Paul Flynn is a British Labour Party politician who has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Newport West since 1987. He has been a member of the UK’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) since 1997, serving for more than 15 years as a representative, and currently as a substitute.
In recent years, Flynn has become one of the most vocal UK MPs on human rights issues in Azerbaijan. On 25 June 2014, he drew attention in Azerbaijan for asking President Aliyev a pointed question about political prisoners and electoral fraud. London-based human rights activist Rebecca Vincent asked Flynn some follow-up questions.
Q: At last week’s PACE session, you posed the following question to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev:
“Politicians and journalists have been falsely accused and imprisoned in Azerbaijan and elections have been rigged: I have spoken to the people involved. Can we look forward to a year in which Azerbaijan raises its standards to Council of Europe levels, or will we have a year in which the deplorable example of Azerbaijan encourages other nations to degrade their own human rights standards?”
In response, Aliyev was visibly angered, accused you of lying, and denied both that any journalists were imprisoned in Azerbaijan and that the election had been rigged. Why do you think your question drew such a heated reaction from Aliyev?
Flynn: “His reaction was not unwelcome. Questioners have only 30 seconds to challenge his long and tedious speech of self-praises and self-delusion. I try to make my oral questions Twitter-length – brief but carrying a punch. The president has the great advantage of answering at great length and is probably not used to having such simple direct questions. I presume he was angry because the charges I made were accurate and the comments were a widely shared worry among many delegates. The reputation of the Council of Europe is at stake if Azerbaijan is the exemplar of human rights. I was pleased with his reaction because it was a display of arrogant bad temper that did something to destroy the impression he was trying to create. Here was evidence that Aliyev is intolerant of criticism.”
Q: Should countries like Azerbaijan that are failing to meet their international human rights obligations be allowed to take positions of leadership at organizations like the Council of Europe (COE)? What are the implications for these bodies?
Flynn: “No. By refusing to accept the rapporteur of choice by the COE, Azerbaijan should have been denied the right to preside over the COE. The election report of the OSCE should have also put him outside the pale. The poodle report by the COE was an incompetent disgrace which should not have been accepted by PACE.”
Q: Aliyev has also made this claim, that there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, in his public addresses at other international organizations, including the European Union and NATO. Is this tactic of denial effective?
Flynn: “No, it's not. It's an absurdity that is so distant from reality that it's totally implausible.”
Q: On 25 June 2014, the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights appointed a rapporteur on the topic ‘Azerbaijan’s Chairmanship of the Council of Europe: What follow-up on Respect for Human Rights?’ who will, in part, examine the situation of political prisoners. The move could be viewed as a positive step in light of reports of a sharp increase in politically motivated arrests in Azerbaijan following the defeat of a previous PACE resolution on the issue in January 2013. However, the position was given to Spanish MP Pedro Agramunt, who has long been criticized by civil society groups as being an apologist for the Azerbaijani regime. Do you have any hopes for the new mandate?
Flynn: “There can be no hope of a balanced report from Agramunt as there was no hope of a balanced report from Robert Walter, who has long been an uncritical admirer of Aliyev. It's sad that so many COE delegates have been influenced by lobbying.”
Q: You have long been one of the most vocal UK MPs on human rights issues in Azerbaijan, through sponsoring relevant discussions and motions at the UK Parliament and taking a stand in Strasbourg in your role as a UK PACE delegate. Why do you think so many other UK MPs are silent on these issues?
Flynn: “Hard to say. The Conservatives have been flirting with some odd delegates from oppressive regimes in their EDG [European Democrat] group. Mike Hancock, the disgraced LibDem MP, was a frequent visitor to Azerbaijan and an uncritical friend of Aliyev. My Socialist friends should have been more challenging.”