Just three weeks before Azerbaijan is set to take Chairmanship of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe Nils Muiznieks has called for urgent attention by the Azerbaijani authorities to ongoing human rights violations in the country. On 23 April, the Commissioner released a document titled "Observations on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan: An update on freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and the right to property."
Azerbaijan -- Police officers detain one of the opposition activists during an unauthorized rally in central Baku, 26Jan2013
In his observations, the Commissioner highlighted his serious concerns about the "apparent intensification of the practice of unjustified or selective criminal prosecution of journalists and others who express critical opinions," as well as amendments affecting the operating environment for NGOs, and limitations on freedom of assembly. The Commissioner also pointed to property rights violations connected with house demolitions and expropriations, particularly taking place in Baku.
Serious and widespread human rights violations in Azerbaijan have often necessitated examination by and comment from the Commissioner for Human Rights. Since the start of his mandate in April 2012, Muiznieks has traveled to Azerbaijan twice and has frequently commented on the human rights situation in the country. In addition to these observations, Muiznieks issued a report underscoring serious concerns following his May 2013 visit to Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan -- trial of "Nida" activists - 2013
The already dire human rights situation in Azerbaijan has now taken on an added urgency in light of the fact that the country is set to assume Chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers from 14 May. The process is automatic; each member state takes Chairmanship on a six-month rotational basis, in alphabetical order. But Azerbaijan's imminent Chairmanship has proven more controversial than most. At the very time when Azerbaijan's implementation of its human rights obligations with the Council of Europe is worst, it is set to assume political leadership of the body.
For many observers, the fact that a country with Azerbaijan's human rights track record can take leadership highlights the Council of Europe's institutional failure to uphold the values of human rights and democracy that were fundamental to its creation, calling into question the very purpose of its continued existence.
One thing is certain: the body has consistently failed to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its human rights obligations as a Council of Europe member. Among the clearest examples was the statement of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) election observation delegation on Azerbaijan's October 2013 presidential election, which the delegation claimed was "free, fair and transparent", a sharp contrast to the findings of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights.
Azerbaijan -- President Ilham Aliyev at a polling station in Baku, October 9, 2013
The statement on the election, and the subsequent failure of the broader body to refute it, led to widespread calls of foul from civil society, and demands for greater action to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its Council of Europe obligations. Perhaps in response to this - and likely also as a result of the determination of recently elected PACE President Anne Brasseur - on 16 April, the Committee of Ministers approved an action plan for 2014-2015 "intended to support reforms in the field of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Azerbaijan." The action plan has not yet been publicly released.
But past experience suggests that the recommendations in the action plan and the Commissioner's observations are likely to remain unheeded. In the 13 years since Azerbaijan joined the Council of Europe, there have been countless recommendations for steps needed to improve the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, and yet the country's record continues to deteriorate year by year.
If the Azerbaijani authorities keep up their current pace of politically motivated arrests, show trials, and other serious human rights violations, the next six months could be very embarrassing indeed for the Council of Europe - and could result in the biggest identity crisis the body has ever faced.
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