Is PACE suspending the powers of the Azerbaijani delegation due to human rights issues?
In an unexpected step that caused surprise throughout Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) took an unprecedented step to freeze the powers of the Azerbaijani delegation. This issue, initiated by German MP Frank Schwabe, is justified as a response to ongoing human rights violations, an increase in the number of political prisoners, Azerbaijan's refusal to invite PACE to assess the upcoming presidential elections on February 7 and the refusal of PACE speakers to access the most important Lachin corridor in 2023.
However, human rights problems in Azerbaijan are far from new and cover the entire 23-year history of the country in the Council of Europe and PACE. The systematic dismantling of a free civil society, the media and the opposition in Azerbaijan was methodical, without much condemnation from European organizations. While the Council of Europe initially engaged with civil society alongside the Government to promote European values, over the past decade this approach has shifted towards engaging with the Government and NGOs loyal to it, which have opposed international efforts to protect human rights and freedom of expression.
The indifference of PACE and the Council of Europe to human rights violations in Azerbaijan is underlined by the signing on April 5, 2022 the joint action program between the Council of Europe and Azerbaijan for 2022-2025. In fact, it was a continuation of previous programs, the implementation of which went hand in hand with the devaluation of European values in Azerbaijan.
It is noteworthy that on December 8, 2023, President Aliyev met with Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić, who highly appreciated Azerbaijan's membership since 2001 and the reforms conducted by President Ilham Aliyev. The Secretary General stressed the Council of Europe's endorsement of Azerbaijan's efforts to establish sustainable peace in the region, including steps to strengthen trust with Armenia.
Nevertheless, there are suggestions about the true purpose of the meeting, believing that it may be related to last year's October PACE resolution and the statement of the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe. The resolution, unlike the solution of democratic problems, focuses on the rights of the Armenian population of Karabakh, who left Azerbaijan after the anti-terrorist operation of Baku on September 19, 2023.
PACE threatens sanctions on Karabakh, calling for immediate action
On October 12, 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution on the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The resolution strongly condemns the military actions of Azerbaijan in Karabakh on September 19, 2023. It highlights the mass exodus of almost the entire population from their homeland, citing the threat of physical destruction and the long-term policy of hostility towards Armenians by the Azerbaijani Government. The Assembly records suspicions of ethnic cleansing and warns of potential individual criminal liability for such actions.
The key points of the resolution include a call for the Committee of Ministers to conduct a monitoring process in relation to Azerbaijan on the basis of the 1994 declaration on the fulfillment of obligations by the member States of the Council of Europe. In addition, the Assembly advocates an additional joint procedure between the Committee of Ministers and the Parliamentary Assembly in response to Azerbaijan's serious violation of its obligations established by law.
The presented substantial ultimatums states that if Azerbaijan does not fulfill its obligations, the Assembly will challenge the mandate of the Azerbaijani delegation during the first PACE session in 2024, which will potentially lead to the suspension of the delegation's participation
The Assembly stressed that Azerbaijan, as a member State of the Council of Europe, Azerbaijan must adhere to the core values of the organization and fulfill its international obligations. It contains a reference to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights of September 22, 2023, calling on Azerbaijan to immediately take temporary measures.
The resolution further calls on Azerbaijan to facilitate the return of the Armenian population to Nagorno-Karabakh, protect their rights, preserve the Armenian cultural heritage and release all arrested representatives of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian prisoners of war held in Azerbaijan.
The resolution also concerns the opening regional communications, stressing that any connection with Nakhichevan should not be imposed against the will of Armenia and to the detriment of it.
In conclusion, the Assembly calls for urgent fact-finding visits by international structures, regular provision of detailed information by the Azerbaijani authorities to the Secretary-General and the Committee of Ministers, as well as immediate measures to resolve the humanitarian and human rights crisis affecting the displaced Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh. This requires the presence of a Council of Europe fact-finding mission on the ground to assess the situation and determine the necessary protective measures. The Assembly undertakes to closely monitor the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities and compliance with international obligations.
At a meeting held on October 18, 2023 in Strasbourg, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and the delegation of the European Union jointly considered the pressing issue of the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. The statement, reflecting the deep concern of the European Union, sheds light on the difficult situation that arose as a result of the mass exodus of Karabakh Armenians after the military operation of Azerbaijan on September 19 and 20, combined with the nine-month blockade of the most important Lachin corridor.
Azerbaijan was urged to ensure the human rights, fundamental freedoms and security of the Karabakh Armenians, emphasizing their right to live in their homes with dignity, without intimidation and discrimination. The appeal concerned the creation of conditions for the voluntary, safe, dignified and sustainable return of refugees and displaced persons to Nagorno-Karabakh, the preservation of their history, culture and rights. The protection of cultural heritage and property rights of the local population was recognized, as necessary.
The statement underlines Azerbaijan's obligation to comply with the interim measures established by the European Court of Human Rights on September 22, refraining from actions that may violate obligations under the Convention, in particular under article 2 (right to life) and the Article 3 (prohibition of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).
Recognizing President Aliyev's public statements about readiness for peaceful coexistence, the statement emphasized Azerbaijan's primary responsibility for the fate of the displaced population. Demands were made for clear, tangible and transparent guarantees, including a comprehensive amnesty for all Karabakh Armenians and representatives, along with expectations from all sides to refrain from harsh rhetoric.
International access to Karabakh was considered crucial for providing the necessary assistance and independent monitoring. The European Union highly appreciated the recent UN visits and expressed high respect to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Migration and Refugees. The Council of Europe fact-finding mission, led by Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic, was expected to present its follow-up recommendations, demonstrating commitment to addressing the ongoing humanitarian and human rights crisis in the region.
The strategic confrontation of President Aliyev in the context of the Karabakh puzzle
The meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe Marija Pejčinović Burić in December 2023 did not shed light on the difficulties associated with the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, in particular, on the issues of ongoing monitoring in Karabakh and the return of the Armenian population. But Aliyev's public statements hint at his unwavering position based on a historical context that dates back to the annexation of the Azerbaijani Karabakh Khanate to Russia in 1805. Aliyev's position on the issue of the return of Armenians seems to be rooted in his unwillingness to accept their repatriation without concluding a peace treaty - an issue complicated by the interests and accusations of both Yerevan and Baku. Aliyev is determined to prevent the manipulation of the rights of Armenians in Karabakh for external reasons, which Azerbaijan faced after the region joined Russia.
The firm determination of the Azerbaijani president to resolve the Karabakh problem was evident even before the 44-day war in 2020, a conflict that eventually led to a change of territorial control in the region.
It is noteworthy that Aliyev's confrontation with the Council of Europe is not new. On November 15, 2017, he openly threatened to leave the organization when he was pressured to release opposition leader Ilgar Mammadov. The Council of Europe referred to Article 46 "Binding force and enforcement of judgments", which was the first case of its application in the 68-year history of the organization.
On November 15, 2017, Aliyev, speaking at a solemn meeting in Baku, accused the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, of provoking a crisis in relations between Azerbaijan and the Council. Aliyev said that in the event of a deepening crisis, Azerbaijan will have the freedom to choose its course, emphasizing the voluntary nature of its membership in international organizations.
The context of this confrontation revolved around the threat of the Council of Europe to bring Azerbaijan to court for non-compliance with the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on the release of the Azerbaijani opposition leader. Mammadov was eventually released on August 13, 2018, although much later than the deadline set by the Council of Ministers.
While President Aliyev has been sorting out the intricacies of the Karabakh conflict and defending Azerbaijan's position, his historic clashes with the Council of Europe have highlighted the delicate balance between national interests and international obligations, raising questions about the country's future within the organization.
Azerbaijan's potential withdrawal from the Council of Europe: consequences and dilemmas
In 2017, the prospect of Azerbaijan's withdrawal from the Council of Europe raised concerns beyond human rights and security, extending to the areas of national independence, economic ties and international reputation. In November of the same year, Erkin Gadirli, now a member of the parliamentary group of Azerbaijan in PACE, expressed the seriousness of the situation, stressing that the consequences could jeopardize the country's position on the world stage.
Gadirli stressed that the consequences of such a withdrawal would be serious, overshadowing the interests of human rights and security. Independence, reputation, economic partnership and moral risks for international investors will all be at stake, he warned.
At the same time, Hikmet Hajizade, head of the Far Center for Economic and Political Studies, acknowledged the possibility that Azerbaijan would either be excluded or decide to leave the country voluntarily. He stressed that, especially in the context of human rights, such a step could give the authorities the opportunity to unrestrainedly tighten control, potentially affecting the country's citizens and ignoring international norms.
The deterioration of relations between Azerbaijan and the Council of Europe, despite the fact that so far it has had few tangible consequences for the country, caused him concerns about possible consequences. Azerbaijan became a member of the Council of Europe in January 2001, and in the following years relations with the organization steadily deteriorated.
Hajizadeh noted that non-compliance with obligations did not lead to significant consequences. The country has witnessed cases of political arrests, including of figures such as Ilgar Mammadov, Khadija Ismailova and Adnan Hajizade, with international condemnation often limited to paper statements.
Azerbaijan at a crossroads: post-election scenarios and expected changes
The unresolved question of whether Azerbaijan will join the Council of Europe with full voting rights or follow Russia's example and withdraw from the organization is becoming increasingly relevant, exciting the minds of both politicians and analysts. Trying to decipher the further course of events, it is necessary to deal with the complex political aura under President Ilham Aliyev.
In the field of electoral politics, the prospect of early presidential elections with a known result seems inevitable, given the unfolding dynamics according to a predetermined scenario. Drawing parallels with the 1998 elections, as then, this time the absence of genuine opposition parties – who announced a boycott – gives the elections a technical character. The Council of Europe, having deprived Azerbaijan of the right to vote and observe, is still unable to assess the legitimacy of the elections. The main subject of these elections, the people, is in a state of silence, which underlines the straitened political situation.
Prior to Aliyev's decision to hold early presidential elections, there were rumors in the expert community about the possibility of holding a referendum covering the modernization of management and public relations systems. Expectations were widespread regarding the next parliamentary elections under the new proportional system with the involvement of the opposition in the process. These expectations were related to the future release of political prisoners and the beginning of a dialogue between the Government and society. However, Aliyev chose the reverse sequence, announcing early presidential elections as an immediate step.
However, this deviation from forecasts does not necessarily mean that the expected changes will not materialize. A combination of factors, including societal fatigue from the authoritarian system, economic problems associated with a marked decline in oil production – the basis of the administrative economy - and the urgent need to establish peace with Armenia, may well pave the way for transformational shifts.
In a recent interview with local TV channels at the beginning of the year, President Aliyev signaled the beginning of a new stage in the history of Azerbaijan, foreshadowing the development of a new national idea. Aliyev claimed that the previous thirty-year-old national idea of restoring territorial integrity had been implemented, calling for the formulation of a new vision of national progress.
The situation in Azerbaijan after the elections promises changes that both society and the president have long expected. As the political narrative develops, the trajectory of a country's development depends on the interaction of these multifaceted factors balancing at the crossroads of continuity and evolution.