Should Azerbaijan be expelled from the Council of Europe?

May 23, 2014
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Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled against the seven-year jail term given to an opposition politician—Ilgar Mammadov—in Azerbaijan, ostensibly on public disorder charges, concluding that the real reason for his arrest had been his blog entries criticising the government.

It comes just a week after that same country assumed the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe—the parent body of the European Court of Human Rights—rather unconvincingly naming its priorities as improving access to rights for vulnerable groups and tackling corruption, among other things.

The Council of Europe was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War, chief among its aims the protection of human rights in Europe. So watching Azerbaijan take the helm—albeit only for six months—is a little hard to swallow.

In a report last year, Human Rights Watch highlighted Azerbaijan’s crackdown on political dissent, with the imprisonment of dozens of journalists, bloggers and activists over the last two years—Mammadov's case is not unique. Peaceful protests are often dealt with violently by the police. Corruption is rife, and elections are not what one would describe as "free and fair." One of the country's leading independent election monitors is currently in jail. Just a week before Azerbaijan assumed the chairmanship of the Council on 14th May, several youth activists were sentenced to between six and eight years in prison on charges described as “spurious” by Amnesty International.

It’s not as though the Council of Europe isn’t aware of these problems: its parliamentary assembly adopted a resolution last year calling on Azerbaijan to address its human rights issues, including torture and fabricated charges against activists and journalists. When Azerbaijan was admitted to the Council of Europe in 2001 it was hoped that the organisation would be able to exert a positive influence on its commitment to human rights, and indeed a promise to improve was a caveat of its joining. But, clearly, this has not come to fruition.

Should Azerbaijan be expelled or suspended from the Council? The Committee of Ministers does have the power to do that, although it has been used on only a handful of occasions—Turkey and Greece were both temporarily suspended following military coups; Russia was suspended in 2000 over Chechnya and has recently been suspended again until the end of 2014 following its annexation of Crimea.

The Council maintains that it is better off having countries such as Russia and Azerbaijan within the organisation, where it might be able to guide them towards a better respect for human rights, than outside it. It is true that, had Azerbaijan not been a member, Mammadov's case could never have gone to the European Court. The ability to enforce rulings made by the Court is another matter—but at least it puts pressure on the Azerbaijani government and raises the profile of these cases beyond the country's own borders, where it is difficult to report on them.

But allowing Azerbaijan to remain a member offers it a symbol of legitimacy it hasn't earned, and which it uses to its own ends—Azerbaijani media reports this week have depicted the country's chairmanship of the Council as evidence of its commitment to human rights.

It's a nice, if optimistic, thought that the Council of Europe could be a positive influence on Azerbaijan, but it should never have been allowed to join before making the reforms that it's now being called on to make. As it assumes the chairmanship, the Council is left helplessly rapping it on the knuckles.