By Rebecca Vincent.
The vote on 23 January 2013 by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on two key resolutions pertaining to the human rights situation in Azerbaijan marked the end of a significant era for the country. The honouring of obligations and commitments by Azerbaijan passed in a vote of 196 in favour and 13 against, and The follow-up to the issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan failed to pass with a vote of 79 in favour and 125 against.
The success of the first resolution was not surprising. It accompanied a monitoring report compiled by the two co-rapporteurs of the PACE Monitoring Committee on Azerbaijan, Pedro Agramunt (Spain) and Joseph Debono Grech (Malta) following several visits to the country. Although some – such as Estonian PACE delegate Andres Herkel – argued the report could have been stronger, it was harder-hitting than expected and contained some important recommendations for measures needed to improve the human rights situation in the country.
But the outcome of the vote on the second resolution had been difficult to predict, as it was a long-standing source of controversy within the Council of Europe and had passed narrowly in committee in June 2012. The resolution's defeat was deeply disappointing to the rapporteur tasked with compiling the report, Christoph Strässer (Germany), and his supporters, who had worked for four years to produce the report and accompanying resolution despite the refusal of the Azerbaijani authorities to issue Strässer a visa to undertake a fact-finding visit to the country in accordance with his mandate.
During the debate, the Azerbaijani delegation's lobbying strategy became evident: in a seemingly constructive step, they supported the somewhat critical monitoring report, at the same time using it to make the political prisoner report look both biased and unnecessary. The Azerbaijani delegation and their supporters argued that two separate reports were unnecessary as the issue of political prisoners was also included within the monitoring report, which they praised as being balanced and constructive. They in turn criticised Strässer's report as lacking credibility based on the fact that he had not travelled to the country to conduct research, and some alleged that he had approached the work with a pre-conceived agenda.
Some 50 speakers took the floor during the debate, the majority of whom voiced support for the monitoring report and indicated they would vote against the political prisoner resolution. The tone of the debate is perhaps best captured by a comment made towards the end by head of the Azerbaijani PACE delegation Samad Seyidov: "I am completely against the approach it takes to Azerbaijan, but I will still be a member of the Assembly because this is not Mr Strässer's Council of Europe; it is my Council of Europe, just as it is my Azerbaijan, as it will be for ever. I am in favour of the Monitoring Committee report, but I am totally against Mr Strässer's report".
Indeed, during the four years leading up to the vote, the balance within the Council of Europe often seemed to be tipped in Azerbaijan's favour. The Azerbaijani delegation was able to interrupt progress on the report for quite some time by creating a debate within the Council of Europe about the need for a definition of political prisoners before any individual country should be examined, and by questioning why Azerbaijan in particular should be scrutinised while there were political prisoners in other member states. As a result, PACE eventually did adopt a definition of political prisoners in October 2012, but the Azerbaijani delegation's attempt to pass an amendment stating that only the European Court of Human Rights could make determinations about political prisoners failed in a highly contentious vote.
In addition, it remains unclear why the co-rapporteurs' completion of the monitoring report – which was initially expected to be presented to PACE in October 2011 – was delayed for so long and then suddenly achieved in time for it to be added to the agenda for debate alongside the political prisoner resolution. Whether intentional or not, the timing of the monitoring report's completion contributed significantly to the defeat of the political prisoner resolution.
International and Azerbaijani civil society activists viewed the negative vote on the political prisoner resolution as a failure by the Council of Europe to hold Azerbaijan accountable for its obligations as a member state at a key opportunity, and more broadly as a signal that the body's stance on human rights was weakening. Further, sources within the Council of Europe voiced concern that PACE's failure to take action to address Azerbaijan's refusal to issue Strässer a visa could set a worrisome precedent for other member states which may not wish to cooperate with special mandates, as now appears to be the case with Russia in relation to Marielouise Beck (Germany), PACE's rapporteur on IDPs and returnees in the North Caucasus.
Regardless of the outcome, the four-year saga culminating in last week's vote had positive implications for the political prisoner situation in Azerbaijan, not least of all in ensuring that the issue remained on the international agenda during that time. As pointed out by UK PACE delegate Christopher Chope during the debate, Strässer's work ensured that the issue of political prisoners was included in the monitoring report, and led to the release of many persons he had identified as potential political prisoners.
In moving forward, PACE should use all available mechanisms to hold Azerbaijan – and all other member states – accountable for their Council of Europe obligations to avoid further damaging the body's already weakening image as an institution that promotes and protects human rights. A good start would be to ensure effective follow-up to the recommendations contained in the resolution accompanying the monitoring report.