March 4, Jane Buchanan, associate Europe and Central Asia Director at the Human Rights Watch said, “If the European Games are to show that sport can leave a positive legacy, then every journalist and activist detained on politically motivated charges in Azerbaijan should be released well before the opening ceremony.” Some weeks later, March 30, Senior Researcher Giorgi Gogia was barred from entering Azerbaijan. He was held for 31 hours at the Baku International Airport without any explanation before he was put on the flight back to Tbilisi. Following this incident, Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia Director at the Human Rights Watch said,“They [Azerbaijan authorities] ruthlessly silenced many critical voices inside the country, and now they don’t want to let anyone in to bear witness to what they are doing.” Azadliq Radiosu spoke to Hugh Willimason about the situation in the country.
Azadliq Radiosu: Can you elaborate on this new Sports and Rights Alliance Campaign and what does Human Rights Watch hopes to accomplish by joining this campaign in the run up to the European Games?
Hugh Williamson: The Sports and Rights Alliance Campaign is a new alliance of different sorts of organizations - human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International but also anti-corruption organizations like Transparency International Germany, development groups like XXX, but also other sports related groups, like Football supporters European organizations, fans organizations, and also an organization of soccer players like the World Players Union. So quite a broad range of organizations.
And this is focused on improving human rights standards in the way mega sporting events are organized. So that covers the Olympics, the World Cup and Soccer, and also events like European Games. So that refers to issues such as building of the stadiums, the working conditions in construction phase but also broader human rights context in countries that are hosting mega events and of course press freedom issues in the way those events are reported when they are held. And of course issues around freedom of association, freedom of assembly, the right to protest before the events and during events and so on.
So this is a new alliance bringing together different organizations to raise the profile with these issues in a long term way over the next few years.
What is the expectation on the outcome of this alliance?
The expectation is to have a more powerful voice internationally and more influential voice with governments and the international Olympic committee and with FIFA to have more influence over the way these games are organized.
There has been wide spread allegations of corruption to do with IOC and FIFA. We want to put corruption more clearly on the agenda but also the issue of human rights standards- in terms of construction and rights associated with the games themselves. We feel that a more united voice will bring influence in bringing change.
How does HRW evaluate the situation in Azerbaijan?
We feel the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is in a crisis phase. We saw that events worsened around the Eurovision song contest in 2012. But in fact situation since then has become worse still. Since early to mid-2014 there has been a roundup of very senior members from the human rights movement, among intellectuals, and journalists and think tanks. The most prominent figures are now in jail or have fled the country. Combined with that there has been much tougher and tighter restrictions on the activity of non-governmental organizations. As well as limits on foreign funding reaching them. So it is difficult if not impossible for many NGOs to operate any further because of restrictions on their registration or on their funding.
There has been a continuous process of blemishing the names of senior figures from the human rights movement and elsewhere by bringing bogus charges of drugs possession or corruption against them while in fact the charges against them are clearly politically motivated.
So Azerbaijani government has broken its commitments to the Council of Europe for instance - Azerbaijan is a long standing member of that body and has made commitments to that body to uphold international human rights standards and it is failing to do so.
And we hope that Azerbaijani government will take some steps ahead of the European Games as this being an important watermark for the country. This is such a high profile sporting event to be held there in just few weeks and we feel that it is necessary the government at least sends a signal that they recognize that something needs to change on the human rights front if those games are going to be held in a credible and human rights friendly atmosphere.
HRW also became a target along with other international watchdogs for being agents of “certain forces”. What is your take on this argumentation?
I think it is very clear also to the Azerbaijani authorities that organizations such as HRW, Amnesty are international bodies which take their mandate from international human rights conventions and not from any government. HRW for instance doesn’t receive any foreign funding and is not influenced by any particular government policy. I am sure Azerbaijan knows that. They just use this rhetoric to serve their own ends of creating a hostile climate within their country towards legitimate human rights work, not just by ourselves but also who we work with closely on the ground in Azerbaijan.
Just take a recent example -our Senior Researcher Giorgi Gogia tried to enter Azerbaijan on a routine visit last week to monitor two trials of two activists in prison in pretrial detention in Azerbaijan and was held at the airport for 31 hours - most of that time very unclear whether he would be allowed in or not, what the status was and why he was being held - a clear abuse of his rights to enter the country. He had all his paperwork in order, there was no reason for him not being able to enter and in the end he had to return to Georgia where he is based on the next flight. This is a clear disrespect for the work of organizations like ourselves and shows their argumentation that somehow we are closely working with foreign governments is bogus and is rather a defensive attempt by them to avoid international human rights scrutiny.
Can western governments step up their criticism of Azerbaijan and can they take more concrete actions?
Certainly they can do so! They can be significantly more vocal behind the scenes in their contacts with Azerbaijan government and also publicly it is important for EU member states, EU itself, the US and for other governments to send a clear public signal that Azerbaijan has crossed the red line by this crackdown on human rights organizations and on the rule of law. Both to signal to other countries that they take these things seriously but also to signal to the human rights and the civil society community within Azerbaijan that other countries are watching what’s happening. So it is very important that they take a public stance as well as behind closed doors diplomacy [and here] they can take a whole range of steps.
They can freeze negotiations on treaties and agreements which are being negotiated between foreign countries, such as EU ongoing negotiations with Azerbaijan on a new cooperation treaty. They can consider not allowing senior Azerbaijan officials involved with human rights abuses to travel to the EU. They could consider asset freezes of Azerbaijan officials’ assets within the EU.
Regarding the European Games – we are not calling for boycotting of these games, athletes and sporting organizations have a right to go ahead and hold those games. We do feel it is necessary those government representatives attend the opening ceremony of those games but only do so on the basis of being willing to speak clearly on the human rights in Azerbaijan, to speak publicly on that issue, to talk to Azerbaijan government on that issue. And while there to take a position on human rights such as by visiting prisoners and human rights activists in prions or by attending trials that are on-going of human rights activists in prison.
So there is a whole range of things which governments can do to signal their hostility towards the crackdown on human rights in Azerbaijan and put pressure on Azerbaijan to change its policy.
And we do feel that can be effective. We do feel that Azerbaijan if it faced significant pressure then it would change its behavior.
We are consulting with the joint to the attention of the European Olympic Committee – German Olympic Committee and national Olympic Committee – and they are expressing concern about human rights in Azerbaijan. So there is growing chorus of concern about human rights in Azerbaijan and its time the government pick up on that chorus and act and prioritize human rights issues equally if not more importantly than other issues, which are legitimate and need to be ranked alongside human rights issues such as energy policy, such as geopolitical and strategic issues which are important for national governments and the EU but should not overshadow consideration of human rights and the rule of law.
Can so much attention backfire and result in further crackdown? Or can Azerbaijani government prevent athletes from certain countries like Germany for instance from entering the country?
In the past Azerbaijan blocked human rights envoys from entering the country - for a long time they blocked German envoy from the Council of Europe who wanted to visit the country as part of his mandate on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has a record of doing these things - as they did recently with Senior Human Rights Watch observer.
I don’t want to speculate about what is going to happen in the future. If they did so they would be drawing more attention to their own record of human rights abuses.
We don’t think in terms of backfiring. We think in terms that it is important for the international audience and countries to recognize where Azerbaijan is on its human rights record. And to raise issues with Baku and Baku to take the right steps to wright its human rights abuses and not strategize about what further abuses it can commit for instance by blocking legitimate entry to the country by human rights monitors.
Azerbaijan is a country where pressure can work. And united pressure from somewhere like the EU is the main way where we will bring change on human rights. There needs to be united, strong position by the EU, European Parliament, Commission, and through that method – strong united voice – can have leverage over Baku. Weaker voices will have less influence we believe on bringing change in Azerbaijan.
Visit of the commissioner for enlargement in the EU, Johannes Hahn [who is on an official visit to Baku] is important in delivering a strong, united message from the European Union. And we believe visits like that can make a difference in terms of turning Azerbaijan around towards human rights.