By Mina Muradova (04/29/2015 issue of the CACI Analyst)
In mid-April, Azerbaijan was sanctioned by the International Board of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) meeting in Brazzaville, Congo, for crackdowns on civil society. EITI is a global partnership supported by a coalition of governments, companies and civil society working to promote open and accountable management of natural resources. Azerbaijan committed to EITI in 2003, became a candidate country in 2007, and was the first country to become compliant in 2009.
Having been the first state to join the 48 country transparency initiative, Azerbaijan has now been demoted back to candidate status. Brendan O’Donnell, civil society representative to the EITI International Board and leader of the Global Witness oil campaign said, “Accountability to citizens is the professed essence of the EITI and while citizen groups involved are gagged or controlled by the state in a member country the initiative has no credibility.” The closed meeting in Brazzaville considered the situation for civil society organizations (CSOs) in Azerbaijan “unacceptable” and that EITI could not be properly implemented given the current circumstances for CSOs.
The EITI Board called on the government of Azerbaijan to reaffirm its commitment to work with CSOs and ensure an enabling participative environment. Specifically, the Board called on the government to ensure that NGO Coalition members could resume their role within EITI and be allowed to: 1) access their bank accounts and register new grants for EITI implementation activities; 2) speak freely about the EITI process and express views without fear of reprisal or harassment; 3) organize training, meetings and events related to the EITI process.
The decision followed a recently published EITI Validation report. Validation is EITI’s independent evaluation mechanism and Azerbaijan is the first country to be validated against EITI standards. The October EITI Board meeting in Myanmar agreed that “the situation facing civil society in Azerbaijan is clearly problematic” and called for early validation expressing concern for the ability of civil society to engage with the EITI process in Azerbaijan.
The EITI has thereby become the first international body to reprimand Azerbaijan. “This is long overdue,” said O’Donnell. “This has long been a crisis for the EITI Board and things have only worsened, with continued intimidation, funding streams outlawed and the state taking over coordination of the coalition of citizens groups. These issues must be reversed to prevent Azerbaijan being thrown out of the initiative.” According to EITI’s Chair Clare Short, Azerbaijan can regain compliant status if it implements “corrective” actions after 12 months or face suspension. To have its membership restored, Baku needs to “ensure that civil society in Azerbaijan can participate in the EITI in a meaningful way.”
Human Rights Watch welcomed EITI’s decision and called it as “unprecedented.” Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division, said “Finally one of [Azerbaijan’s] international partners has made the government bear some consequences for its conduct … It’s the first time EITI has taken this step against any country, and it was richly deserved.”
Since 2013, the Azerbaijani government’s concerted efforts to silence the country’s independent civil society has undermined its ability to effectively participate in EITI and compromised the initiative’s standards. The government has arrested and imprisoned dozens of activists, frozen the bank accounts of dozens of groups, and adopted new, highly restrictive laws on funding of independent groups.
Denber noted that in fact the government had made it so difficult to operate that many independent organizations involved in EITI had to suspend their activities, some closed down altogether, and some activists had to leave the country: “In the wake of its EITI downgrade, the government can no longer claim to be a global leader on transparency.”
According to the Validation report, in 2014 about 40 local and international companies and 109 NGOs were members of the Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) on the implementation of EITI in Azerbaijan, although numbers of participating NGOs has fluctuated significantly, with 158 NGOs listed in the 2012 Activity Report.
Azerbaijani authorities have not yet reacted to the news. However, Shahmar Movsumov, Executive Director of State Oil Foundation of Azerbaijan and Chair of the MSG, expressed his indignation following the EITI Board’s decision: “The major goal of the Azerbaijani government has been to ensure full transparency of revenues from extractive industries for the citizens when it joined the Initiative in 2003. However, today Azerbaijan is criticized by organizations with double standards. It is unacceptable that EITI is becoming such an organization … Azerbaijan has not joined this Initiative to be accountable before any organization outside the country and listen to any critics not related to the mandate of EITI. Azerbaijan is not going to tolerate pressures with regard to this matter. Given all this, the government of Azerbaijan will consider whether to leave the EITI.”
A week after the EITI decision, a Baku court sentenced Intigam Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s leading human rights lawyer, to seven years and six months in prison. One of the country’s most well-known human rights lawyers and head of the Legal Education Society, Aliyev worked extensively to promote the rule of law in Azerbaijan and defend peaceful activists. He submitted hundreds of cases to the European Court of Human Rights, winning a number of them.
Baku’s Grave Crimes Court convicted Aliyev on charges of tax evasion, illegal business activities, embezzlement, and abuse of authority. On April 16, 2015, the same court sentenced Rasul Jafarov, another human rights defender, to six-and-a-half years on the same charges.
Human-rights activists called the conviction “politically motivated,” while a spokesman for Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry Hikmet Hajiyev rejected it and said: “It has nothing to do with the human rights activity. No one is prosecuted for professional activity and political affiliation in Azerbaijan.”