By Rebecca Vincent.
This is an important week for Azerbaijan at the United Nations (UN) in Geneva. Today (30 April 2013), the country will undergo its second Periodic Review Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights Council, which examines the human rights records of all UN Member States. Then, on 3 May, Azerbaijan will be reviewed by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights(CESCR) that examines countries' implementation of their obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Although the state's reports for these reviews portray the country as having made progress towards achieving its international obligations, increasing reports of human rights violations on the ground suggest otherwise. In reality, rather than taking steps to respect and protect human rights in preparation for these reviews, the Azerbaijani authorities have been engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence all forms of criticism and dissent.
Since January, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan has become even more alarming. Authorities have responded harshly to a number of peaceful protests, using excessive force to disperse crowds and carrying out mass arrests of protesters. Media freedom is under attack, with critical journalists facing harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, and physical attack in connection with their work, and opposition newspapers being saddled with excessive fines from defamation lawsuits, many filed by public officials. The government has also taken worrisome steps towards limiting Internet freedom.
Cases of political arrest and imprisonment have continued, with the harsh sentencing of journalists Araz Guliyev and Avaz Zeynalli to eight and nine years in jail respectively, and the arrest of seven N!DA civic movement activists, Popular Front Party youth activist Dasqin Malikov, the Republican Alternative movement's presidential candidate Ilgar Mammadov, and Yeni Musavat newspaper journalist Tofig Yagublu, all of whom face serious jail time on trumped-up charges. In April, authorities illegally inspected and closed the office of Azad Fikir (Free Thought) University, a project that provided a forum for youth to learn about and discuss issues that would not be possible elsewhere. Recently adopted regressive legislation and worrisome comments made by top officials suggest that the government is poised for a broader crackdown on independent NGOs.
In recent months, the government has also demonstrated an increasing hostility towards international organisations. Notably, in March, it was announced that the government had requested a downgrade in mandate for the Baku office of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). However, Azerbaijan has generally engaged somewhat more constructively at the UN, where it currently holds a seat on the Security Council, so it remains to be seen how it will approach this week's reviews.
Local and international human rights organisations have issued scathing reports outlining Azerbaijan's failure to implement the recommendations made during its first UPR in 2009. Human rights advocates hope that a significant number of delegations will take the floor during this UPR, noting their concern over the many cases of violations and making strong and specific recommendations for measures needed to improve the human rights situation in the country. These recommendations will be used as a benchmark to assess Azerbaijan's progress during its next UPR, so making the recommendations as specific as possible will help the Human Rights Council to be able to hold the government accountable for their implementation.
There has been less focus on the CESCR review as many human rights organisations focus primarily on civil and political rights in Azerbaijan, but there are still serious issues at stake. Since Azerbaijan's last CESCR review in 2004, there have been increasing reports of property rights violations as authorities have carried out widespread forced evictions as part of an urban development project in Baku. The rights of artists are also an issue of concern for the CESCR, as highlighted by the Baku-based Human Rights Club, which has faced pressure in connection with its "Art for Democracy" campaign (with which the author is involved).
However the Azerbaijani government chooses to engage during these reviews, they provide key opportunities for UN delegations and the CESCR experts to come on record with their concerns over human rights practices in Azerbaijan and to press the country for much-needed reforms. Increased international pressure on Azerbaijan to fulfill its human rights obligations is vital to protect the few remaining critical voices in the country and to address this alarming state of affairs before it becomes even worse.