote about despotic regimes’ dependence on everyone’s participation in lies.  He wrote that the simplest and most accessible key to our self-neglected liberation lies right here: in personal non-participation in lies. This is what Nida does.

Nida civil movement tried to resist and prevent a complete victory of this government’s policy. Our and other members’ ongoing arrests, openly demonstrated anger and irritation prove that we are on the right track to hamper this policy.”

They also directly addressed the judges and prosecutors:

“… in order to calm your conscience, to give you comfort, we are letting you know that the years that are being taken from our lives with your sentence are not going to waste. It is a capital investment for the freedom of Azerbaijan. So, even though you may be an anti-hero, you are also doing some things for this country.”

This is a speech and political activism in the tradition of non-violent resistance to authoritarianism of Liu Xiaobo. In the tradition of defending human rights as done by Andrei Sacharov.   In the tradition of the 1977 Nobel Peace Prize given to Amnesty International.

 

Andrei Sacharov – Nobel Prize Winning former political prisoner

This makes it all the more poignant that the recent increase in repression and in the number of arrests of human rights defenders are happening at a time when the secretary general of the Council of Europe is also the Chair of the  Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

We hope that Mr. Jagland will achieve something next week.

We hope that the game of cat and mouse that Azerbaijan has been playing with political prisoners will come to an end.

 

100 years ago: arrests could not break them: Suffragette in London

East European dissidents are not the only proud tradition which events in Baku bring to mind today.

One hundred years ago, in 1913, the British government passed what became known as the Cat and Mouse Act to break the will of a group of courageous women – the suffragettes – fighting for the right to vote. The law was called the Prisoners, Temporary Discharge for Health Act:

“The Liberal government of Asquith had been highly embarrassed by the hunger strike tactic of the Suffragettes. Many of the more famous Suffragettes were from middle class backgrounds and were educated. When some suffragettes were arrested they would go on hunger strike. This was a deliberate policy to bring attention to their cause and also to embarrass the government.To counter this, the government resorted to force-feeding those women on hunger-strike – an act usually reserved for those held in what were then called lunatic asylums. This simple act greatly embarrassed the government.

To get around this, the ‘Cat and Mouse Act’ was introduced. The logic behind this was simple: a Suffragette would be arrested; she would go on hunger strike; the authorities would wait until she was too weak (through lack of food) to do any harm if in public. She would then be released ‘on licence’. Once out of prison, it was assumed that the former prisoner would start to eat once again and re-gain her strength over a period of time. If she committed an offence while out on licence, she would be immediately re-arrested and returned to prison. Here, it was assumed that she would then go back on hunger strike … The nickname of the act came about because of a cat’s habit of playing with its prey (a mouse) before finishing it off.”

The suffragettes were fighting for a then radical idea – women having the same political rights as men – just as NIDA activists are defending the radical idea that the European Convention on Human Rights and its provisions also apply to Azerbaijan. The goal of the British government at the time was to break their will, without too much embarrassment, by playing cat and mouse. The same is happening in Baku today.

In the end, history was not on the side of the British government .  Today, history is not on the side of the regime in Baku. Mr. Jagland might evoke the long tradition of political prisoners his Nobel Peace Prize Committee has honoured. He might also recall the history of the Suffragettes. And tell president Ilham Aliyev that he is on the wrong side of history. It might not work this time. But at the very least, the Council of Europe should not be on the wrong side of history too.

Suffragette poster – UK early 20th century

 

PS:  Is it possible for a dictatorship, imprisoning its own human rights defenders, to plan a full Council of Europe chairmanship programme, without ever drawing attention to its own abysmal human rights record? And if it is, what does this tell us about the state of the institution?

Find below the draft program of the Azerbaijani Council of Europe chairmanship. Will any of the participants from across Europe even blush when they are being welcomed by the regime of Aliyev to discuss the following?

20 to 21 May: Meeting of coordinators of the Council of Europe Charter of Education for Democratic Citizenship and Human Rights

22 to 23 May: Meetings of the PACE Bureau and Standing Committee

1 to 30 June: Conference on Public service delivery in the context of human rights and good governance

17 June: Meeting of the CLRAE Bureau

18 to 20 June: Baku Conference of European Ombudspersons

20 to 21 June: Conference on the new “Council of Europe Platform on the Impact of Digitisation on Culture”

30 June to 1 July: High-level conference on combating corruption

3 to 4 July: Plenary meeting for the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice

1 to 2 September: Annual exchange meeting on religious dimension of intercultural dialogue

1 to 30 September: Platform meeting on youth foundation and financing structures

10 to 11 September: Seminar to review the Council of Europe Social Cohesion Strategy and Action Plan

18 to 21 September: High-level conference on the Council of Europe Neighbourhood Policy

1 to 5 October: Event within the “No hate speech movement” of the Council of Europe

6 to 9 October: Celebration of European Heritage Days 2014

10 to 11 October: High-level conference on the role of national judges on enhancing domestic application of the ECHR

20 to 26 October: The 4th regional ministerial meeting on the implementation of the European Higher Education Area

28 to 30 October: UN Global Forum on Youth

30 to 31 October: Cultural Routes Advisory Forum Policy

 

Recommended reading:

Solschenitsyn – Live not by Lies (1974)

So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood—of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one’s family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies—or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one’s children and contemporaries.

And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question. Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed. Of course we have not listed all of the possible and necessary deviations from falsehood. But a person who purifies himself will easily distinguish other instances with his purified outlook.

No, it will not be the same for everybody at first. Some, at first, will lose their jobs. For young people who want to live with truth, this will, in the beginning, complicate their young lives very much, because the required recitations are stuffed with lies, and it is necessary to make a choice.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Azerbaijan,Europe,Human rights,United Kingdom — Gerald @ 10:39 am
13 March 2014

Lost in the Bosnian labyrinth – five months later

A few months ago ESI published two reports on EU conditionality concerning Bosnia.

These publications were  followed by many reactions.

A number of EU foreign ministers wrote to me to say that they fully agreed with the arguments. So did senior staff in the European Commission. So did senior diplomats in a number of EU member states.  There have  been a lot of Media reactions.

We argued that given other priorities facing Bosnia – social and economic reform being primary – focusing on this issue to the exclusion of almost everything else was simply not a good use of the time of the country’s leading politicians. Nor did it make sense to step into the fray in the way this had been done by the European Commission.

Since we published our reports the debate has started to move, but only very slowly.

Doubts among EU member states have grown.

The European Commission has since given up trying to mediate (we suggested this already in October, arguing that it was extremely unlikely to succeed).

We learned that lawyers working for the Council of Europe were asked to check whether our arguments were legally sound, and that they concluded – internally- that they were.

However, until today Bosnia remains stuck, held hostage by this condition.

In our first report we gave three reasons why we believed that the Commission was not treating Bosnia fairly. We believe they are still valid  5 months later:

  • This is not an issue of institutional “racism”.
    Apartheid South Africa had a racist electoral system. Bosnia does not. Neither does Belgium or South Tyrol, although in both countries legislation requires citizens to declare a community affiliation for certain purposes, similar to Bosnia. However, only in Bosnia is the ethnicity of any individual not defined in official documents. By leaving it up to any individual to determine how to self-identify – and allowing any individual to change this self-identification in the future – the Bosnian system is more liberal than either Belgium’s or South Tyrol’s. Unlike in Cyprus, it is also not tied to any objective criteria such as religion or the ethnicity of parents. In fact, in 2004 the EU endorsed community-based voting and praised the UN Annan plan for Cyprus based on the very principles that Bosnia’s constitution embraces.

 

  • Bosnia is not violating fundamental human rights.
    The issue at stake in the election of the Bosnian presidency – the most complicated issue to resolve – is not a violation of any rights enumerated by the European Convention on Human Rights itself. It is a violation of Protocol 12 of the Convention, which extends the applicability of non-discrimination from “the rights and freedoms set forth in the Convention” to “any right set forth by law”. This protocol has so far been ratified by only 8 out of 28 EU member states.

 

  • This is not an issue of Bosnia systematically violating its international obligations. Bosnia’s record implementing European Court of Human Rights’ decisions is better than that of most current EU members.

 

For all these reasons, we noted, non-implementation of the Sejdic-Finci decision cannot justify blocking Bosnia and Herzegovina’s application for EU membership. The very reforms that the EU expects from Bosnia have not been asked of other EU applicants, much less of its own member states.

(see also: Not for lack of trying. Chronology of efforts to solve the Sejdic-Finci conundrumInterview with Gerald Knaus in Dnevni Avaz, “Koncept “ostalih” vrlo je čudan” (2 October 2013) – also available in English: “The concept of “others” is very strange”Interview with Gerald Knaus in Dnevni Avaz: “It won’t be Bosnia’s fault if visas are re-imposed” (12 September 2013))

 

Houdini in Bosnia – How to unlock the EU accession process

 

Interestingly, our arguments were  also taken seriously by another think tank focusing on Bosnia, DPC, which published a whole paper to address the arguments we made.

The title of the DPC paper is a bit complicated: “Legal Misunderstandings, False normative Hopes  and the Ignorance of Political Reality – A Commentary on the recent ESI Report “Lost in the Bosnian Labyrinth”.

It is clear what is being meant: ESI got it wrong. However, if this was easy to understand, the same could not be said for the rest of the argument (found here: http://democratizationpolicy.org/uimages/DPCPolicyNoteNewseriesSejdicFinci.pdf).

So I sent an email to DPC on 20 November 2013 to take our mutual understanding of the issues one step further. Here it is:

“Hi Bodo,

I just read the DPC paper on our ESI paper on Sejdic Finci.

It is flattering to have a whole policy paper devoted to our paper, but there are some arguments in the text which are perhaps not totally convincing?

I quote a few passages and make a few remarks, wondering what you think.
1. “the paper appears to be an effort to provide an ideological framework for the EU to move beyond its continuing failures in BiH that have enabled local politicians to undo many of the highly-touted reforms put in place prior to 2006, when the EU assumed policy leadership.”
This is puzzling. The author first appears to argue that the EU has failed since 2006, and that our paper provides an “ideological framework” to “move beyond its continuing failures” .. but then he implies that this is bad? How can moving “beyond failure” be a bad thing? And what is an ideological framework here?
(Which “highly-touted” reforms have been undone? This is never explained, just stated.)
2. “ESI compares this case to voting and selection processes in other EU member states, including Belgium, Italy (South Tyrol) and Cyprus, and concludes that similar provisions (sometimes even stricter) are also applied in other EU member states. These states however, are not sanctioned by the EU. Legally speaking, this assessment is correct. However, the devil is in the details.”
If this is “legally speaking correct” – here we agree – how can “details” make it legally incorrect? Or is it “legally correct” but “politically incorrect”? How can that be?
3. “while the Belgian and the South Tyrolean examples also demonstrate some form of discrimination, it is nevertheless a form of positive discrimination. The aim of the power-sharing arrangements in both countries is to allow for minority groups to participate in decision-making. Hence, the legal framework has to be understood in the context of the intended aims of power-sharing mechanisms. In the case of Brussels, it is a mechanism to engage Flemish speakers in the officially bilingual but mainly French-speaking city, and in the case of South Tyrol it gives representation to German and Ladin speakers.”
How is this different from Bosnia where there is a Croat minority?
We note that all the current debates to find a solution to Sejdic Finci turn on how to help the Croats ensure that they can elect “their representative”. Is this so different from Belgium?
Note also that there are many other minorities, including the constituent (in Belgium) group of Germans or other EU residents in South Tyrol, who, in order to participate in some functions, have to declare that they belong to one of the categories presented to them. How is this different from Bosnia?
4. “A political system that is characterized by ethnically exclusive parties does not allow for flexibility.”
This is also puzzling, given that in Belgium all parties are either Flemish or Walloon, and in Bosnia, by contrast, Komsic was elected on the SDP ticket twice. A man from Ghana was the “Croat” ambassador in Japan for Bosnia. Sven Alkalaj, a Croatian citizen and Jew was also member of the government for a (Bosniac or Bosnian?) party. How then can Bosnia be considered less flexible than Belgium?
5. “. What ESI basically suggests is that EU’s conditionality, in particular the ocus on fundamental human rights, should not apply to BiH at this stage”
Where did we suggest this? Which “fundamental human right” should not apply?
6. “The Republika Srpska’s calls for secession have become louder, while Croats undermine the current constitutional framework with their demand for a de facto or de jure third entity. No reform that involves the current elites within the current framework will be able to cure these problems.”
How is this related to Sejdic-Finci? Here it seems that the RS is not the problem (and not even involved in the most recent rounds of talks). The solution that is likely to emerge in the end, and which would address the ECHR’s judgement, could well end up creating a Croat de facto electoral district in the Federation, no? Is this then good or bad?
And if it were true the current elites cannot solve this problem, what should happen instead? It is after all the current elites that are negotiating Sejdic-Finci implementation since 3 years. If they cannot agree and will not agree then everything just stays as it is now. Is this a solution?
7. “But this also means that the unwillingness to reform must be penalised and that Bosnian elites should be punished for non-compliance”
Who is to be punished over Sejdic Finci? Every party has made a proposal, and each proposal meets the conditions by the ECtHR  … it is just that they cannot agree among each other on the one proposal to chose. Should all be punished now?
In short, we understand that there may be disagreements on how important Sejdic Finci is, but the irony is that a deal that might satisfy the EU and the ECtHR and that is actually in sight is one that makes the election of someone like Komsic less, not more, likely. Is this progress in your view?
And if any one of the proposals on the table now IS chosen in the end … would Bosnia”s constitutional or other problems of governance be solved in any meaningful way?
Was this worth the time and effort and resources spent on it for three years now? We doubt this. But if this is not worth it … why continue the current policy, where this has become the number one issue discussed by Bosnian leaders?
Thanks again for taking our paper seriously and taking the time to discuss it in detail, best wishes ,
Gerald”

I received a very polite response within a few days, promising some answers eventually. Since then I have not heard anything. Perhaps the responses will still come.

In the meantime we can just wait until all those in the EU – and inside the European Commission – who know that the current policy is counterproductive begin to speak out in public.

 

 

 

Further reading:

 

Filed under: Balkans,Bosnia,Enlargement,Europe,Human rights — Gerald @ 6:05 pm
8 March 2014

In October 1935 the Italian army invaded Abyssinia. In the same month the Abyssinians appealed to the League of Nations for help. The League condemned the attack. All League members were ordered to impose economic sanctions on Mussolini’s Italy. Then all resolve faltered.

Sanctions were half-hearted. They did not include vital materials such as oil. Britain kept open the Suez Canal, crucial as Italy supplied her armed forces. In December 1935 the British Foreign Secretary and the French Prime Minister met and presented a plan that gave large areas of Abyssinia to Italy. Mussolini accepted the plan.

The League’s involvement was a total failure.The capital, Addis Ababa, fell in May 1936 and Haile Selassie was replaced by the king of Italy. Somaliland, Eritrea and Abyssinia became Italian East Africa. The League of Nations was a corpse even before it perished. It had no more legitimacy.

DL0929

The Crimea crisis and events in Ukraine today pose a similar threat to the credibility of other European organisations … created, like the League, in the wake of a devastating war with high hopes of launching a new era.  And one organisation already  in the crosshair of the dictator’s assault, already reeling, which Russia was able to join under false pretext and then proceeded to capture with the support of other autocrats in the East and accomplices from the West is the Council of Europe.

Until a few weeks ago one could fear that the Azerbaijani presidency of the Council of Europe, set to begin a few weeks from now in Strasbourg,  would mark the low-point in the history of this once proud organisation. And one might have hoped that, perhaps, it was still possible that the sight of a dictator at the helm of this club of democracies might produce a long overdue shock; wake up democrats across Europe, to pay attention to an institution once created to embody the values of post-war Europe (stated in the European Convention on Human Rights) and recently captured by autocrats from Europe’s east.

Until a few weeks ago I thought there was time to rescue these institutions. Certainly, that it was worth it Today there is good cause to wonder whether the Abyssinia moment has not now also come for Strasbourg.

Unless the Council of Europe reacts to the dramatic illegal occupation of one member state by another member state; unless PACE – the Parliamentary Assembly – issues a strong and unequivocal declaration; unless member states in the Committee of Ministers now take effective actions against Russia; it is hard to see how this “spiritual union” of European democracies can survive as more than a bureaucratic corpse.

It is not hard to envisage a future for the OSCE in this new, harsher, Europe: it will return to being a forum for debates between dictatorships and democracies, similar to the CSCE after the Helsinki Accords were ratified in the 1970s.  It has long been obvious that countries such as Uzbekistan, Belarus, Russia or Azerbaijan are not democracies. The notion that they should participate in setting  high standards for European democracies – which need these standards as much now as ever – debases everyone. Instead let diplomats meet in Vienna and talk (and exchange insults) about peace and common interests. Such a forum is useful as long as it does not serve to legitimize dictatorial rule as “democratic.”

The same is not true for the Council of Europe. Between the  OSCE and the EU it has no future if it does not credibly defend the highest values of democracy. The demise of its credibility creates a void that also needs to be filled: most probably by the European Union, now called upon to define its own human rights acquis more explicitly.

The EU should make human rights central to its association agreements. It should spell out its “political criteria” much clearer, both for accession candidates and for its own members. It should find ways to cooperate with other genuine democracies, from Switzerland to Norway to Moldova in the East.

Of course it would be preferable to preserve the Council of Europe and see dictators such as Putin and Aliyev censured instead, until their countries change their ways. But this looks increasingly unlikely. Instead we will have an Azerbaijani presidency and not even symbolic sanctions against Russia after its aggression.

The Palace of Europe in StrasbourgThe Palace of Europe in Strasbourg

It is hard to see is how the Council of Europe can function much longer as a hostage of dictatorial and aggressive members. They pay an important share of its budget. They are bent on destroying the values it once stood for. And for some time now they have imposed their vision of the world with impunity.

It should also be noted that there would still be a lot worth rescuing  from the burning house of the Palace of Europe, the Council of Europe’s headquarter in Strasbourg. Conventions, agreements, commissions, initiatives (such as the Venice Commission), all serving their members , all worthy of being preserved … but outside of the clutch of dictators. (The same is less obvious in the case of PACE, which appears increasingly superfluous next to the European Parliament on the one hand and the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly on the other).

The thread does not stop here, unfortunately. Other proud institutions might soon face a similar challenge: one is the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Warsaw. It has so far stood up, valiantly, to pressure from the East over its professional work on election monitoring. Why would Putin or Aliyev want credible election observation any more than rulers in Tashkent or Minsk? It is fighting tough battles over its budget. It soon faces a crucial choice over its future leadership. ODIHR’s independence and professionalism must be defended at all costs. In fact, should ODIHR be at risk of losing its credibility as a result of an ongoing Russian and Azerbaijani campaign, or should it be paralysed – then the EU and democracies like Switzerland should stand ready to fund it directly.  To rescue valuable experience. To preserve it as the preeminent  European election monitoring organisation, open to other European democracies.

It now seems only a matter of months before post-Maidan Europe will see a broader debate on the institutional architecture needed to preserve core values and safeguard the lessons from the 1930s and 40s.  And we had better prepare for it. For it now seems increasingly likely that Russian troops in Crimea and Ukraine might have a similar effect on European institutions as Mussolini’s troops had when they embarked on their aggression in East Africa many decades ago.

Council of Europe. Photo: Alban Bodineau / Council of EuropeCouncil of Europe

 

ESI background analysis: how the Council of Europe is losing credibility

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