Eastern Partnership Summit: Azerbaijan and Belarus leaders should be pushed towards democratization
Dozens of leading international and national human rights organizations, including two Belarusian groups, have called on EU leaders to raise the issue of human rights violations in Azerbaijan during the upcoming Eastern Partnership Summit, which will be held on November 24 in Brussels.
According to the head of the HRC "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski, who co-signed the appeal, the problems in Azerbaijan are very similar to those in Belarus, and it is important that they are also voiced by the European Union during its negotiations with Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Lukashenka must understand that his trip to Brussels is not an advance from the EU, but the beginning of a long journey, the human rights activist said.
A coalition of 37 human rights NGOs has sent a letter to the EU member state heads and EU leaders ahead of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s visit to Brussels to participate in the 5th Eastern Partnership Summit on 24 November 2017. The NGOs urge the EU member state heads and leaders to use the summit to call on president Aliyev to end the current human rights crackdown in Azerbaijan and commit to concrete steps in this regard, including the release of individuals imprisoned on politically motivated charges and reforms of repressive NGO legislation.
The letter was sent on 27 October to the heads and foreign ministers of the 28 EU member states, as well as to EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.
“We urge you to use any opportunity you will have during the summit to call on president Aliyev to end the human rights crackdown and commit to concrete and sustainable human rights reforms in Azerbaijan. These include releasing individuals imprisoned on bogus, politically motivated charges; and reforming legislation that effectively prevents independent non-governmental organisations from operating and accessing funding,” says the open letter.
European politicians are also urged to demand from Azerbaijan the “prompt and unconditional release of all other wrongfully imprisoned human rights defenders and civil society and political activists who were prosecuted in retaliation for their legitimate activities.”
The appeal was signed by a number of authoritative international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Civil Rights Defenders, FIDH, Freedom House, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters without Borders. Belarus is represented on the list by the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House and Human Rights Center "Viasna".
Ales Bialiatski, who signed the open letter on behalf of Viasna, believes that raising human rights issues before authoritarian leaders during top political meetings is an “effective mechanism that human rights defenders and civil society activists should actively use.” And since the upcoming EaP Summit can be the first meeting to be attended by Aliaksandr Lukashenka, his visit to Brussels should not go as a pleasure trip, Viasna leader said.
“The range of problems in Azerbaijan is very similar to that in Belarus. Therefore, Lukashenka must understand that his trip to Brussels is not an advance from the EU, but the beginning of a long journey. He needs to be reminded that with no change in Belarus there will be no breakthrough in international relations,” Bialiatski said. “In its negotiations with Lukashenka, the EU should voice the most pressing problems related to the development of democracy and human rights situation in Belarus. And I should remind that, according to estimates of the human rights community, there have been no changes in the country. There are certain geopolitical moves praised by European politicians, they relate to the position of Belarus in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, in other matters, which at least show the autonomy of Belarusian policies in certain directions. At the same time, inside the country we can see a long-term stagnation, a lingering crisis. And our calls for negotiations between the government and the wider civil society, organization of forums where we can work together to discuss critical issues, seeking to address them, as it is done in other countries, still lack any reactions.”
Ales Bialiatski says that the EU should address a lack of transparency and democracy in elections, the ongoing criminal cases against civil society activists, the vicious practice of administrative detention, which has been restored and has turned Belarus into a “country of daily repression,” the use of the death penalty, restrictions on the citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly, the problem of registration of non-governmental organizations, relationships of government agencies and the civil society in general.
“The Summit should clearly put before Lukashenka the problem of large-scale modernization, systemic changes in Belarus — something that the Belarusian authorities do not dare do — because otherwise we will be more and more bogged down in the socio-political and economic crisis,” the human rights activist says.
According to a press-release by the European External Action Service, the 5th Eastern Partnership (EaP) summit will take place in Brussels (Europa building) on 24 November. Heads of state or government from the EU member states and the six Eastern partner countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine) will consider prospects of further cooperation. They will also “take stock of what has been achieved since the last summit in Riga in 2015, focusing on the tangible benefits delivered to the citizens of the six Eastern Partnership countries.”
At the same time, it is stated that the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area Agreement signed in 2014 raised the relations between the EU and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine to a new level and, most importantly, they are aimed at tangible improvement of living standards of their citizens. A striking example is the liberalization of the visa regime for Georgia and Ukraine in 2017, and Moldova — in 2014.
As a result of revising the European Neighborhood Policy in 2015, an individual approach was developed in relation to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Belarus. Armenia signed a “comprehensive and expanded partnership agreement”, under which the EU will take into account other international obligations of this country in its political and economic cooperation. The EU is negotiating with Azerbaijan a new framework agreement “to better reflect our respective interests and values.” With Belarus, the EU is “deepening its critical engagement in carefully calibrated mutual steps.”