As oil-rich Azerbaijan prepares to host next year’s inaugural ‘European Games,’ the Azerbaijani government has stepped up its crackdown on activists speaking out against its abysmal human rights record. As of this writing, more than 20 human rights defenders have been detained by the government, including four of the country’s most prominent activists.
Meanwhile, the European Games’ lead organizer has claimed that it is not his job to criticize the host country; denied any knowledge of the government’s oppressive habits; and declared Azerbaijan an “incredibly free society.” Current and future corporate sponsors of the games should take notice and carefully consider their decision to be affiliated with the event.
Azerbaijan and the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest
The last major world event Azerbaijan hosted was the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest, which was also the post-Soviet Republic’s real debut on the world stage. Prior to the singing competition, the Azerbaijani government took the usual steps taken by an authoritarian state before it invites international attention — it “beautified” the city and created a land seemingly devoid of dissent or criticism.
In the eyes of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, “beautification” meant the forcible eviction of homeowners and the demolition of partially-occupied buildings in order to make room for Eurovision-related development projects in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Prior to the contest, dozens of families were evicted from the neighborhood that would eventually be home to the main Eurovision arena. At times, these evictions came without warning or took place in the middle of the night.
The run-up to Eurovision was also marked by a crackdown on civil society and the attempted creation of a “criticism-free” zone, a tactic not unique to the Aliyev government (and frighteningly reminiscent of a Nazi propaganda campaign before the 1936 Olympics in Berlin). In Baku in 2012, journalists critical of the regime were prosecuted and detained, human rights activists were imprisoned, and protests were quelled.
The Aliyev regime’s brutal tactics continued into 2013. In order to facilitate the creation of the controversial Winter Garden development in Baku, the Azerbaijani government waged a similar campaign of displacement and destruction, effectively rendering homeless anyone in the planned footprint of the park-cum-shopping mall. Likewise, the weeks and months preceding the (not even remotely free and fair) October presidential elections were marred by a familiar war against dissenting voices, including the enactment of numerous draconian laws meant to curtail Azerbaijani rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.
The 2015 European Games and the persecution of human rights activists
Which brings us to present day and Azerbaijan’s role as host of the European Games.*
Given the rosy picture painted by the Azerbaijani government’s house-cleaning projects prior to Eurovision, as well as ongoing threats by President Aliyev to wage war against Armenia, human rights activists were justifiably afraid of what the European Games might bring, and they sought to use the prospect of international attention to raise awareness of the regime’s human rights record. Unfortunately, the government’s response was swift, unlawful and wholly in keeping with past practice.
In the first two weeks of August, the government escalated its crackdown on civil society, rounding up and detaining Leyla Yunus, one of the country’s leading human rights defenders; Yunus’ husband, historian Arif Yunus; Rasul Jafarov, an outspoken critic of politically-motivated prosecutions in Azerbaijan; and long-time activist and lawyer Intigam Aliyev. All were charged with trumped-up violations of Azerbaijani law — including drug-possession, treason and tax-evasion — and will likely be held indefinitely (and without due process) unless international pressure is brought to bear.
The responsibility of business and the European Games’ organizers
So here we are preparing for another international sporting event, and it feels like Sochi all over again. As I wrote before the kickoff of the 2014 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee, as organizer of the Sochi Games, had a duty under the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights to ensure that Russia’s Olympics-related activities did not contribute to or cause human rights violations. Russia’s reprehensible behavior in preparation for Sochi is well documented, as is the failure of the IOC to do anything about it; yet, there is still time for the European Games’ Organizing Committee to take a stand. Unfortunately, the committee has thus far attempted to ignore the situation in Azerbaijan and has claimed that “politics” are not within the committee’s purview.
International sporting events like the Olympics or the European Games also raise questions about the roles and responsibilities of corporate sponsors, as Christine Bader and others, including Susan McPherson and Laura Clise in an article on Triple Pundit, pointed outduring Sochi. As pressure mounted, a few Sochi sponsors spoke out against Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and actions, but none pulled their sponsorship. The European Games already count massive corporations like BP among the official corporate sponsors. Hopefully, BP and others will re-think their business relationships the games — and with the Aliyev government. Until then, their sponsorship implies tacit approval of the Azerbaijani government and its tactics as it prepares for the 2015 games.
The UN’s trip
Coincidentally, this past Monday also marked the first day of a timely United Nations’ Business and Human Rights Working Group visit to Azerbaijan. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Working Group will examine “current initiatives, opportunities and challenges to implement [sic] the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights in Azerbaijan.” In addition to meeting with government authorities and companies, the Working Group will speak to civil society organizations, trade unions and other stakeholders.
Of course, the Working Group is visiting Azerbaijan at the behest of President Aliyev, so it is unlikely that the government will boast about its recent crackdown and/or what role (if any) business has played in allowing that to happen. However, the week-long visit should at least provide a brief respite for activists in the country, and one hopes that the Working Group gets a clear picture of the human rights challenges facing the country at this crucial time. Thus far, however, the Group has been silent on recent events in Baku.
* One would be forgiven for not knowing much (if anything) about the European Games. Announced in 2012, the 2015 games in Baku will be the first ever. Ten of the 19 sports held at the games will serve as qualifying events for European athletes hoping to compete in the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, including such classic Olympic draws as table tennis, archery and taekwondo. In order to become the European Games’ first host country, Azerbaijan won a competition against … no other country in the world, actually, as Baku was the only city on the planet to bid for the honor.
Image courtesy of Baku 2015 European Games