It is Time for the Council of Europe to Take Off its Blinkers Over Azerbaijan

Khadiya Ismayilova one of the numerous journalists and human rights defenders who were arrested on pre-fabricated charges by the Aliyev regime. Khadiya was released from prison due to international pressure in May 2016. Photo by Johangir Yusif

Khadiya Ismayilova one of the numerous journalists and human rights defenders who were arrested on pre-fabricated charges by the Aliyev regime. Khadiya was released from prison due to international pressure in May 2016. Photo by Johangir Yusif

The outcome of Azerbaijan’s elections were never in doubt, and the consitutional referendum on September 26. that one prominent activist described as “a full-frontal assault on democracy” was no exception.

The numerous changes to the constitution largely serve to further entrench President Ilham Aliyev’s iron grip on power. The changes pave the way for his young son to eventually follow in his father’s footsteps, giving the government more legal room to crack down on activists and any semblance of free media that might exist, that is, the very few uncooperative journalists that are still left in situ or not languishing behind bars.

Local and international human rights groups decried the atmosphere ahead of the referendum, where opposition parties were prevented from campaigning, activists and journalists were harassed and jailed, and information on what, exactly, was on the ballot was impossible to ascertain except for a handful of independent, online media outlets.

None of this seemed to particularly bother the PACE observation mission, who could not find much to criticise:

”The voting process was transparent, well organised, efficient and peaceful throughout polling day, and that no serious violations were observed during the counting process, and that is why we respect the will of the Azerbaijani people”;

The statement also noted that there “was campaigning on the referendum during which both sides – supporters and opponents – were able to present their opinion,”an assertion that critics were quick to point out has absolutely no basis in reality.

The opposition groups that attempted to meet the onerous registration requirements to publicly campaign faced unprecedented harassment and were technically forced to withdraw their petition. Approximately two hundred protesters were arrested at the two rallies that the totalitarian regime eventually agreed to sanction.

PACE could not find any voting irregularities, but the country’s two main independent media outlets, Meydan TV and Azadliq Radiosu, spent referendum day posting videos and photos of ballot stuffing and carousel voting. While the election commission reported a massive turnout, official cameras at voting stations live streamed videos of empty voting stations and lonely election officials.

The referendum is another chapter in the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan’s sordid history. In 2013, a PACE delegation struggled to find fault with an election when a government smartphone app released the results before voters even went to the polls.

Two years later, when other observers stayed away after Baku imposed conditions that made credible election observation impossible, PACE was undeterred, and again lauded Azerbaijan’s democratic bonafides.

Azerbaijan assumed Presidency of the Council of Europe in 2014, described as “Europe’s top human rights body”. In 2014 several journalists and human rights defenders were arrested.


The Council of Europe is supposed to be a club of democratic countries, but Azerbaijani officials have expressed little interest in seeing their country become one. This used to upset at least some at the Council of Europe – a decade ago, the council discussed suspending Azerbaijan’s voting rights – but its members appear to have decided to just pretend Azerbaijan is a democracy and hope for the best. In a further twist, Azerbaijan was even granted the presidency of the Council in 2014, the latter often being described as ”Europe’s top human rights body”, further putting the Council’s credibility at stake.

Many have wondered why a body whose sole remit is promoting human rights and rule of law seems to find doing just that so bothersome. In Caviar Diplomacy, a thorough and critical analysis of Azerbaijan’s relationship with the council produced by the European Stability Initiative (ESI), the authors argue that Baku has more or less bribed the council into submission:

Many deputies are regularly invited to Azerbaijan and generously paid. In a normal year, at least 30 to 40 would be invited, some of them repeatedly. People are invited to conferences, events, sometimes for summer vacations. These are real vacations and there are many expensive gifts. Gifts are mostly expensive silk carpets, gold and silver items, drinks, caviar and money. In Baku, a common gift is 2 kg of caviar.

Members of PACE are required to declare any gifts worth more than €200, but there is no public database of declarations, and PACE bylaws do not explicitly state the penalty for non-compliance. We have requested the declarations for all members of the observation mission, and will update this post when we hear back.

In the oft-Byzantine arrangement that is pan-European institutions, the Council of Europe is often overlooked. This relative obscurity could theoretically free its members to take bold stands that domestic politicians cannot. It also frees them to ignore their mandate and use their post to whitewash dictatorships and paper over human rights abuses.

Some, like ESI president Gerald Knaus, argue that the Council of Europe is counterproductive and now serves to degrade, rather than defend, human rights in its member states. It does not have to be this way, but the observation mission’s latest failure to find anything it doesn’t like in a farcical vote does not inspire trust in PACE’s future.


For further details about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan please click on Azerbaijan Country Report


Categories: News.
Tags: Why can't the Council of Europe find anything wrong in Azerbaijan?.
Regions: Azerbaijan.