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Helsinki Commission Briefing Discusses Declining Rule of Law & Civil Society in Azerbaijan

Updated: Jul 15, 2021


By Danielle Saroyan

Armenian Agenda Associate Editor

On Thursday, November 5, the Commission on Security & Cooperation in Europe: U.S. Helsinki Commission held a briefing on “The Rule of Law and Civil Society in Azerbaijan,” with Helsinki Commission Member Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) presiding. Panelists included former U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Richard Morningstar (2012-2014), International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Vice President Natalia Bourjaily, and Dinara Yunus, the daughter of falsely imprisoned Azerbaijani human rights defenders Leyla and Arif Yunus. Helsinki Commission Policy Advisor for Economics, Environment, Technology and Trade Shelly Han moderated the panel.

The briefing took place a few days after the parliamentary election in Azerbaijani. Han noted that the results were no surprise since the votes had nothing to do with the election.

“The outcome was determined well before Election Day, when the majority of opposition candidates were not allowed on the ballot, when there was no mechanism for debate on television, when voters didn’t feel free to sign petitions for candidates that they supported, and when election monitors faced intimidation or, as in the case of Anar Mammadli, sit in jail,” Han said during her opening remarks.

Azerbaijan has come under rightful criticism for its election process after refusing to meet minimum standards for the election, such as international observers present during the vote, and has consistently failed to do so under the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev. In a U.S. Press Statement by Office of Press Relations Director Elizabeth Trudeau, she points out that the Government of Azerbaijan did not allow the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) to field its necessary number of observers or monitor the election. “We continue to have concerns about the restrictive political environment in Azerbaijan and urge the Government of Azerbaijan to respect the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and independent voices including the media as part of its international commitments, and to work with the OSCE, including ODIHR, to this end,” the statement read.

Ambassador Morningstar spoke about Azerbaijan’s choice to voluntarily join international organizations which require free and fair elections. “Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe. They are a member of OSCE.  So they have obligated themselves to comply with various standards,” Ambassador Morningstar pointed out.


The U.S. is among many who expect Azerbaijan to improve their elections process and basic human rights record. According to Morningstar, U.S. and Azerbaijan relations have been deteriorating in recent years, due to two major factors due to their vast oil and gas reserves.

“The first has been continuing human rights issues, particularly since the presidential election in October 2013, and the United States criticism of the Azerbaijani government. And second, the lack of progress towards a settlement of the long-standing dispute over Nagorno Karabakh,” Ambassador Morningstar said. “Azerbaijan believes that the United States should take stronger steps to bring about resolution of the conflict,” he added.

Though Ambassador Morningstar agrees that the U.S. should do everything it can to prevent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia from escalating, he believes the U.S. is in a tough position by trying to maintain good relations with Azerbaijan. “At the same time, it’s important that the United States makes clear that it fully respects Azerbaijan’s independence and sovereignty and our goal is not to change the government, but that we do have values and that [from] a pragmatic standpoint Azerbaijan will have more stability by breathing oxygen into civil society, and not to take abusive actions that are wholly unnecessary and only serve to create antagonism in the relationship,” Ambassador Morningstar explained.

Civil society and human rights in Azerbaijan continues to get worse, which led to a Freedom House ranking for Azerbaijan as “Not Free” since 2004. In 2012, according to Bourjaily, she has witnessed “emerging deterioration of legislation affecting civil society organizations.”

Bourjaily described the difficult and hostile environment for NGOs in Azerbaijan, making it nearly impossible to accept foreign donations or funds. Azerbaijan is the only nation in the region which requires foreign organizations to first formally register their offices in Azerbaijan in order to give grants. Then, both the donor grant approval and also the approval of grants is not seen anywhere in Western and Central Europe or the United States. “Such a three-stage system is nonexistent anywhere,” says Bourjaily. This process prevents human rights NGOs, whether based in Baku or from another country, from doing substantial work in Azerbaijan. Instead, human rights defenders are trying their best to do the same work as civil society organizations, but end up imprisoned like Leyla and Arif Yunus.

“It seems like this is a throwback to, you know, perhaps the Stalin era, and certainly not a development that we would want to see in a democratic country,” Han said.


Leyla and Arif Yunus are being psychologically and physically tortured for trying to improve civil society in Azerbaijan. Examples of their efforts include reporting on the illegal demolition of 70,000 Baku citizens’ homes during the 2012 Eurovision song contest, protecting basic rights of assembly, composing a list of political prisoners, and creating a website which brought together members of civil societies of Azerbaijan and Armenia to negotiate future stability in the region.

“My parents are being punished for their human rights work. They’ve been in human rights for 30 years,” Dinara Yunus said. “They are charged with now is economical – trumped-up economical charges, like illegal entrepreneurship front, illegal business. And there is also treason charge that is sent to another court,” says Dinara.

After hearing Yunus speak about her parents, Ambassador Morningstar asked, “What is the Azerbaijani government gaining from the Yunuses being in jail, other than creating difficulties in their relationships with the United States and with other Western countries? I mean, to me it seems counterproductive.”

Ambassador Morningstar believes that if Azerbaijan takes more steps towards progress with respect to human rights and NGOs, then by the end of the day the government would gain more stability, rather than less.

Comparing the discussion on Azerbaijan’s human rights from the Senate Human Rights Caucus before the election to the Helsinki Commission briefing afterward, there is little variance. Without fundamental human rights, including freedom of press, right to assembly, and NGO work, an election cannot be considered free and fair. By not adhering to agreed-upon rules with OSCE or any other international organization to monitor the voting process, Azerbaijan labels itself as an authoritarian government who disregards Western democratic values and impedes civil rights. As more “enemies of the state” and political prisoners are being arrested, civil society will continue to be marginalized. There seems to be no evidence that Azerbaijan will work towards improving their human rights record by the next election.

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