BAKU / GENEVA (22 September 2016) – United Nations independent expert Michel Forst today urged the Government of Azerbaijan to stop criminalisation of peaceful and legitimate activities by human rights defenders, release all detained defenders and rescind criminal and administrative sanctions against them and their families.
“Over the last three years, the civil society of Azerbaijan has faced the worst situation since its independence,” said the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders at the end of the first visit* to the country, while stressing that dozens of NGOs, their leaders, employees and their families have been subject to administrative and legal persecution, including the seizure of their assets and bank accounts, travel bans, enormous tax penalties and even imprisonment.
“At least 20 journalists and bloggers have been sanctioned in some way for the expression of critical views, and independent media outlets have had their licences revoked,” Mr Forst noted.
“Even if freedom of assembly is critical for social dialogue on critical issues, Azerbaijani authorities have curtailed the right through regulating assembly in a broad range of circumstances and denied requests for public meetings by critical human rights defenders,” the UN expert said.
Besides the incidents of violent responses to peaceful protests and arrests of demonstrators, Mr. Forst documented during the visit at least 45 cases of individuals and defenders who were warned, arrested and detained prior to the peaceful assembly on 17 September, connected to the upcoming referendum on constitutional amendments on 26 September.
According to the expert, the recent large-scale persecution of domestic and international NGOs in Azerbaijan encompassed the closure of those NGOs, seizure of organization’s bank accounts and those of its leaders; repeated interrogation of employees of NGOs; tax inspections of NGO financial activities with heavy penalties as a result; travel bans; as well as degrading and discriminatory physical checks of NGO staff at border crossing points.
“The already challenging environment for NGOs has turned into a total crisis due to the 2013-2015 legislative amendments on civil society regulations,” pointed out the Special Rapporteur. He also expressed concern about their drastic effect on the right to freedom of association, preventing rights defenders from operating without obtaining onerous state registration, curtailing access to funding, and increasing administrative penalties for NGOs.
He regretted “a punitive attitude to human rights defenders,” and encouraged the Government to “embrace a more supportive approach to civil society, despite possible disagreements and criticism of its policies.”
Observing that most of recommendations by the international and regional human rights mechanisms have yet to be implemented by the Government of Azerbaijan,
Mr Forst strongly called for establishing a mechanism that would result in a plan of action to implement those outstanding recommendations.
He urged the Government to “to build bridges with civil society organizations, and to establish a regular and meaningful dialogue with human rights defenders, ensuring broad and inclusive participation. I believe such dialogue and partnership is ultimately in the interest of the Azerbaijani State,” the expert stressed.
The UN Special Rapporteur expressed his readiness for further constructive dialogue to identify ways to strengthen civil society space and support endeavours by the Government in reviewing the current legislation and practices to bring them in line with international standards.
During his nine-day visit, at the invitation of the Government, the expert met with State officials, members of the judiciary, ombudsman as well as human rights defenders and representatives of civil society, media, and the diplomatic community.
Mr. Forst will present a final report with his findings and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in March 2017.
Mr. Michel Forst (France) was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders in 2014. Michel Forst has extensive experience on human rights issues and particularly on the situation of human rights defenders. In particular, he was the Director General of Amnesty International (France) and Secretary General of the first World Summit on Human Rights Defenders in 1998. For more information, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/SRHRDefenders/Pages/SRHRDefendersIndex.aspx
The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.