Democracy And Human Rights In Azerbaijan


US Department of State
July 30 2008

David J. Kramer, Assistant Secretary for Democracy,Human Rights
and Labor

Statement before the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Mr. Chairman, Members of the Commission, thank you for inviting me
to speak to you today. The Department and I greatly appreciate the
dedication of Helsinki Commission members and their staff to the
OSCE, its values, and its institutions. In both my capacities as the
Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
Labor and as the State Department representative to the Commission,
I look forward to continuing to work closely with you on the full
range of important issues before the OSCE, including the upcoming
Human Dimension Implementation Meeting (HDIM).

You have asked me to speak about democracy and human rights in the
run up to Azerbaijan’s October presidential election, following
my June trip to the South Caucasus. If you will permit me, I will
briefly discuss Armenia and Georgia, which I visited as well, before
turning to Azerbaijan. The United States works with the OSCE, European
Union, and Council of Europe to promote democracy, the rule of law,
and respect for human rights in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia. We
will continue to closely consult with our European partners on ways
to encourage all three South Caucasus countries, respecting their
unique qualities, to take more vigorous steps to improve democratic
governance and respect for human rights.


While in Armenia, I met both with senior government officials and
with opposition and civil society activists, including some of the
wives of those detained in connection with the post-presidential
election demonstration in March. I urged the authorities to release
all individuals detained for engaging in opposition activities or
for expressing their political views; conduct a credible, independent
investigation into the March 1-2 violence that left ten dead; fully
restore freedoms of assembly and media; and initiate a constructive
dialogue with the opposition and civil society.

Time is of the essence. Societal tensions will only increase if the
authorities fail to take swift, dramatic, and substantive measures
to heal the serious divisions in the country that the presidential
election and its violent aftermath exacerbated. While all elements
of society have an obligation to engage in constructive dialogue and
to act responsibly, the heaviest responsibility lies with those who
actually hold power — the government.

It is in the interest of the U.S.-Armenia bilateral relationship and
in the interest of the Armenian people to see the new government in
Yerevan succeed in deepening Armenia’s democratic development. On a
positive note, I found the Ombudsman to be playing an important role
on behalf of democratic reform in the country.


In Georgia, too, I met with a range of senior government officials
as well as opposition and civil society activists, including the
Ombudsman, who has been playing a leadership role in support of
improved human rights observance and accountability for rights
violations. I expressed concern about the lack of checks and balances
among the branches of government, and urged the authorities to
support robust democratic institutions including a strong, multi-party
parliament and a fully independent judiciary.

My message to the government included the need to make a maximum
proactive effort to work with the opposition to foster a culture
of respect for political pluralism. A policy-making process that
includes consultations with experts and stakeholders including the
opposition and civil society would be helpful. I expressed concerns
about negative trends since last year regarding media freedom, and
stressed the need to accelerate prison reform.

It is in Georgia’s own interest and also in the interest of our
already strong bilateral relationship to see democratic institutions
take root in Georgia. I also urged opposition leaders to strengthen
their outreach to Georgia’s citizens to explain their parties’ vision
for strengthening democratic and market economic institutions.


Located between Russia’s troubled Northern Caucasus region and
Iran, Azerbaijan is situated in a tough and strategically important
neighborhood. If it enacts meaningful political reform, its location
and abundant resources give it tremendous potential to serve as a
model for aspiring democracies.

We consider Azerbaijan a friend of the United States. We have
major interests in Azerbaijan in three equally important areas:
democratic and economic reform, energy diversification, and security
cooperation. Our two countries enjoy strong cooperation on energy
diversification, with Azerbaijan emerging as a potentially crucial
supplier of diversified natural gas supplies for our European
allies. On security, Azerbaijan has made important troop contributions
to international efforts in Iraq and Kosovo, and provides an air
corridor that is crucial to supporting U.S. and NATO operations in
Afghanistan. Our relationship in both these areas has tremendous
potential for even further growth.

That said, our strongest relationships world-wide are with democracies
that respect the full range of human rights of their citizens in
addition to sharing interests with us. Fulfilling the great potential
of our relationship with Azerbaijan should be no exception. We
seek to bring our cooperation on democratization up to the level
of our security and energy collaboration. Azerbaijan’s progress on
democratic reform is key not only to the strengthening of our bilateral
relationship, but also to Azerbaijan’s own long-term stability.

In my meetings I focused on democracy and human rights concerns which
are essential for the type of relationship I just outlined. I continued
the high-level, results-oriented dialogue that my predecessor Barry
Lowenkron and President Aliyev initiated in December 2006, following
President Aliyev’s visit to Washington in April 2006. During that
visit, President Aliyev stated, after meeting with President Bush:
"We are grateful for the United States’ assistance in promotion of the
political process, the process of democratization of our society, and
are very committed to continuing this cooperation in the future." I
traveled to Azerbaijan with President Aliyev’s stated commitment
in mind.

In addition to my discussions with President Aliyev, Foreign Minister
Mammadyarov and other government officials, I also met with a variety
of non-governmental figures, including opposition and civil society
figures, and independent journalists as well as journalism students.

There is no denying that we have some serious concerns about the
state of democracy and the protection of human rights in Azerbaijan,
which in some areas has deteriorated. I was able to discuss these
concerns in a candid but friendly and constructive manner with
senior government officials. I addressed five key areas: political
processes, with a focus on the October presidential election; media
freedom; protection of human rights; rule of law, including combating
corruption; and an empowered and educated civil society. In my meetings
with senior officials, we discussed concrete steps that can be taken
to accelerate democratic reform in order to build a democratic future
for Azerbaijan’s citizens. In light of today’s focus on the situation
in advance of the October election, I will highlight our concerns
regarding the election and media freedom, and conclude with a few
additional points.

The Presidential Election

As I stressed to senior Azerbaijani officials, the October
presidential election presents an important opportunity for the
government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic reform
and free and fair elections by ensuring that the overall electoral
process and election-day itself are observed by credible, independent
elections monitors, both international and domestic. A key theme in
my discussions was that the pre-election environment is as important,
if not more important, to the integrity of the electoral process as
is the conduct of election-day itself, including the vote count and
regional and national tabulation. The pre-election environment must
be conducive to a level playing field – particularly with respect
to freedom to organize political parties, election campaigns,
or interest groups; freedom of the media, assembly and association;
voter registration; appointments to elections commissions; and election
grievance processes.

We are concerned that the political space for dissenting voices has
been shrinking over the past few years. While some in the government
have argued that the opposition’s weakness is due to a lack of new
faces and ideas, the government bears ultimate responsibility for
the climate within which political parties and candidates operate,
and within which public debate takes place. In a welcoming environment,
new people will have confidence that they can safely engage in politics
and the open exchange of ideas. We urge the authorities to establish
the conditions that would be conducive to a truly competitive election.

A key factor in determining the credibility of the entire elections
process, and for establishing broad confidence in the legitimacy of
the outcome of the election, is serious domestic and international
election monitoring. It is especially unfortunate that this spring
Azerbaijani courts deregistered and annulled Azerbaijan’s largest
independent domestic election monitoring NGO, the Election Monitoring
Center (EMC). I strongly urged my governmental interlocutors to restore
the EMC’s ability to function in time for meaningful, independent
election observation this October. The OSCE’s Office of Democratic
Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) should soon receive an invitation
to monitor the election, and will send about 30 long-term observers
and 450 short-term observers. Likewise, the Parliamentary Assembly of
the Council of Europe (PACE) has announced its intention to send 35-40
members as short-term observers. We also hope that the European Network
of Election Monitoring Organizations (ENEMO) can observe the election.

The June 23 joint OSCE/ODIHR-Venice Commission opinion on the
amendments made this year to the Azerbaijani election code is a useful
tool. We hope to see the authorities implement election-related laws
in a way that expands, rather than constricts, the scope of citizens
to exercise their rights.

A word about what U.S. election assistance is and is not: As I made
clear to my Azerbaijani interlocutors, America’s interest in elections
worldwide is that they be free and fair. We do not provide assistance
in order to direct, influence, or dictate outcomes. Our programmatic
assistance is non-partisan and our aim is to help create an elections
environment conducive to a competitive, free and fair elections
process. We also seek to strengthen democratic political culture and
democratic institutions. That is our approach in Azerbaijan as it is
in many other countries around the world.

Media Freedom

A significant and growing U.S. concern in recent years is the
deterioration of media freedom in Azerbaijan. Administrative and
other obstacles to the functioning of independent media make it
extremely difficult for the public to have access to a variety of
views, including those which may be critical.

Although seven journalists were released in 2007, which we
welcomed, three remain in prison for reasons that appear politically
motivated. Another journalist is imprisoned despite severe violations
of due process during his trial. In addition, the government has
yet to seriously investigate numerous cases of violence against
journalists. There has been no accountability for the 2005 murder
of Elmar Huseynov. I urged senior officials to release the remaining
jailed journalists and ensure rigorous and transparent investigations
of acts of physical violence against journalists such as Agil
Khalil and media monitor Emin Huseynov. Rigorous and transparent
investigations would be a powerful sign of the government’s commitment
to media freedom and rule of law, as would public condemnation by
senior Azerbaijani officials of violence against and intimidation and
harassment of journalists. The decriminalization of libel would also
be a strong signal that the government respects open debate. I was
pleased to learn that, since my visit, the Azerbaijani government
has decided to allow Agil Khalil to travel outside of Azerbaijan,
and he is now in France.

I also made it clear that the unresolved conflict between Azerbaijan
and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh is not a valid reason for either
country to avoid respecting media freedom or engaging in other
essential components of democratization. To the contrary, the conflict
only heightens the importance of a serious discussion on both sides
of how to achieve a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

U.S. assistance to support the development of independent media
in Azerbaijan includes funding for the professional development of
journalists, advocacy for media rights, Internet access, and capacity
building to make media financially self-sustaining.

Some additional human rights concerns for Azerbaijan include:

Political Prisoners: As noted in the Department’s human rights report
for Azerbaijan, local human rights NGOs maintain that the government
continues to hold political prisoners. NGO activists currently estimate
that the government holds between 33 and 57 political prisoners. The
release earlier this year of two individuals considered by human
rights monitors to be political prisoners was positive. We support
the Council of Europe’s efforts to resolve this problem; institutional
reform of the justice system also could help.

Abuses by Security Forces: The constitution and criminal code prohibit
torture and provide for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for
officials who violate the law. Torture, and the lack of accountability
for it, and the excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators
or detainees, remain serious problems.

Rule of Law and Corruption: Unchecked corruption can destroy a
government’s ability to govern effectively and to retain citizens’
confidence. In the midst of Azerbaijan’s oil boom, which creates, at
least in the near term, highly visible disparities in wealth between a
small elite and the bulk of society, it is all the more important for
the government to act with determination and complete transparency to
root out corruption. Above all, pervasive corruption in the judiciary
and law enforcement community must be eradicated. Promoting the rule
of law – including an independent judiciary that respects due process
– remains among our highest diplomatic objectives for Azerbaijan and
neighboring countries in the South Caucasus.

In closing, I appreciate the frank and constructive meetings I had
with President Aliyev, Foreign Minister Mammadyarov, and others, and
their generosity with their time. The U.S. approaches this dialogue
as a friend of Azerbaijan. Friendship means not being indifferent
to the circumstances of a friend. At the same time, being able to
discuss matters of disagreement in a proper yet candid way is part
of the nature of a serious dialogue. And concrete results in terms
of improved respect for human rights clearly will serve to deepen our
bilateral relationship. I look forward to working with our friends in
Azerbaijan – both in and out of government – to help them implement
the kinds of democracy and human rights reforms that the citizens of
Azerbaijan seek and deserve.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.