The U.S. State Department last week released its 2019 county reports on human rights practices. The report was presented by the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo on March 11 and it evaluates the practice in 200 countries and territories.In the section about Azerbaijan, human rights, torture, illegal arrests, life-threatening detention conditions in prison, political prisoners, interference in private life, the problem of independence of the judiciary, serious restrictions on freedom of speech, press, and Internet, harassment of journalists, persecution and arrest of journalists, and other issues are widely covered. However, interestingly enough, this year’s report did not cause any specific reaction from the governent of Azerbaijan, and many local media agencies did not even touch on the report. It is possible that the media, which is controlled by one source, has been instructed to slur over the report.Alex Raufoglu, Washington-based Azerbaijani journalist answered ASTNA’s questions about the report.
– The U.S. State Department has released a traditional report on human rights. This time the report did not provoke the expected reaction in Azerbaijan, unlike previous periods. Many media outlets have not touched on this report even in their daily news. Do you think the report was toothless at this time? Or has the government acquired immunity to such criticism? Or are there other reasons why the report did not spark reaction?
– All fair questions. First thing first, the annual human rights reports are not political statements but a collection of facts. In this sense, the political rhetoric that Azerbaijani officials have been used to exhibiting for years was, in fact, always inadequate to the essence and purpose of the document. If this approach is finally changing, way to go; if not, never too late…
The point is that the U.S. Department of State does not put together such a report to run afoul of someone, exact the opposite, the document leaves enough room for the diplomacy itself. There is a saying in Washington that the most successful diplomacy starts with getting to know each other.
It is no coincidence that American diplomats spend considerable time and energy collecting, analyzing, and verifying the facts presented in this report. No country is intentionally presented in white or black here; however, the document includes not only the deficiencies of human rights but also the successes. The message is clear: “America did not invent human rights. It is the other way round. Human rights invented America, and they are universal.”
Second, the preparation of these annual reports is a requirement of American taxpayers to their governments through Congress, as part of their commitment to promote respect for human rights, given that Americans determine the partner countries based on their respect for human rights. That is why, the State Department submits reports on all countries receiving assistance and all United Nations member states to the U.S. Congress in accordance with the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the Trade Act of 1974. The latest report, which is the 44th, like the previous ones, is intended for Americans – rather than for the Azerbaijani community – who are trying to shape their opinion about the countries around the globe, inluding Azerbaijan, given that it is the most creditable collection of human rights facts in the world.
– In general, what does the current report consist of? Did the authors of the report fully identify the human rights practice in Azerbaijan? Is it strongly-worded or gently-worded than previous reports?
– Indeed, this year’s report provides a pretty well-rounded and comprehensive impression than the ones in the past. Almost no subject was left out, albeit as far as details are concerned, independent human rights defenders note that the scale of what is happening in the country is far greater than the aforementioned. Nevertheless, the report was able to describe a general picture based on specific instances.
The salient point is that facts such as torture, police violence, impunity, the restrictions of freedom of expression and assembly are addressed repeatedly in various sections of the document. This indicates that the violations in Azerbaijan have gone beyond the traditional fashion and that the violence of the police has cut across all boundaries and locations. For example, while previously the stick was used only in closed detention centers and out of public gaze, the authorities easily preferred to deny these facts; now it is practiced in the middle of the road at noon in the public eye and no one is punished for this…
As well as, you know what they say, after trying all the texbooked methods that have been practiced in other authoritarian countries, the authorities in Azerbaijan have begun to create new examples of restrictions on freedom of expression. Like Internet activists’ being chased abroad.
Speaking of which, for the first time ever, this year’s report contains a section on transnational repression under a section “Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country”, highlighting multiple reports of government abuse of international law enforcement tools, such as Interpol, in attempts to detain expatriate activists. For example, government authorities claimed human rights activist Avtandil Mammadov, who reportedly fled the country due to political persecution, was guilty of fraud and issued an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. As far as I know, similar methods are being used aganst dozens of other activists as well, such as Rashad Ramazanov, a former political prisoner. This list can be extended, and it is likely that in the next year’s report, more attention will be given to this section if the authorities do not desist from its action.
But what makes this section rather important is that this puts into practice one aspect of the congresisonal Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, known as TRAPAct. The bill was introdused last year by the Helsinki Commission and it includes the creation of urgent and effective mechanisms to stop the harassment of authoritarian regimes against critics abroad using Interpol and other international means, which also includes sanctions. It is true that the original congressional bill did not talk much about Azerbaijan, but now that the human rights report highlights transnational repression orchastrated by the Azerbaijani government represents a solid first step by State Department in recognizing the problem and it is a serious event and will not go unnoticed by the Congress.
– It is interesting that this time, the authorities in Baku did not give the expected reaction. That is, this time, no one in the government has used expressions like double-standard or grudge in response to the report. In general, I have not encountered any reaction. But what is the situation on the other side? That is, is the US not concerned about the expected reaction from Azerbaijan?
– On the contrary, given that the report is a collection of facts rather than a political statement, Washington is discussing ways to improve the situation in this area, instead of pondering over Baku’s response. The most important thing is to maintain emgamenent with the Azerbaijani side, both through official channels and through civil society. The most ideal scenario would be, ofc course, to have direct and extensive human rights dialogue with Baku, which would lead to a joint discussion over these facts and a more effective solution to the problems. Although, based on what we’re hearing from Baku it’s clear that the Azerbaijani side is not yet ready for such a dialogue. Nevertheless, Washington officials are keen to continue to engage with both officials and civil society, taking advantage of other platforms, such as the opportunities provided by the OSCE.
In the informal conversations with us, the diplomats here, in general, cite the following lines. “Azerbaijan is an important partner for the United States. Like all friends, America is only interested in seeing developments and reforms in Azerbaijan. But a system that itself declares war against free voices can never achieve long-term stability and change. The US is interested in helping Azerbaijan to improve its situation.”
I would also like to point out that some of the violations hlightinted in this year’s report, according to American law, exclude the U.S. aid to countries such as Azerbaijan, so by reminding the complexity of the situation, diplomats are hoping that problems will not grow especially as a result of mutual cooperation and dialogue.
– Recently, there has been an opinion that Azerbaijan implements a softening policy on human rights within the country and the situation has improved significantly. However, it is true that, although there have been no long-term political arrests in the past year, many administrative arrests have taken place. Or the persecution of dissenting people continues. Freedom of assembly is violated. That is, the rhetoric has not changed. Do they know that there is no change in rhetoric and what is happening here? Or do they seriously believe that the changes, which are imitation, have taken place here?
– The latest DoS report on Human Rights covers the year of 2019, the period when the reform signals were repeated over and over in Azerbaijan. In Washington, officials refrain from doing any ranking among coungries, suggesting that if we want to see what the trendline looks like in any specific country, we should look back year over year to see how things have changed. Unfortunately, in the case of Azerbaijan, this comparison does not promise anything as heartwarming, as the latest report draws more grim picture than before. Thus, the human rights report itself may be seen as a divulgence of the reform imitation in Baku…
What is the state of US-Azerbaijan relations in general? In particular, there is tranquility after the appointment of the new ambassador. Are there any secret warm-ups we do not know in their relations, or is there not any forward-looking change?
I would not say that a significant path has been traveled, although, as you can see in the relationship, there is certain diplomatic stability, thanks to the fact that after many years a career diplomat from Washington was sent to Baku as an ambassador, and it has not gone unnoticed. The other issue is that the will to forward-looking change should come first and foremost from political leaders. The job of the diplomats is to connect the dots using every possible chance, to find the opportunity for cooperation. If a diplomat calls bilaterial relations “excellent”, it probably means “good”, if he/she calls it “good”, then the relationship is not pleasant; if he/she calls it “bad”, then he/she is not a diplomat…
– What does the improvement of the human rights practice in Azerbaijan and the positive change in US-Azerbaijani relations depend on? What steps could the US take to improve human rights, especially in Azerbaijan?
– First and foremost, the need for restoration of human rights dialogue between countries is now more than ever before. As a first step, the Azerbaijani government should allow international human rights organizations, which are based in the United States and other western capitals, to enter the country. Based on the information that I have, several reputable organizations, including Amnesty International USA, where i serve as a country specialist, have long been trying to send a fact-finding mission to Azerbaijan, but their requests have not panned out. Furthermore, the long-awaited visit of the current Special Representative of OSCE on Freedom of the Press to Baku has not taken place so far. Azerbaijani officials need to understand that they can wait as long as they want, but time is not waiting. Every lost opportunity for the dialogue puts the country at serious risk not only in domestic but also in international politics.