On 15 April, the JW Marriott Hotel Absheron became the latest international hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, to disrupt the activities of a non-governmental organization (NGO). Shahla Ismayil, who heads a women's rights group called the Women's Association for Rational Development, was notified by hotel management that they were canceling an event the group had organized to take place at the hotel the following day.
No explanation was given for the cancelation, and the arrangements had been agreed 15 days earlier - although the hotel had postponed signing the contract until the actual day of the event. The event was intended to focus on "Women in Peace-building," and the group was planning to present the results of a one-year project related to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
This was unexpected, as we have held three events at the Marriott in the past, without problems
"This was unexpected, as we have held three events at the Marriott in the past, without problems. The worst part was the way they canceled, just one hour before the close of business the day before, so we did not have time to find a new venue. This seemed to be done intentionally, to mislead us until the last minute. I know of at least four other similar cases at hotels in Baku in the past two weeks. It is part of a dirty game," said Ismayil.
The Marriott's cancellation of this event was the latest in a string of similar incidents at international hotels in Baku. There have been increasing reports of international hotels canceling, or interfering with, the events of independent NGOs, particularly those working on issues related to democracy and human rights. As a result, these NGOs are facing increasing difficulty finding places to carry out their normal activities.
Other recent incidents
There have been several reports of similar incidents at the Park Inn by Radisson in Baku. In January, the Art for Democracy campaign, which uses art to promote democracy and human rights in Azerbaijan, was prevented from screening a documentary film on artistic freedom of expression when a suspicious power cut took place at the hotel. The power cut only affected the floor of the building where the film was to be screened. Hotel employees claimed that it was due to a technical problem, although some later unofficially acknowledged to campaign staff that the power cut had been the result of pressure on hotel management.
In February, the Institute for Reporters' Freedom and Safety (IRFS), a media rights watchdog organization, reported that the Park Inn's management canceled an IRFS conference four days ahead of the event, although it had been booked and paid for, and a contract signed, 10 days earlier. No reason was given for the cancelation. IRFS Chairman Emin Huseynov wrote a letter about the incident to Wolfgang M. Neumann, the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Rezidor Hotel Group, which owns the Park Inn, but did not receive a response.
IRFS noted that the Park Inn had previously canceled one of its events just one hour before it was scheduled to take place in 2013. Besides the Park Inn, IRFS reported that the Hilton and the Four Seasons have refused to let IRFS hold events at their Baku hotels. Another independent NGO, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center reported that the Park Inn has refused to allow the group to hold events at the hotel on several occasions, as had the Hyatt Regency twice.
"Independent NGOs work under intimidation and threats on an almost daily basis in Azerbaijan. Discriminatory treatment and sabotage of our events by international hotels is only making matters worse. Instead of upholding their commitments to standards of professionalism and corporate social responsibility, the management of these hotels appears to be bowing to pressure by the Azerbaijani authorities," said IRFS Chairman Emin Huseynov.
Corporate social responsibility
Indeed, the hotels in question have stated commitments to corporate social responsibility, often specifically including human rights principles. According to Marriott's website, "At Marriott, we support and respect the protection of human rights within the company's sphere of influence and strive to conduct our business operations accordingly."
When asked to comment on the 15 April incident at the JW Marriott Hotel Absheron, Marriott's head office replied, "As a global hospitality company, Marriott supports and respects the protection of human rights and has developed a comprehensive human rights policy which includes internal and external awareness programs, community outreach and partnerships with human rights organizations. In instances where contractual obligations and deadlines are not met by the booking party, we reserve the right to turn down business."
Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights
The Rezidor Hotel Group's website notes that the group has signed the United Nations Global Compact and complies with its ten principles, which includes the principles that "Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and... make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses." When contacted about the incidents at the Park Inn Baku detailed above, Rezidor stated that it was investigating the situation.
Such incidents are only one of the many forms of pressure faced by independent NGOs in Azerbaijan. Four human rights defenders are currently in detention or in prison on politically motivated charges. Parliament has been tightening legislation affecting NGOs, limiting their ability to accept donations, restricting their operations, and making it easy for the authorities to shut down unwelcome groups. NGO registration is highly politicized, with democracy and human rights NGOs facing disproportionate difficulties in registering. An ongoing criminal investigation of the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center has sent the signal that the authorities may be poised for an even harsher crackdown on unregistered NGOs.
As a result, there are few truly independent NGOs left in Azerbaijan that remain willing to take on risky work such as fighting for justice in cases of human rights violations, exposing corruption, and demanding government accountability. International companies that have professed commitment to similar values should not be adding to the pressure against these vulnerable groups. They should stand by their commitments and provide the same facilities and services to independent NGOs as they would to anyone else, in Azerbaijan or elsewhere.
Rebecca Vincent is human rights activist and former U.S. diplomat.
The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL