Strasbourg – Council of Europe secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland publishes op-ed: "Council of Europe is not blind to Azerbaijan's rights violations"

22 May 2014
Secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland. Photo: Council of Europe
Secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland. Photo: Council of Europe

ESI conference in Berlin on 2 June: "Towards a Europe without political prisoners"

In recent weeks, ESI has published extensively on human rights abuses in Azerbaijan and the lack of response by the Council of Europe:

This week secretary general Thorbjorn Jagland has responded in European Voice:

SG Op-Ed : Council of Europe is not blind to Azerbaijan's violations

22/05/2014 – European Voice / International

Azerbaijan's chairmanship of the Council of Europe will put its violations of human rights in the spotlight, writes the secretary-general of the Council of Europe

In recent days and weeks much has been written about the human-rights situation in Azerbaijan, among others by The Economist and by the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based non-governmental organisation. The focus of attention is Azerbaijan's six-month chairmanship of the Council of Europe, which it took over, following alphabetical order, from Austria this month. The question that preoccupies many commentators is how a country which is known in Western capitals for stifling journalists and locking up opposition activists can chair an organisation whose very aim it is to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

At the same time, some seem to suggest the Council of Europe is somehow blind to the country's well-documented rights violations, a point of view I emphatically reject.

The Council of Europe has 47 member states including all 28 members of the European Union. All states are represented by their ambassadors in the Committee of Ministers. No state, nor the EU, which plays an active role in the organisation, has publicly questioned Azerbaijan's chairmanship, let alone its membership of the Council of Europe. Neither has the Parliamentary Assembly, the elected body of national deputies from all Council of Europe member states. As things stand, Europe's political leaders want us to offer our assistance to help bring about change in Azerbaijan, not to eject it from the organisation.

But like the European Commission, the United States and many NGOs, the Council of Europe has not held back with warnings over the human-rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Only three weeks ago, the Council of Europe's human-rights commissioner, Nils Muižnieks, issued an update to his previous report of 2013 on the freedom of assembly and expression in the country, in which he expresses his serious concern about the harassment and arrests of journalists. Among several cases against Azerbaijan before the European Court of Human Rights, a body created by the Council of Europe, is one regarding the arrest and pre-trial detention of the civil-rights activist Ilgar Mammadov. Mammadov is also the director of the Baku School of Political Studies, operating under the auspices of the Council of Europe. A ruling in this case is expected today (22 May).

Last year, a delegation of Council of Europe ambassadors from Germany, France, Switzerland, Poland, Romania and Ukraine visited Baku and concluded that "substantial progress remains to be accomplished by Azerbaijan" in meeting Council of Europe standards. A resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly similarly voiced major concern over alleged cases of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners.

It is against this background and the many detailed reports by NGOs that I am in Baku this week to meet President Ilham Aliev and senior members of government. I will address human-rights violations and request the release of Mammadov. I will meet members of civil society and the opposition. I will also launch a Council of Europe action plan adopted by our member states to support projects designed to promote freedom of expression and independence of the judiciary.

Two years after the Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, Azerbaijan will be in the spotlight again during the next six months. I sincerely hope the government and its authorities will use this opportunity to demonstrate their will to improve the country's human-rights record. Not for the sake of the Council of Europe, but for the sake of the people of Azerbaijan.

Thorbjørn Jagland is the secretary-general of the Council of Europe.

by Thorbjorn Jagland

It is encouraging that the Secetary General recognises a serious problem, but are the remedies he proposes sufficient in the face of a rapidly deteriorating human rights situation?

For more on this see forthcoming ESI report on Azerbaijan, political prisoners and the Council of Europe. And join us in Berlin on 2 June for a public debate together with the Federal Commissioner for Human Rights Policy and Humanitarian Aid of the German Government, Christoph Strässer: "Towards a Europe without political prisoners"