- According to reports, the US Senate is preparing a bill on human rights violators during the pandemic. What is the need for this document and how do you assess the chances of its adoption?

- At this point, we are talking about two important bills that have already been announced in the Senate: “The Protecting Human Rights during Pandemic Act” and “COVID-19 International Response and Recovery Act”. The adoption of the second document will likely take time, given than its implementation will require excessive funds, and moreover, the authors are only opposition Democratic senators, albeit a significant part of the proposed bill may be incorporated into other laws in the future.

The adoption of The Protecting Human Rights during Pandemic Act is very real. Its authors include representatives of both isles of Congress, as well as all the camps in the political arena. Adoption of these laws will allow human rights diplomats to play a leading role in the US foreign policy; hence, Washington will reconsider its attitude towards authoritarian leaders who are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to grab power.

What is the need for the law? First of all, lawmakers take this step according to public demand, as well as a serious analysis of the global security threats provided to them. Of course, not all such analyzes are fully declassified to the public; however, based on what i’m hearing during my off the record conversations with human rights and security experts here in Washington, if the pandemic were to continue for a few more months, the potential threats on the global stage can be divided into four categories:

  • The strengthening of authoritarianism around the world and political chaos comes along with it. (In other words, the painful consequences of the authorities' inadequate response to the disaster);
  • Deepening economic crisis in developing countries as a result of incompetent decisions;
  • The outbreak of conflicts that are deemed to be frozen, new influxes of refugees, and the more excruciating pain of the threat of the virus - from death to starvation;
  • The spread of disinformation and the re-emergence of terrorism.

If we refer to the most dangerous scenarios, it seems that thanks to the pandemic, the world is going to like a barrel of gunpowder, and it is no coincidence that authoritarianism is at the forefront of the dangers that await us if the situation with the virus does not change. That is why the US lawmakers are preparing to declare human rights a top priority in foreign policy at the next stage. Some even compare this with the rise of the fight against terrorism in global diplomacy after the events of September 11, 2011. In any case, it is expected that in the next stage, human rights diplomats will be the top dogs in the foreign policy field, and they will be little less disrespected by the authoritarian leaders.

- What is envisaged in this bill? In other words, how does it affect countries that violate human rights? Will the document refer to Azerbaijan in particular, or will it apply to countries other than Azerbaijan?

- Let me answer directly to the last part of the question first, that it is not about one or more specific countries, it reveals the uncompromising position of the US foreign policy in relation to gross human rights violators. The authors - Senators Markey, Blackburn, Cardin, Wicker, and Merkley, as well as Congress members McGovern, Wagner, and Malinowski - oblige the State Department to prevent serious human rights violations during the pandemic, both through diplomacy and assistance.

Specifically the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act would:

  • Authorize funding for Fiscal Years 2020-2025 for programs that support democratic institutions, civil society, human rights defenders, and protect freedom of the press and other internationally recognized human rights around the world during and in the aftermath of potentially harmful responses to the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Require the Secretary of State and USAID Administrator to submit an initial strategic plan, within 30 days of enactment, describing how they plan to carry out such activities, followed later by a 5-year strategic plan to address violations of human rights during and in the aftermath of the coronavirus response, through American diplomacy and foreign assistance.
  • Require regular reporting by the State Department on how countries around the world are meeting or violating their human rights obligations, specifically focusing on the use of emergency measures or powers, during the coronavirus response.
  • Make clear that for the purposes of certifying the delivery of security sector assistance under Section 502B(a)(4) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the systematic violation of internationally recognized human rights through the use of emergency laws, policies, or administrative procedures should be particularly considered when evaluating whether a country has engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.
  • Add a new reporting requirement in the State Department Annual Human Rights Country Reports to include a reporting requirement on the misuse of emergency laws and powers; it also requires an annual congressional briefing on the reports’ findings.

- If this bill is adopted and applies to Azerbaijan, won’t it have a more negative impact on Azerbaijan-US relations? Won’t it lead to a closer rapprochement between Azerbaijan and Russia?

- First and foremost, this will shorten the lobbyists’ tongues and make it harder for them to urge the US administrations to turn a blind eye to human rights for energy and other interests in their dealings with countries like Azerbaijan, regardless of who occupies the White House. Such that they would, in fact, force the State Department to violate the law to be passed by Congress.

At the same time, it opens a new window for strengthening cooperation between Washington and Baku in addressing human rights issues. Unfortunately, the Azerbaijani government has long avoided direct human rights dialogue with the United States. However, such dialogue exists within the framework of the Eastern Partnership initiative between Azerbaijan and the relevant bodies of the European Union. The US and European embassies, for example, have been involved in facilitating dialogue between political forces in Georgia. The Georgian government not only does not prevent this but also is an active participant in the process. At the same time, Tbilisi is taking a more pragmatic approach to the State Department's annual human rights reports, as well as calls from local and international human rights organizations working in the field. The Azerbaijani government could also benefit from the experience of neighboring countries in this direction by showing political will.

Of course, returning Azerbaijan to Moscow's orbit is not a way out. This can turn the country into a vassal and will be the beginning of our next tragedy. Staying away from Western allies will result in Azerbaijan's isolation in the region. It's scary to be alone, but it's also scary to feel alienated among friends. It would be better if the officials in Baku did not put the country between a bad choice and the worst choice. The right way forward is to strengthen diplomatic creativity and to pursue dialogue with partners.

I understand that the Azerbaijani government is trying to dictate its position on certain issues, including domestic policy. But diplomacy also means listening to the other side. State your position, but listen to those in front of you. As US Secretary of State Colin Powell once famously put it, you need to maintain relationships with others so that you can work together in difficult times. Now, that moment has arrived. You do learn a lot about a country when you see how well and how functionally it responds to a crisis.

- Meanwhile, last week, the United States extended the term for the waiver of the implementation of the 907th amendment to the Freedom Support Act. Why is this term extended every time? Is it not possible to prevent the extension of the term of this document?

- Let's start with the fact that the freezing of the 907th amendment was overlooked in the first two years of the Trump administration, and thus the US-Azerbaijani military relations decreased to the level of relations pre-2001. Last month, the administration extended the term for the refusal from this amendment for the second time. This is a good sign. A repealing of the law itself is unfortunately impossible, such that the laws in the United States are not easily read back. In a conversation with me, some Washington officials say half-jokingly, half-seriously that sending “the 907” to the historical archive forever would be a more difficult process than finding a solution to the Karabakh issue. Especially considering that at present, the effect of this amendment is almost non-existent.

- In general, how do you assess the recent US-Azerbaijani relations? Is there any change for the better? Or what should both parties do to further improve relations?

-It is a broad question but I will try to give a short answer. The United States does not want to lose Azerbaijan, it is clear. The relationship is deeper than ever, although it comes at the cost of “putting up with Baku officials’ whims” and is unreliable in the long run. The worrying point is that Azerbaijani officials are not only ignoring Washington's messages on human rights but also trying to discredit US institutions working in this direction at the hands of lobbyists in Washington. This is unacceptable. Diplomacy is not just about saying or doing the right things at the right time, but also about avoiding saying or doing the wrong things at any time.    


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