I am addressing you today at the conclusion of my 11-day official country visit to Azerbaijan, which I carried out at the invitation of the Government from 1 to 11 October 2019.
The main objective of my visit was to assess the enjoyment of the right to adequate food in the country, to engage in a constructive dialogue with all stakeholders and provide useful recommendations to the Government and others. The following statement outlines my preliminary findings based on the information and interviews gathered during the visit, as well as background research conducted prior to the visit. My final report will be presented during the 43rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, in March 2020, in Geneva.
I am grateful to the Government of Azerbaijan for facilitating my visit and engaging with me in an open constructive manner. I would like to extend my special appreciation to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which smoothly coordinated the preparation of the official programme and organised all the meetings requested.
In Baku, I held meetings with a range of Government representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Ministry of Agriculture; Ministry of Labour and Social Protection of the Population; Ministry of Economy; Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources; Ministry of Healthcare; Ministry of Justice; Ministry of Finance; National Coordination Council on Sustainable Development; State Agency of Agriculture Credit and Development; State Agency of Agricultural Services; State Agency for Food Safety; State Centre of Agriculture Studies; State Agriculture Trade Company; State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs; State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and IDPs; and the Council of State Support for NGOs. I also met with the Agriculture Policy Committee of the Milli Mejlis (the Parliament) and the head of the Ombudsman’s Office and her team.
In Baku, I also visited the only Juvenile Correctional Facility and Women’s prison n°4, as well as public orphanage No.11 in Bilge Town and a IDPs’ settlement.
I conducted two field visits, outside the capital, to Guba and Ganja regions. In Guba, in the North Eastern region, I held meetings with local government representatives, met with the Director of the Scientific Research Centre for Tea and Fruit-Growing and visited an ABAD pilot centre, which provides support to small-scale farmers for processing, marketing and selling their products.
In Guba, I also met with members from rural communities and smallholder farmers who face remarkable challenges in relation to selling their products and related issues of vulnerability. These farmers expressed deep frustration that it was very difficult for them to reach the market and had sometimes to throw their harvests because they were not able to sell or keep all of their products in warehouses and did not manage to process let alone export them.
In Ganja, I met with the Deputy Rector of the State Agricultural University, Ganja Agro business Association as well as with members of rural communities and farmers to look into structural agricultural issues affecting the region.
Throughout the visit, I also met with representatives from international organisations, the UN system, the international donor community and representatives of civil society organisations.
I am most grateful to OHCHR Azerbaijan, the RC, FAO and other UN colleagues for their invaluable support both before and during the visit. I would also like to express my deepest gratitude to everyone who took the time to meet with me and who shared their personal experiences. Their personal testimonies and contributions have been vital to the success of this visit.
- General overview
Azerbaijan is one of the post-Soviet transition economies. Since its independence in 1991, it has made a profound economic and social transformation, bringing Azerbaijan to become upper middle-income country. In 2013, the country’s GDP peaked to US$ 73.56 billion, a ten-fold increase from 2003.1 Its economic growth has been mainly based on hydrocarbon wealth with a stable oil and gas production, both sectors generating nearly 60% of GDP. Azerbaijan significantly contributes to the energy security of Europe and other countries by implementing the Southern Gas Corridor projects, such as Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline and Trans-Adriatic Pipeline.
For many years, this wealth helped sustain vigorous economic growth and prosperity. Yet there was a persistent slowdown due to the decline in global oil prices since 2014, and a devaluation of the currency against major foreign currencies by 33.86%2, which seriously affected the purchase power of the population and revealed the need to diversify the economy and invest in non-oil sector. Economic diversification remains a major problem to tackle. In all the meetings with official authorities, the Government stated that it is focusing its efforts on the development of the country’s agricultural potential and the increase of productivity to guarantee economic stability. However, prioritizing the advancement of the agriculture sector and boosting the country’s human and natural resources potential is still at an introductory stage and needs to incorporate a human rights-based approach to its sustainable development, as it is mandatory for the Government of Azerbaijan to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate food for all.
In Azerbaijan's economy, oil and gas represent over 95% of the country's exports. Besides oil products, Azerbaijan produces cement, machinery, cotton, and foodstuffs. Agriculture accounted for 5.63% of GDP in 2017 and employed 37.48% of the population in 2018. Industry accounted for 49.58% of GDP in 2017 and employed 13.85% of the population in 2018. Services accounted for 37.48% of GDP in 2017 and employed 48.67% of the population in 2018.
With a population of 10 million people, the poverty rate is reportedly to have dropped from 49.6% in 2000 to 4.9% in 2016.
3 This is a remarkable achievement. As for the unemployment rate, according to official statistics, it remained steady at 5%, with identical expectations for 2019 and 2020.
Despite positive achievements, the economic wealth has not been equally shared and distributed among the population. Globally, inequality is one of the stumbling blocks to eliminate poverty, hunger and malnutrition. Although the emergence of a free market economy has assisted with the impressive growth experienced by the country in recent years, this growth has not been inclusive and has not benefited all. Therefore, Azerbaijani population faces increasing inequality. The Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, has increased from 3.47 in 2000 to 17.07 in 2018. The increase is mainly attributed to the widening divide between rural and urban areas and the economic wealth and employment mainly concentrated in the capital Baku. Inequality and vulnerability remain high, in particular, in rural and remote areas, among non-oil sector workers, low-level civil servants, professionals working for public sectors, such as teachers and doctors. Despite recent increase in minimum wage and pensions, lower middle income Azerbaijanis are struggling to maintain their livelihoods given the high food prices, education, housing and health expenditures. This is more accentuated in rural areas where access to a job is more difficult.
In addition, the problem of corruption, although significantly reduced by new institutional reforms and government policies as well as tax reform, still remains and acts as an impediment to the country's development. Azerbaijan ranked 152 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2018.
Finally, Azerbaijan suffers political problems arising from the occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh and adjacent regions of Azerbaijan and hostile relations with its neighbouring country, Armenia. The occupation has had a significant impact on the people who suffered from the war, had to live their region and homes, lost their relatives, properties and livelihood. They moved to various parts of country to live in settlements in dire conditions. Although the Government is helping approximately one million IDPs providing a series of social protection measures, such as housing, jobs, education and pensions, this status creates significant burden on the economy and continuous stress on society.
- Legal and policy framework
The Constitution of Azerbaijan, in its article 16, implicitly recognizes the right to food in the context of its affirmation about improvement of prosperity of all people and each citizen, their social protection and proper living conditions. In addition, international agreements ratified by Azerbaijan constitute an integral part of the legislative system of the country.
Despite the adoption of different laws, programmes and projects initiated in recent years, Azerbaijan lacks a comprehensive framework law on the right to adequate food that incorporates a human rights-based approach to food security. This law should cooperate with all relevant sectors, such as environment, trade, nutrition, health, women empowerment and protection of smallholder farmers. This proposed law should provide monitoring mechanism, and promote food sovereignty for all.
As I discussed with the Ministry of Justice, citizens can easily access the judicial system, as it is not burdensome and expensive, and they have access to a free legal aid mechanism that has been recently reformed. However, there are almost no cases brought to the Courts because many citizens do not know their rights.
The food and agriculture sector is mainly controlled by the private sector. The Government has the responsibility to regulate the business activities to protect their harmful effect on citizens. Therefore, a complaint mechanism should be established to allow citizen to apply when their rights are violated. An effective consumer protection system would be a good starting point.
In addition, the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011) provide a set of guidelines for the Government to prevent and address human rights abuses committed in business operations.
It is commendable that Azerbaijan has ratified all core international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) in 1992, which states, in article 11, the obligation of States to realize the right to food and eliminate hunger and malnutrition for all. As a party to ICESCR, Azerbaijan has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food, among its other human rights obligations. The main challenge is to implement effectively old and new national laws, public policies and programmes with adequate budgetary resources.
Azerbaijan is also party to several other treaties that are relevant for the realization of the right to adequate food and contain provisions explicitly linked to it, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is very important and relevant that Azerbaijan is party to these treaties as the right to food is indivisibly related to other rights including the rights to health, social protection, housing, water and sanitation, land and work, education, a healthy environment as well as women’s rights and empowerment, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly based on the principle of non-discrimination.
Moreover, Azerbaijan actively participated in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and presented two Voluntary National Reviews in 2017 and 2019. This is an impressive indication of the international commitment to meet the Sustainable Development Goals.
It was surprising to see, from most of the meetings I held during my visit, that, apart from having ratified core human rights treaties, economic, social and cultural rights are not very prominently known and promoted among the Azerbaijani society, not even by non-governmental organisations. According to civil society organizations, ordinary people have no knowledge about core international human rights treaties and less on the rights these covenants promote and protect, let alone constitutional rights. The right to food is not well understood and a human rights-based approach into programmes and policies is not integrated. Education and awareness raising on the right to food is urgently needed for a clear understanding of the obligations it implies for the Government as well as for other stakeholders.
Another clear example of the lack of understanding and awareness of the right to food was the confirmation by the Ombudsperson that its institution rarely receives complaints concerning economic, social and cultural rights, and never received a complaint related to the right to food.
Justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to food, entails that potential victims of violations of these rights are able to file complaints before an independent and impartial body, in request of adequate remedies and its implementation. I, therefore, encourage Azerbaijan to ratify the Optional Protocol of the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2012) to provide citizens access to the justice system in case of human rights violations.
Overview of the agricultural sector
Azerbaijan has 5.8 million hectare of agricultural land, which comprises over 67% of its total territory, of which 31% is arable. Crop production accounts for around 49% of agriculture production with livestock farming making up the remaining 51%.4
About 47% of Azerbaijanis live in rural areas, and approximately 39% of jobs are in farming and agro-processing. Though farming provides only close to 6% of GDP, agriculture is a major contributor to Azerbaijan’s non-oil economy and has potential for stimulating growth, job creation, and food security. The total volume of agricultural products increased by 7.7 times (2.4 times in real terms) between 1995 and 2005 and 3.1 times between 2005 and 2015. Despite this increase, the share of the agricultural sector in GDP fell from 16.1% to 5.5% during the years 2000-2010 when the influence of the oil sector in general economic growth was particularly strong. The share rose again, however, from 5.5% in 2010 to 6.2% in 2010-2015, accounting for 5.63% of GDP in 2017.
Main crops include wheat, barley, corn, fruits, potatoes, cotton, tea, silk, and tobacco. The country also produces other potentially valuable crops, including indigenous pink grapes, tomatoes, apples, hazelnuts, walnuts and persimmons. Livestock and dairy products are also important farm products and recently vigorously supported by the Government.
There are no problems in food availability in Azerbaijan, having good natural resources and variety of flora, fauna and climatic zones. Although, environmental issues and climate change combined with intensive agriculture may have an adverse impact on productivity. However, access to nutritious and adequate food in Azerbaijan is a problem in some sectors of society, especially among subsistent farmers as well as vulnerable groups such as IDPs and people living in remote rural areas.
In October 2018, Azerbaijan ranked 56th out of 113 in the global food security index (measure that considers the core issues of affordability, availability, and quality across a set of 113 countries to examine food security comprehensively).5
Governmental policies in the agricultural sector
The interest of the Government of Azerbaijan to prioritize the development of the agricultural sector has been reflected in the establishment of new public institutions. In the past two years, the State Agency for Food Safety; the State Agency of Agriculture Credit and Development; the State Agency of Agricultural Services; the State Centre of Agriculture Studies; and the State Agriculture Trade Company, were established. The creation of new institutions has been accompanied by the adoption of new laws, policies and programmes on the development of agriculture, food security and food safety. Especially, the newly established State Agency for Food Safety has an impressive mandate and power over food safety that incorporates many responsibilities from various state institutions.
It is extremely important to deliver safe, healthy and clean food to citizens by establishing state of the art laboratories and technical experts to service throughout the country. However, according to universally accepted definition of FAO, food safety is only one part of food security. As already indicated, ministerial coordination and the definition of clear mandates for each institution are vital parts of a comprehensive food system policy.
I was presented with different projects, launched in 2018, to develop small and medium entrepreneurships on the agriculture sector and support the formation of competitive family businesses in the country (“ABAD” project); to increase agricultural employment, the use of green technology innovations and improvement of entrepreneurial and professional skills (“AMAL” project); and to empower women in agriculture and help them in rural areas to run their own farms by educating them with training programs, providing rural advisory services and creating a wide network of stakeholders (“AFAQ” project).
Although, it is very impressive to encounter all well-meaning new programs, I witnessed the current limited capacity of these State-run programmes, which are still in a very early stage of implementation and whose impact in the long term remains to be seen. As an example, currently ABAD project supports a small number of farmers, and I was not able to get clarity on the selection criteria of one farmer over another. As of now, limited availability of the nationwide programme makes difficult to predict the real impact on the farmers’ livelihoods.
Azerbaijani Government has also enacted incentives to boost the agricultural sector. These measures include import substitution, tax exemptions, and subsidies of machinery, pesticides, and fertilizers.
Finally, this year, the Government of Azerbaijan has launched the e-system project which uses ICT technologies as one of the main tools of the Government on the way to improving the services provided to the population. A total of 541 types of services including, among others, banking, mobile, utilities, leasing, tax, migration and judicial services can be done electronically. Subsidies and allowances as well as registration of business entities working in the nutrition sector can also be requested electronically. This programme, when effectively implemented, will eliminate many cumbersome administrative procedures, which farmers have to go through, and will bring transparency and trust to the system.
Challenges for small and medium-sized farmers
While this is commendable, the implementation of legislation promoting food security policies, the lack of the integration of a rights-based approach and the lack of public consultation with farmers and producers are of concern and need to be addressed.
In Ganja, NGOs working with small-scale farmers explained that, in the country, nearly 90% of the farms (620 000) are smallholdings, which occupy 85% of the agricultural lands. Due to the small farm sizes, usually between one and three hectares, and the lack of farmers’ associations/unions, these farmers have difficulties in accessing the market in favourable terms. There is often a huge difference between the selling field price of products and the selling price in the final consumption market.
They are also confronted to water shortages, lack of access to quality seeds, lack of adequate machinery and technology such as modern drip systems, as well as difficulties in accessing the market, loans and subsidies, and processing their yields.
Smallholder farmers with only one or two hectares of land are extremely vulnerable and cannot live from their production having to move to daily jobs in the service sector to guarantee their family’s survival. The lack of public consultation from the Government on the needs of farmers does not help to improve their situation and, without consultation to concerned parties, programmes and projects will hardly reflect the real necessities of the agricultural sector. There is a disconnect between farmers and State authorities. I was even told that: “Parliamentarians representing their constituency never visited their districts, walked on their lands or spoke with their people”.
Small-scale farmers also need to stay competitive in the face of the development of intensive agriculture carried out by large-scale agribusiness companies. To achieve such competitiveness, smallholder farmers should establish associations of producers that are engaged in the same agricultural subsector, work together and interconnect and build value networks when addressing common challenges and pursuing common opportunities.
Although digitalization has very positive features, all e-payments including subsidies for the agricultural sector can increase the marginalization of vulnerable groups, poor people and people living in rural and remote areas who do not have access to internet. The Government needs to ensure that low-income population, the elderly, women, persons with disabilities and people living in rural and remote areas are supported in the process of applying for subsidies and allowances in this digitalization era, without any barriers.
Extension services and training programs
One of the major roles of the Ministry of Agriculture is to provide extension service to farmers. In the agricultural sector, skills and knowledge are very important to increase sustainable production using new techniques to improve productivity. When I visited the Azerbaijan State Agricultural University, located in Ganja, I learned that there was not much interest to get into the school of agriculture until very recently. This has changed dramatically. Today, 1350 students enrolled in the 2019 academic year.
However, extension services still need to be improved and should be widely available to all to increase the efficiency of the family farms, and to improve the standard of living of the families working on the agricultural sector. Especially women and young farmers should be able to access extension services to make the farming attractive for youth.
In addition, farmer-to-farmer training programmes, traditional methods that are environmentally sustainable, programmes that are designed only for women, and besides farming, alternative livelihood programmes must be widened.
In general, the level and quality of the skills and knowledge of the workforce in Azerbaijan is not sufficient. It is necessary to prioritize the development of human capital to ensure a competitive workforce. “Azerbaijan 2020: Look into the future” strategy highlights the importance of investing on human capital but there is a need to invest more, in particular, on high quality education. Only 3% of the 2019 State budget is allocated to education. This is a relevant indicator of the need to prioritize human capital investment through education and training. This will have a significant improvement not only on the agricultural sector but also in all areas.
The land reform that took place in Azerbaijan, between 1994 and 2003, is one of most successful agrarian reform processes in the world. According to the 1996 Law on Land Reform, the purpose of the reform was the “creation of new relations of land ownership on the basis of the principles of economic independence and social equality, development of market economy and entrepreneurial initiative, achievement of economic independence of the country, including providing the population with food and increase wealth.”6
The land reform specified the allocation of land into state, municipal and private ownership. The first stage included the free-of-charge allocation of part of the land fund of collective and state farms to citizens according to legal documentation. The main responsibility of the government institutions were to provide the population with the necessary documents for owning the land and to create a list of requirements for obtaining the land. The distribution of land was a peaceful and successful process, which the leadership of the country needs to be congratulated for.
However, over the years, many smallholder farmers were not able to survive from farming due to the challenges they faced. Therefore, they sold their lands and moved into the big cities to work in other alternative sectors. In addition, remaining lands were divided even into smaller plots because of inheritance. Currently there is no clarity over land rights because many citizens do not register their land when they exchange the property rights, or in case of inheritance. This situation significantly affects women ownership over land. I was informed that these irregularities have many severe consequences for women.
At the root of these gaps stand cultural norms and beliefs (unacceptance of women as property owners and heirs by families and society) and legal-administrative issues, and undocumented land and houses. The actual transfer of property to boys and the dominance of land by men, in particular, limit the social-economic status of women who have low incomes, especially in rural areas. Such problems inhibit women’s ability to inherit or own property as well as claim property during a divorce and incite conflicts and violence against women in families. The Government should take necessary gender-sensitive legal and policy measures for the recognition and exercise of women's property rights.
Nowadays, due to the revival of the agricultural sector, there is a need for land consolidation and the establishment of new partnerships among smallholder farmers. Considering the sensitivity among farmers on the protection of their private property rights, historical stereotypes and their preference to individualism, such policies are not popular among farmers. Providing support and empowering smallholder farmers to work together could solve many of the problems of access to services such as extension services, credit, machineries, seeds, and more importantly access to market and be able to compete with big industrial agricultural firms. Therefore, the Government should provide workable and acceptable alternatives for farmers. This can happen only by including farmers into decision-making processes.
As indicated earlier, Azerbaijan has no difficulties of availability of food, and is almost self-reliant in major staple foods such as potatoes, meat, vegetables, some fruits as grapes, persimmon, apples and other items. Some food items are imported but this does not create any significant problem in terms of food availability. Moreover, the Government’s recent decision to support the agricultural sector is helpful not only to diversify the economy but also to ensure self-sufficiency of the country, considering that it still faces an ongoing conflict.
However, food diversification is a problem. The middle-class population eats a lot of meat, chicken, rice and bread; in particular, children do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. They do not receive nutrition education and parents do not contribute to establishing healthy eating habits. Even though there is no alarming overweight and obesity problems, there are some early signs about emerging problems of overeating and unhealthy food.
The Government needs to develop National Dietary Guidelines to help all Azerbaijanis choose healthy and culturally acceptable nutritious food and understand that food and nutrition play a crucial role for healthy life style and protection of future generation, and chronic disease prevention. The Government should provide regulatory framework to control the private sector, especially sugar drink producers as well as food that contains excessive fat, sugar and salt. Unhealthy food advertisements should be banned from the media, and from school canteens.
Adequate and nutritious food7
Indicators of dietary quality measured for children 6-23 months of age (i.e. minimum dietary diversity, minimum meal frequency, and minimum acceptable diet) show that some children may not be receiving adequate nutrition. Specifically, less than 50 percent of 6-23 month-old children consumed food from four or less out of seven food groups, 58 percent ate with enough frequency for their age, and only 22 percent had a minimally acceptable diet. This sometimes arise from lack of nutritional education among low-income families, and not willing or not able to provide breastfeeding.
the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report (2019), between 2016 and 2018, undernourishment in Azerbaijan was less than 2.5 percent of its population. In 2018, 17.8 percent of children under 5 years old were stunting. The prevalence of stunting in Azerbaijan is below 20% nationally, and thus of low public health significance according to WHO classifications. However, it seems that there is higher prevalence in rural areas.
In 2018, 3.2 percent of children under 5 years old were wasting. Nonetheless, clear, albeit small, differences can be seen in the wasting prevalence of children with less-educated mothers and in lower wealth quintiles.
7.3 percent of new-borns were born with low weight in 2018. With a national prevalence of less than 10%, underweight in Azerbaijan is categorized as of “low” public health significance according to WHO classifications.
However, certain sub-groups are disproportionately affected. Similar to wasting, children under 12 months of age have substantially higher rates of being underweight than other age groups. In addition, the prevalence for children in households of the lowest wealth quintiles is significantly higher than that of children in more affluent households.
Overweight, obesity and malnutrition
In 2018, 14.1 percent of children under 5 years old were overweight and 19.9 percent of adults were obese. Even though it is significantly lower than many other countries in its region and world standards, this is an emerging health issue and it is important to start preventive measures to avoid serious problems in the future.
Many interlocutors, from public to private stakeholders, agreed that Azerbaijan faces high levels of anaemia. 38.5 percent8 of women on reproductive age (15-49 years old) suffer from high levels of anaemia with the implications that this has on women and her new-borns. This is the consequence of insufficient and inadequate food.
Anaemia in pregnancy is an important health issue resulting in high maternal morbidity and mortality. The prevalence of anaemia among pregnant women should be considered as a public health problem.
In 2018, only 12.1 percent of mothers reportedly breast-feed exclusively during the first six months. According to different sources, data on breastfeeding is not reliable and is undoubtedly higher due to the lack of data collection.
The latest 2013 Nutrition Survey showed that, although 91.4 percent of children less than 24 months of age had ever been breastfed, only about one-tenth of children under 6 months of age were exclusively breastfed. Less than one-half of children were still breastfeeding at 1 year of age.
Breastfeeding helps infants and young children survive and thrive, as shown by scientific evidence. Studies have indicated that breastfed children perform better on intelligence tests, are less likely to be obese or overweight, and are less prone to diabetes later in life. WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months as the optimal way of feeding infants. Thereafter, infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding at least up to 2 years of age.
I was shocked with some statements from ordinary people that doctors and health professionals in Azerbaijan are recommending mothers not to exclusively breastfeed but to complement with breast food substitutes to their babies because breast milk is never enough.
The Government of Azerbaijan has the obligation under relevant international human rights treaties to provide all necessary support and protection to mothers and their infants and young children to facilitate optimal feeding practices. In line of this obligation, Azerbaijan should adopt measures to foster women’s informed decision-making, including through access to objective and accurate information on the benefits of breastfeeding, as well as protection from biased and misleading information through inappropriate marketing practices of manufacturers and distributors of baby food products.
There are no school-feeding programmes in Azerbaijan except for kindergartens, as primary and secondary schools are only half a day. School-feeding programmes are one of the major policies to help economic accessibility to food for children. School-feeding programmes, if organized well, help local farmers and food producers to provide local food directly to schools, as well as they can help implement sustainable and healthy diets.
A concern in kindergarten facilities is the quality of the food provided, which is not monitored by the Government. This responsibility falls into the local Governments, which need to control and assess the quality of the food provided to children.
Environmental issues and climate change
Azerbaijan is blessed with nine out of 11 existing climates zones. It is climatologically a very diverse country going from semi-desert and stepped climates to moderate, warm and cold climates. The differences in climate conditions are favourable for the rich natural and agricultural biodiversity.
At the same time, it faces environmental problems that affect air, soil and water quality. Intensive agriculture is one of the major pollutants for soil degradation and water pollution. The country’s rapid economic development has created a number of environmental challenges, such as severe air pollution from industrial plants, soil and water pollution from oil industries, excessive use of pesticides to increase production and difficulties to eliminate obsolete hazardous pesticides. The new intensive agricultural activity is likely to create new environmental problems if environmental protection and sustainability programmes are not implemented.
Climate change is one of the universal crisis and countries are struggling to mitigate its adverse impact. It has a negative impact on poverty and livelihoods, as well as loss of infrastructure and GDP. Climate change is already having a visible impact on Azerbaijan, especially on agriculture. Loss of biodiversity, important shortages of water, an already scarce resource, and unpredictable rainfall and extreme weather events that create floods and droughts, wild fires and many other natural disasters can create further damages to the ecosystem and economy. Azerbaijan is considered one of the most flood-prone areas in the world. Extreme events, mainly floods, landslides and mudslides, cost Azerbaijan an estimated $70–80 million annually.9
In Guba, farmers confirmed that climate change is more and more visible with higher temperatures. Water shortages are one of their main concerns. However, the need to increase productivity to be competitive also entails an increase in the use of pesticides. As part of the Government’s interest to develop the agricultural sector, it provides subsidies to farmers for the purchase of pesticides. Consequently, the use of pesticides has alarmingly increased by 12-15 times in the past few years with the aim to significantly increase production. Products contain high quantity of pesticides, which some of them are very toxic, such as the glyphosate, and will inevitably have a negative impact on human health as well as soil degradation and loss of biodiversity.
The use of organic fertilizers is minimum in the country mainly because they are neither accessible nor affordable. Only in mountainous areas, farmers do not use pesticides and produce organic agriculture. The land under organic management represents 0.8%10 of all agricultural land. Only consumers who understand and value the quality and safety of food will try to access organic agriculture, as products do not look as good.
Organic agriculture and agro ecology are not clearly understood by producers and consumers, and are still not supported by the Government. It is vitally important to start producing organic agriculture as early as possible to be competitive in the export market, especially while the agricultural sector is becoming such an important item in the economy.
One of the major complaints of farmers throughout the country was water shortage problems.
Azerbaijan is currently facing a striking problem of water scarcity. In addition to the impact of climate change, with the increase of temperatures, water shortages derive from transboundary waters that are shared with Armenia.
Major water users in Azerbaijan are the industry (11 300 m3 is consumed by fossil power plants) agriculture, fisheries and processing. The major water consumption in agriculture is accounted for by irrigation (8 500 m3), treatment of salinized soils (330 m3), and other activities (430 m3), totalling 9260 million m3. Water losses may go up to 90% in irrigation due to the aging infrastructure.
The water resources in Azerbaijan are assessed at 32.3 billion m3. The 31.9% of the water resources are generated in the country and the rest come from adjacent territories, mainly from Georgia and Armenia, such as from Kura and Araks rivers. Unfortunately, because of Armenia’s hostile act, it creates serious water problems in downstream Azerbaijan. Armenia can block the water anytime, and sends polluted water to Azerbaijan. The ongoing conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has enormous negative impact on water resources. When I was in Ganja region, I witnessed that major rivers were completely dried. This is an alarming issue and the solution would be to re-establish bilateral peace talks, which is a significant political problem.
Access to water, especially drinking water, is a human right for all. The Government of Azerbaijan is to guarantee, promote and protect access to clean, potable water.
Access to food for vulnerable groups
There is formal equality between men and women in the law; however, substantive equality or positive discrimination and active incentive to promote women are still not institutionalized. New institutions have been established but they are still too new to be able to see any impact or change.
Despite the existence of a Gender Equality Act adopted in 2006, and gender equality in law in general, there are still prevailing strong gender role stereotypes and cultural norms in the family and society that have negative impact on women’s economic, social and cultural rights. These problems are more prevalent in the private sector and informal economy, rather than in the public institutions.
The role of women in agriculture is undeniable and extremely important at all levels. Close to 80% of the activities in the agriculture sector are carried out by women. Despite that, the role of women in the agricultural sector remains invisible.
This is more prevalent if a woman is the head of the household. Single mothers and widows are one of the most vulnerable groups. The Government provides a very limited subsidy to support single mothers and widows, which is barely enough to make a living. There is a cultural understanding about respecting and protecting single women in agricultural sector, however there is not a strong support system. This protection needs to be institutionalized.
Women in agriculture, generally, work for the family, and often they do not have independent earning, access to credit, or social security. Especially single woman households need social protection and additional help to compete with other families.
In the rural areas and outside of Baku, I was confronted to issues around traditional attitudes towards women. Women still believe that agricultural and land management are not women’s issues and therefore they cannot deal with them. My meeting in Guba with a diverse group of farmers was a clear reflect of this, as it was only attended by men, with no women representation.
Female representation in public and political institutions is very low, which appears to contribute to this ongoing marginalisation. Only 16.8% of seats in Parliament are occupied by women. With some notable exceptions, the vast majority of my meetings with governmental officials were conducted by men.
Globally, domestic violence is one of the obstacles for women’s access to food in intrafamily situations. It is a continuous problem in Azerbaijan, like in many other countries, and one of the legal remedies to it is to ratify the 2011 Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. Moreover, training programmes for judges and security forces, educational and legal policies, and the establishment of shelters for women in need throughout the country are important steps that should be taken into account.
In the outskirts of Baku, in Bilge town, I visited public orphanage n°11, which is under the responsibility of the Ministry of Education. This public orphanage has 210 children, which 90% of them are children with disabilities. I was positively surprised at the infrastructure, organization and services (psychologists, speech therapists, physiotherapists, therapies with music and arts, etc.) provided by this State institution. I commend the Government for its efforts to provide opportunities for children with disabilities to learn and interact with their peers without disabilities. Integrating students can be beneficial for both groups of students, as well as for their parents and teachers.
I learned that the majority of children in this institution were placed in out-of-home care due to socio-economic hardship, divorce, or inadequate or lack of family support services, and/or at the specific request of their parents. The institution also provided a Day Care Centre from 8am to 8pm for children whose parents cannot take care of them during the day.
During my visit to the regions, I was alerted to the fact that there are significant numbers of children involved in informal work in the agricultural sectors of tea, tobacco and cotton, during harvesting times, including in hazardous situations. Nobody was able to provide precise data on the magnitude and relevance of child labour.
I am concerned at the lack of an effective system for collecting disaggregated data on infant and child mortality, child malnutrition, children with disabilities, child labour, sexual abuse and exploitation, which constitutes a severe obstacle to ensure the development of targeted policies and social protection programmes aimed to support children.
Internal Displaced Persons
According to official statistics, there are approximately one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in Azerbaijan. Living conditions and access to economic, social and cultural rights amongst IDPs who are settled in areas in Baku is still a concern.
The country is facing occupation, with the secessionist region of Nagorno-Karabakh being the subject of an unresolved conflict with Armenia. As a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that ended in 1994 with a ceasefire agreement, over 30,000 people on both sides (Armenia and Azerbaijan) were killed and around one million people were forced to flee their homes. Following the fighting, ethnic Armenians gained control over seven Azerbaijani territories outside Nagorno-Karabakh, including seven surround districts – so-called a buffer zone. According to the submission by the UNHCR for OHCHR’s Compilation Report on the 3rd cycle UPR of Azerbaijan, the conflict produced over 600,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and some 250,000 ethnic Azerbaijani refugees from Armenia, who were recognized as prima facie refugees in 1992 and naturalized in 1999. Figures about refugees and internally displaced persons are disputed on both sides.
While I commend the Government’s efforts to improve the situation of IDPs, I have directly witnessed that many of them are still living in sub-standard conditions and that they are not fully enjoying their economic, social and cultural rights, in particular access to food, health care, adequate housing and legal employment.
There have been improvements in the housing situation of many IDPs after the construction of accommodation. However, I was informed that some IDP settlements are located in isolated areas where they face practical barriers to accessing economic and social services. Others are still facing vulnerability amongst those living in precarious accommodation, including dormitories that I visited. Some women IDPs explained the difficult conditions they face living in a garage or basement, with water leakages on the ceiling, no toilettes, and a family of five members living in one small room.
Access to employment is also a problem for IPDs. In rural areas, they only have access to seasonal agricultural work, making it difficult for IDPs to access decent work opportunities. I was also told that IDPs still suffer from stigma and discrimination in social environment, despite significant support from the Government.
As of today, there are 1100 refugees and 852 asylum seekers in Azerbaijan.11 The majority of refugees do not have a clear legal status and are at a large extent depending on UNHCR for protection and assistance.
The Government is not recognising them and, therefore, refugees are living in difficult conditions with the lack of the right to work, other than in the informal sector, difficulties to rent a house and prone to food insecurity. Access to economic, social and cultural rights are hindered by their lack of a legal status, despite some of them having already lived in the country for more than 15 years.
There is an urgent need for the Government to bring national refugee legislation and practice in line with international standards. Complementary protection should be introduced through the adoption of legislative amendments to secure legal status for all persons in need of international protection.
Azerbaijan has only one women’s prison N°4 and a juvenile correctional institution located in Baku, with 322 women and 38 adolescent inmates respectively. I was pleasantly surprised at the small number of prisoners in both penitentiary establishments.
Conditions in both penitentiary facilities are adequate. I was surprised that both establishments, one next to the other, were located in the centre of Baku surrounded by new skyscrapers and more high-buildings under construction. The Head of the Penitentiary Service under the Ministry of Justice assured me that new penitentiary facilities for women and adolescents were almost completed and inmates would soon be moved.
It is of utmost importance that the new prisons meet the international standards to guarantee safety, security and humane conditions for prisoners as well as access to adequate food.
Other issues that affect implementation of the right to food
Azerbaijan has very limited data and no disaggregated data at all. Many organizations, including some state agencies have raised concerns about the reliability of official data, saying that it does not correspond with their own findings; in many areas, data does not show the current situation. There is a need for transparent and updated data.
The lack of data is worrying and makes it difficult to accurately assess the current state of poverty and the enjoyment of the right to food, education, healthcare, and access to adequate housing in the country. Accurate figures are necessary to enable the Government to develop a strategic response and this means that programs and responses are being designed around information that may not reflect the actual situation.
The Government needs to provide all necessary human, technical and financial resources for the establishment of a comprehensive system for data collection, analysis, and monitoring, and that data collected be disaggregated by age, gender, ethnicity, geographic region, and socio-economic background.
New Law on NGOs
The major indicator of a system that is based on human rights is one that respects the rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech. Civil society organizations are the vehicle for the protection and promotion of these rights. There is of course, a need to maintain internal peace and security for all, and there might be rules and principles to govern activities of domestic and international NGOs, in accordance with international standards.
In order to support national NGOs, the Government established a funding mechanism to disseminate financial aids to civil society organizations that work on economic, social and cultural rights. As of today, the Council on State Support to NGOs supported over 500 projects, with maximum 10,000 Manats.
However, there have been alarming changes in the legislation that include a series of recent amendments (Law On Grants, Law on Non-Governmental Organizations, Code of Administrative Offences, etc.) passed by the Milli Mejlis (the Parliament), which have seriously hindered the ability of non-governmental organizations to operate in the country.
The amendments, inter alia, established heavy financial penalties imposed on NGOs that conduct their activities without registered grant agreements and for giving or receiving monetary donations in cash. The new regulations require both donors and grantees to separately obtain government approval of each grant under consideration.
The Ministry of Justice and other agencies received broad discretion to deny the NGOs their requests to register grants. In addition, foreign entities are required to obtain government permission to act as a donor, to register a presence in the country, and to obtain approval for each grant.
According to national human rights defenders, the Government uses these regulations to frequently deny registration to NGOs working on human rights, accountability, or similar issues on arbitrary grounds. Since the adoption of these amendments to the Law on NGOs, very few international non-governmental organizations were able to stay in the country
Vigorous economic growth and social transformation over the past 20 years have turned Azerbaijan into an impressive upper middle-income country. The fragility of Azerbaijan’s economy because of its heavy dependence on oil and gas production highlights a need for diversification by increasing investments in the non-oil sector. Therefore, the Government is focusing its efforts on developing the country’s agricultural potential and on increasing productivity to guarantee economic stability. Azerbaijan has made impressive efforts to establish new institutions. The challenge now is to ensure implementation of the goals, through the allocation of adequate budgets, and securing growth that benefits all levels of society,
This is still in its early stages and needs to incorporate a human rights-based approach to ensure sustainable development that is sensitive to the needs and traditions of the country’s regions and people of various ethnic backgrounds.
The next 10 years are going to be crucial. Azerbaijan should concentrate its efforts on achieving self-sufficiency and strengthen its independence from big agricultural powers and companies to safeguard food security in the country. To achieve this, it is crucial to increase the market competitiveness of small farmers. If the Government is ready to promote the country’s human capital through education, incorporate a human rights-based approach to its agricultural policies and adopt meaningful public consultation especially with vulnerable groups such as women, children, rural communities and people with disabilities, sustainable development could be accomplished. If this course is followed, Azerbaijan will deserve great praise for its record of achievement and reform.