Azerbaijan became the host of the contest through Eurovision’s normal process: the country whose entry wins the contest one year becomes host the next. Azerbaijan’s competitors, Ell & Nikki, won Eurovision 2011, and so Baku was set as the location for Eurovision 2012.
However, Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record made the country a
But Eurovision 2012 is by no means the only time the question has arisen: should international sporting and entertainment events be held in non-democratic countries? Other notable examples of controversial events include last month’s
The question of whether to boycott such events in non-democratic countries is complex, and responses are often divided, both among the international community and domestic groups, even those staging protests in connection with these events.
For example, during the protests in the run-up to the Formula One Grand Prix race in Bahrain, protesters did call for a boycott, chanting: “Your race is a crime”. However, Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of opposition bloc Al-Wefaq, which organised some of the protests,
Indeed, the increased international media attention on non-democratic countries when they host such events can help significantly in shedding light on human rights abuses that would otherwise not be exposed to the mainstream international public. But once this international attention has faded, local activists can be left in a worse position than when they started – as currently
The Azerbaijan Eurovision experience
Rather than calling for a boycott of Eurovision 2012, Azerbaijani activists opted to use the higher than usual level of international media interest in the country to draw attention to human rights violations and press for democratic change. They, like most Azerbaijanis, did not oppose holding the event in the country, and in fact, many were proud to host Eurovision. But they wanted to ensure that
Most international human rights organisations also chose not to call for a boycott of Eurovision 2012. Instead, they supported the efforts of local activists through initiatives such as the
This tactic was by some measures effective, as for a brief period, there was intense scrutiny by mainstream media outlets in countries with previously scarce media coverage of non-energy related issues in Azerbaijan. At the time I was working with ARTICLE 19, coordinating the
Typically, stories on Azerbaijan are a difficult pitch for the international press, and often even significant human rights developments are covered only by outlets with a strong focus on the Former Soviet Union, such as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Eurasianet. But in the run-up to Eurovision 2012, journalists began to seek out those of us with expertise on human rights issues in the country, asking for information, interviews, and local contacts. Suddenly, television stations such as
But this victory was short-lived, and not without costs. President Aliyev and other high-level officials have repeatedly called activists who were critical in the run-up to Eurovision “
One year later, the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is markedly worse than before Eurovision. The authorities are currently engaged in an unprecedented crackdown to silence the few remaining critical voices in the country. NGOs argue there are now
Views of local activists
Despite this, most Azerbaijani activists stand behind their decision not to call for a boycott of Eurovision 2012. Further, many remain open to the prospect of other international events taking place in Azerbaijan in the future. For example, in January it was announced that the first European Olympics would take place in Baku in 2015. Some local groups are already planning campaign activities in connection with the event.
Human Rights Club Chairman and coordinator of the Sing for Democracy campaign Rasul Jafarov explained, “We knew the campaign wouldn’t solve all of our problems. We knew there would be retaliation, and it has happened. But Eurovision helped us to raise international awareness about the situation in Azerbaijan, and there were some positive results”. Jafarov believes that a temporary decrease in the level of political arrests and the early release of some political prisoners was a direct result of international attention related to the contest. He views the current crackdown as more connected to the upcoming presidential election than a lingering effect of Eurovision 2012.
Human rights defender Vugar Gojayev agrees that the 2012 song contest was beneficial from an advocacy perspective. “In recent decades, no other event has captured that level of international attention to human rights abuses on the ground”, he said. However, he also believes that Eurovision directly caused a number of violations. Gojayev himself was forced to leave Azerbaijan for safety after he and his family were threatened in connection with Gojayev’s human rights work in the period surrounding Eurovision. He pointed to new cases of political imprisonment and widespread violations of property rights as other examples of Eurovision’s impact.
As for the prospect of hosting Eurovision again in the future – which could be possible as early as 2014 as Azerbaijan’s representative, Farid Mammadov, has made it through to tonight’s final – the two have split views. Jafarov has been using social media networks to encourage people to vote for Azerbaijan. As he told me, “We wish we could win Eurovision again, in fact, as often as possible”.
But the cost of Eurovision 2012 has weighed heavier on Gojayev, who told me he would object to hosting Eurovision in the country again. “It is definitely not worth it when the basic rights of people are ignored for the sake of an entertainment event”, he said. While he would also think twice about other such events in the future, Gojayev said it was too early to make the call about whether to call for a boycott of the 2015 European Olympics. He said rights groups and international organisations should be working now to develop a clear strategy for how best to use the event as a platform to improve the human rights situation in the country and press the government to fulfil its international obligations.
The boycott dilemma
It can be difficult for international observers to determine their best course of action when it comes to these events being held in non-democratic countries. As a general guideline, we should take our cue from the local activists, assessing how to approach each event on a case-by-case basis. We should strive to abide by a “do no harm” principle, seeking not to make the situation unnecessarily worse for individuals already at risk. Activists in repressive countries are used to taking on a certain degree of risk, and are best placed to assess what tactic is more likely to be effective, and whether the potential gains are worth the potential costs. And most importantly, we should ensure that we remain attentive and supportive in the aftermath of these events, as local activists become more vulnerable to acts of retaliation once international attention has shifted from their country.
Although there certainly were repercussions against activists who were critical in the run-up to Eurovision and other international events in Azerbaijan in 2012 (and in fact, I was
And tonight, as Europe’s eyes are on Malmö, it is worth remembering the words of Eurovision 2012’s winner, Swedish pop star Loreen, who was the only competitor to take the time whilst she was in Baku to visit local rights groups and ask questions about the human rights situation in the country. When