Victor Hugo in Baku - Visa free travel and human rights

26 February 2013
Debates on visa/asylum in the European Parliament Victor Hugo, visionary

Debates on visa/asylum in the European Parliament – Victor Hugo, visionary


Dear friends of ESI,

On 23 January 2013 a record 224 members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), elected representatives from across Europe, participated in a debate and voted on a resolution on the status of political prisoners in Azerbaijan.

There have never been more members voting on any resolution in the history of PACE.

The vote was also historic because of its outcome: PACE rapporteur Christoph Straesser's resolution on political prisoners in Azerbaijan was defeated – 125 votes against 79 votes, with 20 abstentions. This sent a strong signal of support to the authoritarian regime in Baku.

This came about as representatives of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev's regime had long waged a campaign against Straesser, who was appointed as rapporteur in March 2009. Most egregiously, Azerbaijan even refused to issue Straesser a visa to visit the country on a fact-finding mission, although he applied for it three times. This was open contempt for the core mandate of PACE. Straesser was also openly and repeatedly accused of being part of an anti-Azerbaijani lobbying effort.

The vote on 23 January 2013 was also remarkable in terms of who voted with Azerbaijan and who voted with Straesser. All 18 Russian members were present and sided with Azerbaijan. So did 10 Turks, 9 Spaniards, 9 Italians and a majority of members from the United Kingdom (7), Ukraine (7) and France (7).

On the other hand, 11 German members from all political factions supported Straesser's resolution. They were joined by all 6 Swedes, and most Swiss, Finns, Norwegians and all Baltic members.

Robert Walter Leonid Slutsky Agustin Conde Terry Leyden

Robert WalterLeonid SlutskyAgustin CondeTerry Leyden

In total, 54 people spoke in the debate. Straesser was accused by his critics of the following flaws:

Not visiting Azerbaijan. "Sadly the rapporteur, Mr. Straesser, who is passionate about this issue, has not visited prisons and prisoners in Azerbaijan" (Robert Walter, UK Conservative).

Walter deliberately ignores the fact that Straesser was denied a visa for three years by the Azerbaijani authorities. Furthermore, in PACE, the UK Tories have joined the same political party group as Vladimir Putin’s United Russia and Ilham Aliyev’s New Azerbaijan Party.

Supporting serious criminals. "If the report is approved … those who deal with human organs and those who deal drugs to fund terrorism can all announce themselves to be political prisoners" (Leonid Slutsky, Russia).

This is a perfect distortion of the definition of political prisoner accepted by the assembly in October 2012, which excludes any justification of terrorism for any cause. Note that Slutsky himself is the proud bearer of both the Order of Kadyrov (2007) and the Order of Friendship bestowed by Ilham Aliyev (2009).

Double standards. "Many of the countries represented here have pretty bad human rights records. Let those without sin throw the first stone. Very few of the countries here could throw the first stone" (Terry Leyden, Ireland).

This argument in fact suggests that the human rights across Europe had become so bad that there was no use any longer of trying to uphold the European Convention of Human Rights.

Empowering terrorists and Islamists. "If you do not want to endorse terrorists and Islamists, vote no to Mr. Straesser's report" (Agustin Conde Bajen, Spanish conservative).

Remarkably, all individuals Conde refers to in his intervention in PACE are people who Straesser's report did NOT consider "presumed political prisoners"!

We recommend to everyone interested to read annotated summaries of the recent dramatic debates in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on Azerbaijan:

Showdown in Strasbourg. The political prisoner debate in October 2012; and

Azerbaijan debacle: The PACE debate on 23 January 2013

Emin Milli arrested again on 26 January 2013

Emin Milli arrested again on 26 January 2013


Can you hear the people sing? Les Miserables in Baku

In March 2011 ESI published a report about Generation Facebook in Baku, describing the emergence of a new generation of dissidents in Azerbaijan. One of them was Emin Milli. 

In early January this year, Emin took part in an executive workshop ESI organised, together with the Central European University in Budapest, on the future of election observation missions in Europe. We also discussed the upcoming Council of Europe debate and its upcoming vote on political prisoners.

For Emin this was a personal matter: he had spent 16 months in jail between July 2009 and November 2010. Three days after the vote on political prisoners in Azerbaijan in PACE described above Emin was again arrested following peaceful demonstrations against police brutality.

The first time Emin was behind bars he read Vaclav Havel's essay "The Power of the Powerless." This time he spent two weeks in jail and reread Victor Hugo's Les Miserables.

In fact, the story of dissent and repression in Azerbaijan today offers the ingredients needed for a gripping novel for a 21st century Hugo; just as the recent debates in PACE are waiting for a gifted play-write to be turned into political drama for the stage.

At the same time Victor Hugo was also, of course, a political visionary. In his Opening Address to the August 1849 Peace Congress in Paris the author of Les Miserables looked forward to the creation of a European federation:

"A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples … A day will come when we will display cannon in museums just as we display instruments of torture today, and are amazed that such things could ever have been possible."

When will Azerbaijani citizens be able to look back at political arrests and authoritarian rule in Baku with the same sense of amazement?

For more see the latest Rumeli Observer blog post Les Miserables in Azerbaijan.


Visa free travel, safe countries and human rights

Last week ESI sent an open letter to all members of the European Parliament's Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) on how to prevent re-imposing visa restrictions for Western Balkan countries.

In a recent report "Saving visa-free travel" we identified the incentive structure for the vast majority of Western Balkan applicants. These are in fact the benefits provided during the application procedure and the length of the review process (for a compilation of up-to-date statistical material on this issue please visit:

In our letter to LIBE we propose to insert the following text in the Asylum Procedures Directive:

"Countries that have successfully completed a visa liberalisation dialogue with the European Commission, having met all the requirements and benchmarks under such a dialogue, including those related to fundamental rights under Block 4, and for which the visa requirement was lifted subsequently, shall be regarded as constituting safe countries of origin for the purposes of this Directive."

We also recommend that in such cases the decision-making should be short – certainly less than 1 month in the case of safe countries of origin. This eliminates the current incentives for hopeless asylum claims.

All visa liberalisation roadmaps and action plans require implementation of anti-discrimination legislation and policies protecting minorities. Only a country that fully meets these requirements can be assumed to be a safe country of origin. This would establish a direct link between visa liberalisation and the human rights situation in a country.


Presentations and interviews online

Meanwhile we continue to present our research on freedom of movement in Europe. In Istanbul, we briefed Turkish journalists, academics, and business and civil society representatives on Turkey's visa liberalisation process at the Swedish Consulate. Turkish daily Today's Zaman published a long interview with ESI on the issue. We spoke about visa-free travel in Kyiv (in English) and in Bielefeld (in German); on Austrian public TV, at a public policy dialogue organised by EPC in Brussels and in meetings with senior EU officials.

For a full overview of all coverage of recent ESI work on visa liberalization please go here. To see some reactions to our research on Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe visit this page.

You can also follow us on Facebook and on Twitter. As always we are looking forward to your feedback,

Yours sincerely,

Gerald Knaus