U.S.-Azerbaijan Relations: The Democracy and Human Rights Dimension

Thomas O. Melia
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
As-Prepared Written Testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe (U.S. Helsinki Commission)
Washington, DC
June 11, 2014

(Also see Deputy Assistant Secretary Rubin's testimony.)

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission, thank you for inviting me to speak to you today about the democracy and human rights dimension of U.S.-Azerbaijan relations in advance of your visit to Baku later this month for the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Annual Session. My colleagues at the State Department and I greatly appreciate the dedication of you and your fellow Commissioners and your staff to the OSCE and its institutions – especially to the enduring principles enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the body of commitments that comprise the OSCE’s “human dimension.” We also greatly value our regular consultations with you and your staff.

I would like to start by referring to a key principle of the OSCE, as set forth in the 1991 “Moscow Document” and notably reaffirmed in the 2010 Astana Summit Declaration, in which OSCE participating States agreed unanimously that:

“issues relating to human rights, fundamental freedoms, democracy and the rule of law are of international concern, as respect for these rights and freedoms constitutes one of the foundations of the international order. They categorically and irrevocably declare that the commitments undertaken in the field of the human dimension of the OSCE are matters of direct and legitimate concern to all participating States and do not belong exclusively to the internal affairs of the State concerned.”

This concept linking respect for human rights within states to lasting security among states is reflected in our multilateral interactions and in our bilateral relationships with all OSCE participating States, including Azerbaijan. It forms the basis on which the United States continues to support efforts to advance democracy worldwide. In Azerbaijan, this constitutes one of three equally important core goals, which Deputy Assistant Secretary Rubin has just spoken to. U.S. officials at all levels in Baku and Washington regularly highlight the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, rule of law, and other basic building blocks of democracy, publicly and privately. U.S. officials regularly meet with a variety of Azerbaijanis, ranging from government officials to civil society activists and opposition political party representatives.

While serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, I have visited Azerbaijan three times, holding valuable meetings with leading government officials, including President Ilham Aliyev, as well as with opposition political leaders, civil society actors, and journalists. I have been joined on these missions to Azerbaijan, as well as to other countries, by senior colleagues from the Department of State’s European and Eurasian Affairs Bureau, USAID, and the Department of Justice. I believe these are important opportunities to listen to Azerbaijanis inside and outside of government, to share with them our thoughts, and to demonstrate that we do care about all three dimensions of the relationship. Indeed, I would like to visit Azerbaijan again soon to continue these conversations.

The United States also provides assistance to support Azerbaijan’s democratic development efforts, with an emphasis on support for civil society, independent media, and rule of law. The largest part of this assistance is provided by our colleagues at USAID, and we in the State Department work very closely with them to ensure that these programs are neatly lined up with our overall policy priorities. Similarly, we work closely in Washington and Baku with the legal experts provided by the Department of Justice in the Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training program. Our inter-agency partnership is working very well.

Just two weeks ago, on May 28, Azerbaijan celebrated the 96th anniversary of the day in 1918 on which it became the first majority Muslim, democratic republic in the world. The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic lasted only 23 months, until it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army and forcibly incorporated into the nascent Soviet Union, where it remained captive for more than seven decades. Since Azerbaijan regained its independence in 1991, it has begun to modernize, and its people have become more integrated into the wider world.

With regard to building democratic institutions and developing democratic norms, Azerbaijan has taken some positive steps. For example, it established six administrative government service centers in Baku and the regions (known as “ASAN,” which means “easy” in Azeri) intended to eliminate corruption by public officials at the local level. More broadly, however, we have been seeing increasing constraints on fundamental freedoms that increase the risk of domestic instability, undermine confidence the rule of law will be respected, and prevent Azerbaijanis from reaching their full potential.

Five years ago, it was already difficult for advocates of democratic reform – especially opposition political parties – to participate in the political life of the country, but it was still possible for NGOs and independent activists to operate. The environment has worsened significantly since then, beginning with the 2009 incarceration of young democracy activists Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade. Although they were released in 2010, the suppression of peaceful dissent increased in 2011, with the arrests of young Azerbaijani activists who sought to organize peaceful pro-democracy rallies in Baku. The Milli Mejlis (Azerbaijan’s parliament) passed legislation significantly increasing fines on participants and organizers of unauthorized protests in November 2012, which resulted in the detention of numerous peaceful pro-democracy activists for baseless administrative violations. Since early 2013, the space for peaceful dissent has narrowed more dramatically, and the exercise of fundamental freedoms has become still more tenuous. A number of leading peaceful democracy advocates, civil society activists, and journalists have been incarcerated, including presidential candidate and chairman of the democratic reform-oriented REAL Movement, Ilgar Mammadov; opposition journalist and Musavat Party Deputy Chairman Tofig Yagublu; members of democratic youth movements; blogger Abdul Abilov; religious scholar and activist Taleh Bagirzade; Khural Editor Avaz Zeynalli; and the chairman of NDI’s local election monitoring partner, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS), Anar Mammadli.

Additionally, two rounds of legislative amendments since March 2013 have restricted NGO funding and activity. Officials have pressured Azerbaijani and international NGOs, including some USAID implementing partners, which in some cases have been subject to investigations by the tax and justice ministries. Authorities also launched a criminal investigation of EMDS – which has been a recipient of USAID and European assistance – and another election monitoring NGO, the International Cooperation of Volunteers (ICV) Public Union, soon after the flawed October 2013 presidential election. Such actions have resulted in an increasingly hostile operating environment for civil society, especially for those activists and groups advocating respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and government accountability; thereby depriving citizens the open channels through which they can voice their concerns. Pressure on independent defense lawyers has resulted in a decreasing number of such lawyers ready to defend individuals in sensitive cases.

Restrictions on the ability of selected Azerbaijani activists to travel outside of the country are also a problem, calling into question the extent of the government’s commitment to freedom of movement, a founding tenet of the OSCE. For example, since 2006, the government has prevented the foreign travel of opposition Popular Front Party Chairman Ali Karimli by refusing to renew his passport. Today in Bern, the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights is discussing the important role of human rights defenders in OSCE participating States. Sadly, one of Azerbaijan’s leading human rights defenders, Leyla Yunus, was unable to attend the event, because Azerbaijan’s authorities confiscated her passport – as well as her husband’s – in April. This confiscation occurred in the context of the April 19 arrest of well-known journalist Rauf Mirkadirov, the subsequent questioning of Leyla Yunus and her husband about Mirkadirov, and their poor treatment by police authorities. All three have been strong proponents of people-to-people diplomacy, which helps build ties between Azerbaijanis and Armenians and is crucial to the peaceful resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. The peaceful resolution of this conflict will open borders, increase security, and create new opportunities to trade, travel, and engage across the region. Authorities also have prevented some in the international human rights community from visiting or returning to Azerbaijan.

These are not the kinds of actions the United States or the broader international community wants to see from a partner, an OSCE participating State, and currently the chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

When President Obama spoke last month at the West Point commencement, he explained that:

“America’s support for democracy and human rights goes beyond idealism -- it is a matter of national security. Democracies are our closest friends and are far less likely to go to war. Economies based on free and open markets perform better and become markets for our goods. Respect for human rights is an antidote to instability and the grievances that fuel violence and terror.

And he noted that,

“In capitals around the globe -- including, unfortunately, some of America’s partners -- there has been a crackdown on civil society.”

We recognize that Azerbaijan lives in a very difficult neighborhood and that its government seeks stability. The United States strongly supports Azerbaijan’s long-term stability, security, and prosperity. The best way to guarantee such a future is to strengthen democratic processes and institutions to buttress respect for the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Doing so will foster long-term internal stability, create the most inviting environment for economic investment and growth, and make Azerbaijan the very best that it can be, by giving every citizen the freedom and space to achieve his or her full potential, thereby maximizing the contributions of all of its people. We consider this to be in both the short-term and the long-term interests of both the people and the government of Azerbaijan. The U.S. Embassy in Baku and we in Washington have been active on these issues and have made these points. For example, Ambassador Morningstar has been doing an outstanding job in advocating publicly as well as privately for an environment conducive to a vibrant civil society and in raising specific impediments to such an environment.

The United States believes that Azerbaijan will have greater stability and prosperity, and will more quickly reach its full potential, by allowing a more open society. We therefore will continue to support Azerbaijani efforts to advance the country’s democratic potential, including respect for rule of law, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. We will continue to urge Azerbaijan to live up to its OSCE commitments and other international human rights obligations. We will also encourage Azerbaijan to take advantage of its chairmanship of the Council of Europe to take concrete steps on important democracy and human rights issues. The positive changes we advocate would benefit both the people and the government of Azerbaijan. Such changes would also make it easier for us to expand and deepen our bilateral relationship, since our strongest relationships are with democratic states that respect the full range of human rights of all of their citizens.

As President Obama indicated in his recent message marking Azerbaijan’s National Day, and to return to where I began, we encourage Azerbaijan to reclaim the leadership role on human rights and fundamental freedoms that its people and government demonstrated 96 years ago.

Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for this opportunity to discuss democracy and human rights trends in Azerbaijan and our overall bilateral relationship.