Historical archive

Azerbaijan and the responsibility of the international community (Traavik)

Historical archive

Published under: Bondevik's 2nd Government

Publisher Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Statement by State Secretary Kim Traavik at a seminar on Azerbaijan organized by the Human Rights House, Oslo (12.12.03)

State Secretary Kim Traavik

Azerbaijan and the responsibility of the international community

Seminar on Azerbaijan organized by the Human Rights House, Oslo 12.12.03

Ladies and gentlemen,

The South Caucasus has attracted considerable international attention in recent months. Much, but not all, of the news coming out of this troubled region has been bad.

As for Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Nagorno Karabakh peace process has stalled. In the case of Georgia, the Abkazia and South Ossetia conflicts remain frozen. There is little if any progress on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian soil, in spite of the commitments Moscow undertook at the OSCE Summit in Istanbul in 1999.

And, since last Spring, all the three countries of the region have held deeply flawed elections. In all three, widespread irregularities and outright cheating were documented. In Azerbaijan, as we all know, this triggered unrest which was brutally suppressed by the authorities.

In Georgia, on the other hand, violence was largely prevented. The political crisis sparked by the blatantly manipulated parliamentary elections was resolved peacefully with the voluntary stepping-down of the president. Obviously, Georgia’s "velvet revolution" is the good news coming out of the South Caucasus.

Yet it would be a mistake to think that the crisis in that country has been conclusively resolved. Clearly, Georgia’s troubles are not over. The economy is a shambles. Corruption is endemic. In addition to the separatist problems in Abkazia and South Ossetia, Adjaria is increasingly posing a challenge to the central government.

And in spite of a generally successful border monitoring operation run by the OSCE, the Georgia-Chechnya border remains porous and hence a source of friction in the bilateral relationship with Russia.

Yet new leaders such as Nino Burjanadze and Mikhail Saakashvili, embody the hope of a better future for Georgia. In the longer term, the economy has to be the top priority. But first they must consolidate their legitimacy by holding – and winning -elections that meet the highest international standards.

It is clearly crucial that the presidential election on January 4 as well as the parliamentary election three weeks later are free and fair. Anything less would have a debilitating effect on the credibility of the new leaders, both at home and abroad.

We have no reason to question the commitment of the new leaders to democracy and the rule of law. But they need and deserve the support of the International Community. We for our part have pledged financial support to preparations for and the holding of the elections. Furthermore, we are stepping up our project cooperation with Georgia. And we aim to strengthen our political ties.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Why should the wider International Community care about the situation in the South Caucasus?

The short answer is that the region is a troubled one. The legacy of the Soviet past is a heavy burden. There is a striking lack of economic development. There are deep social strains and divisions. The political cultures are immature at best.

Conflicts and wars following the break-up of the Soviet Union have left deep wounds on the bodies politic of the three countries. Hundreds of thousands have been forced to leave their homes. Most of the IDPs live in abject misery, largely forgotten by CNN and the rest of the outside world, to a considerable extent also by their own governments. This gives rise to a strong sense of grievance, and understandably so.

Although different in many respects, the governments of the region have generally been repressive and heavy-handed in their response to opposition and dissidence. As a rule, compliance with human rights and rule of law commitments freely undertaken in the context of the OSCE and the Council of Europe has been problematic.

Taken together, these factors create a volatile situation. The potential for instability and regression is real and considerable. Hence, to answer my own rhetorical question a moment ago, there is every reason why the International Community should care about the South Caucasus and remain engaged in the region.

The October 15 presidential elections in Azerbaijan, and the events that followed, were a stark reminder of this. The Norwegian government has expressed its concern about serious shortcomings in the preparations for as well as the conduct of the election. But above all we have spoken out, clearly and directly, about police brutality, unlawful arrests, and torture of detainees in its aftermath.

I myself had the opportunity to convey this message to Azerbaijani authorities in the course of my visit to Baku last month. The Norwegian ambassador to Azerbaijan, in whom I have the fullest confidence, has also voiced these grievances with the authorities.

During my stay in Baku I also met representatives of the political opposition, including some who had been victims of police brutality, as well as human rights organisations. The courage and determination of these individuals made a strong and lasting impression on me.

They are putting their personal safety at risk for a cause they believe deeply in. Their families and friends, too, have suffered harassment. These people need and deserve our steadfast support.

The heavy-handed repression of protest in the wake of the presidential election, and the brutal treatment of those incarcerated, cannot be justified or excused. These acts are clearly in breach of OSCE and CoE commitments which the Azerbaijani government has freely entered into.

At most, the behaviour of the authorities can be understood as an expression of fear; fear of losing control at a time of political transition, and fear of political instability which – if unchecked – might place the future of the regime at risk and create repercussions in a wider regional context.

But the international community can of course under no circumstances condone this sort of actions. On the contrary, the outside world has a duty to speak out in situations such as this. In all modesty, we for our part have done so.

Frankly, however, from an overall perspective international reactions have been more muted than I would have expected and hoped. This is true particularly in so far as representatives of the international community based in Baku are concerned.

To my mind, that is a pity, for it may have conveyed the unintended message that the international community does not feel strongly about the observance of human rights, does not feel strongly about the rule of law, and does not feel strongly about due process.

If so, that is indeed regrettable. For even today, two months after the election, there is a serious human rights situation in Azerbaijan.

Around ninety individuals remain imprisoned. According to the OSCE, many have been tortured. There is widespread harassment of members of opposition parties, particularly Musavat, as well as of journalists and human rights advocates.

Under circumstances such as this, it is essential that the international community stands steadfastly together in insisting that Azerbaijan must honour its human rights and rule of law commitments and uphold international standards. And it must be willing to apply pressure.

Those unlawfully detained must be released or given a fair trial; torture and inhumane treatment must stop immediately; and harassment of the opponents of the government, their families and friends, must cease.

This is our message Azerbaijani authorities as well as to our friends and partners, and we are promoting it actively, bilaterally and in the context of relevant international fora. We sense growing concern and growing impatience on the part of many countries that – like us - consider themselves friends of Azerbaijan, but do not wish to see its international reputation sullied by its own repressive actions.

But having said this, I would immediately add that while speaking out is important, it is not enough.

Rather, we need to pursue a two-track approach. Isolation and ostracism would do more harm than good. Hence, in addition to criticising shortcomings and infringments, the international community must engage Azerbaijan in a constructive dialogue and practical cooperation with a view to promoting democratic reform and respect for human rights.

We cannot impose reform from the outside. Real and sustainable reform can only come from within. But Azerbaijan should be encouraged to turn to its friends and partners for cooperation and assistance. Such support could be given bilaterally or in a multilateral context.

Azerbaijan is a member of both the OSCE and the CoE. Both organizations are represented in Baku. They should be encouraged to further intensify their efforts in promoting human rights and the rule of law.

As far as we in Norway are concerned, we see a particularly urgent need to engage the authorities in areas such as police training and prison reform. In our future bilateral dialogue with Azerbaijan, we will explore ways in which we can support the country in these and related areas of judiciary reform.

And we in the international community must step up our support to building a sustainable and solid civil society. Grass-roots organizations and grouping such as the ones represented here today are desperately needed if Azerbaijan is to have a better future. Without a strong civil society there will not be democracy. The OSCE and the CoE are active in this field, but much more could and should be done.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is sometimes suggested that the international community is "soft" on Azerbaijan because of its rich petroleum resources and concerns about protecting investments in Azerbajdjan.

I can speak only on behalf of the Norwegian government. But as far as we are concerned this is not much of an issue. Norway is the second largest investor in Azerbaijan’s oil industry. The bilateral relationship is basically strong and resting on a solid foundation of mutual interest. But as Azerbaijan’s partners we have also spoken plainly about the election and its aftermath.

I do not see a contradiction here, as long as the bilateral relationship is otherwise healthy, as long as the criticism is constructive and reasonable, and as long as it is balanced with practical support and assistance. Merely beating your interlocutor about the head, on the other hand, is rarely conducive to building a balanced relationship.

My own experience during my visit in Baku last month proves this point.

While I think it fair to assume that my critical comments about the elections and human rights violations in their wake were not joyfully listened to, neither were they brushed off in anger. And afterwards we had a useful exchange about the future of the bilateral relationship, including in the field of economic and energy cooperation.

On a related point I think it would be unreasonable to expect the private sector, including the oil industry, to be actively involved in promoting democratic change in countries in which they operate. That is primarily the responsibility of governments and international organisations. On the other hand, we both could and should expect Norwegian industry to operate on the basis of high ethical standards.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My message to you this morning has been that the responsibility of the international community in situations such as the one in Azerbaijan is essentially twofold:

First, we must not shy away from speaking plainly about non-compliance with human rights and fundamental freedoms. But second, we must also be willing and able to engage Azerbaijan in a constructive dialogue and offer our assistance with a view to promoting and speeding up necessary reforms.

But we must be realistic. Like the other countries of the South Caucasus, present-day Azerbaijan is a young nation with a troubled past and facing daunting political and economic problems. While we must continue to insist on the observance of basic human rights and the rule of law, we must also understand that it will take time to develop a full-fledged democracy.

( Thank you for your attention.)