UN Human Rights Committee Discusses Azerbaijan

20-21 October the UN Human Rights Committee convened in Geneva to discuss human rights in Azerbaijan for the fourth time since Azerbaijan joined the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1992. The Committee panel, made up of 18 independent experts from around the world, put questions to a delegation from the Azerbaijani government on topics ranging from freedom of expression and minority rights to domestic violence and prison conditions. The Azerbaijani delegation pointed toward progress in most areas while denying some problems outright, calling them ‘legends’ and ‘far from the truth.’

The ICCPR is a human rights treaty which entered into force in 1976, obligating ratifying states ‘to protect and preserve basic human rights, such as: the right to life and human dignity; equality before the law; freedom of speech, assembly, and association; religious freedom and privacy; freedom from torture, ill-treatment, and arbitrary detention; gender equality; the right to a fair trial, and; minority rights.’ Currently 168 states have ratified the treaty and are required to submit reports periodically for review by the UN Human Rights Committee. Azerbaijan ratified the ICCPR shortly after independence on 13 August 1992 and submitted its fourth report to the Committee this year. 

Prior to the public discussions of 20-21 October, the Committee received a report from the Azerbaijani government on the state of human rights in the country, as well as reports from various NGOs and civil society organizations, such as Human Rights House Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Lawyers for Lawyers, the European Association of Jehovah’s Christian Witnesses, and several others. Topics raised included general issues of freedom of expression, freedom of worship, women’s rights, and others, as well as specific cases of political prisoners such as Ilgar Mammadov, Leyla Yunus and others.

The recent referendum of 26 September in which 29 controversial constitutional amendments were passed was brought up by several members of the Committee. Co-director of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and Committee member Sarah Cleveland raised concerns that the referendum was organized without the participation of parliament and carried out too quickly to provide for proper public discussion. Citing the report by the Council of Europe’s constitutional advisory board, the Venice Commission, of which she is a member, Ms. Cleveland also criticized the amendments for giving the president unprecedented new powers, weakening the parliament and making the judiciary less independent, calling them ‘clearly a step backwards regarding international standards.’

The Head of the Division on Human Rights Protection Affairs at the Presidential Administration’s Department on Work with Law Enforcement Bodies, Chingiz Asgarov, responded that Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court had reviewed the proposed amendments prior to the referendum and approved them, and stated that the amendments, including changes to ‘prolong the presidential term from five to seven years’ and to make the right to free assembly ‘contingent on “public order and morality” not being violated,’ are primarily aimed at protecting human rights in Azerbaijan. Mr. Asgarov further criticized the Venice Commission’s report on the referendum, stating that it was prepared in only 10 days and, therefore, the quality of the opinion was of a ‘very low level.’ He also noted that Azerbaijan had only agreed to consider ‘reasonable’ recommendations from the Venice Commission, of which there were none in the Commission’s report. 

Hebrew University professor and Committee member Yuval Shany raised the issue of racial discrimination and expressed skepticism that the small number of court cases regarding racial discrimination could possibly reflect the true scale of the problem. Mr. Shany also asked the Azerbaijani state representatives to comment on the high poverty rates among ethnic communities in rural areas, as well as on reports that ethnic minorities such as the Talysh, Lezgis, Meskhetians and Kurds, were prevented from holding cultural events and from having school instruction in their own languages.

Acting Head of the Division on Foreign Relations at the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, Nijat Mammadli, replied that the small number of reported cases of racial discrimination accurately reflects ‘the non-existence of racial discrimination in Azerbaijan.’ As an example, Mr. Mammadli pointed out that Azerbaijan has had a Jewish community for over 2000 years, and in all that time there has never been a single case of antisemitism. Regarding the issue of poverty, the Azerbaijani delegate stated that Azerbaijan’s poverty rate had dropped from 47% in 2002 to 5% at present, and that all countries have higher poverty rates in rural areas rather than urban areas. Regarding cultural freedoms, Mr. Mammadli pointed out that Azerbaijan offers education in various languages, including Russian, Georgian, and Hebrew, and that even the Khinaliq people, with a population of only 2500 people, have education in their own language, and have generally seen conditions improve in recent years.

In his closing statement, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the Azerbaijani delegation, Khalaf Khalafov, stated that the delegation was ‘satisfied with the successful exchange of opinions.' Although in his opinion several issues raised did not reflect reality and had originated from ‘biased sources,’ Mr. Khalafov stated, ‘We are open to all questions about human rights, we are open to dialogue.’ 

The public discussion having been completed, the Committee will now prepare its report on human rights in Azerbaijan due to be released in early November.

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