Engaging or shaming? Washington debates over responding effectively to Baku’s crackdown on activists

Washington officials, leading rights campaigners agree that more need to be done to stop Azerbaijan’s escalated pressure on human rights activists and NGOs. Unfortunately, they can’t agree on how…

rallyThe topic of the western response to Azerbaijan’s ongoing pressure against rights activists and civil society groups was discussed during the event called “Broader Implications of the Human Rights Crackdown in Azerbaijan” organized by Freedom House and Open Society Foundations in the US capital on October 27. Here is my coverage on the event for TURAN News agency.

Naming and shaming…

For rights campaigners, such as Gerald Knaus, the founder of the European Stability Initiative, a Berlin-based think-tank working on European enlargement, the method of “naming and shaming” gross violators of basic human rights in Azerbaijan would provide the victims a voice and solidarity with the international community.

“Time to start looking at the tools [that the US has] on hands, such as implementing Magnitsky-style sanctions against Azerbaijan, as the country now has more political prisoners than even Russia and Belarus,“ one of the speakers emphasized…

The event was announced to be “off the record” for the public, while only one of the speakers agreed to be quoted.

                                                                                                                                                  Caviar diplomacy…illegal caviar

Knaus, author of the report Caviar Diplomacy, which outlines the ways that Azerbaijan has sought to undermine the Council of Europe, added that the West should be “precise” in its strategic: The Azeri government and their supporters in Strasbourg, London, and other European capitals should be “ashamed.”

Thus he said, the Baku officials have been “extremely successful” – through their caviar diplomacy and oil money – to “buy” supporters from western democracies, while targeting at home both domestic and foreign NGOs, placing procedural hurdles that prevent them from working, launching administrative and criminal investigations, and imprisoning or forcing into hiding or exile many outstanding civil society activists and journalists.

Rights defenders are subject to repression

Rights activists such as Leyla Yunus, Rasul Jafarov, who stand for the many defending basic human rights values in the country, are themselves subject to repression and imprisonment for doing so. They got arrested right after they released a comprehensive list of political prisoners in the country, which included more than 100 names.

All these, he added, happen at the time when Azerbaijan chairs Council of Europe’s decision-making body, while abusing its chairmanship “almost every week.”

“The visa bans should be issued for [Azeri] human rights violators, as long as all the 100 political prisoners aren’t released,” he emphasized, adding that the silence by the most respected human rights institution on the continent became the shield behind which the Azerbaijani regime is hiding its repression by arresting “anyone that writes anything critical.”

Washington’s dilemma: Engagement or isolation?

eventIn her remarks, a panelist representing US government policy in Azerbaijan, laid out Washington’s vision of “engagement, not isolation”, as the way forward.

The US, she said, is “in a dialog with Azerbaijan,”arguing that human rights is being discussed among other topics, such as security and energy cooperation.

“We share Azerbaijan’s desire to have stable, secure and prosperous future,” she added.

Knaus in his turn, , criticized the western governments’ cheering up to Azeri government’s latest release of four political prisoners, while “arresting two more and pretending that system is working.”  “If we keep welcoming these, that means we’re part of the game,” he added.

In the meantime, the speakers agreed that the west shouldn’t compromise its human rights principles because of Azerbaijan geo-strategic position.

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