President. − The next item is the debate on six motions for resolution on Azerbaijan(1).
Raül Romeva i Rueda, deputising for the author. − Mr President, I speak on behalf of my colleague, Ulrike Lunacek. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of the Eurovision Song Contest but the fact that it is happening in a country with such a dramatic human rights situation has concerned me a lot.
Suppressing freedom of expression in Azerbaijan is simply incompatible with Azerbaijan’s commitments regarding democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. The Azerbaijani authorities should allow peaceful protests and prohibit all this interference in the work of journalists covering demonstrations. It is also important to release immediately from prison or pre-trial detention those detained on politically-motivated charges, including six journalists, social media activists, lawyers, NGO leaders and human right activists.
I also want to show my sympathy with the promoters of ‘Sing for Democracy’. It is a campaign launched on the occasion of the Eurovision Song Contest hosted in Baku and they hope that their action can contribute to bringing about indispensable democratic reforms and substantial improvements in the human rights situation in the country.
I am also concerned about the forced evictions and demolitions of buildings in connection with the major reconstruction plan in Baku, partly linked to the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. I thus call on the Azerbaijani authorities to guarantee that the ongoing construction of new buildings in Baku is in line with the relevant legislation and that the resettlement of people is carried out with transparent legal procedures and with fair compensation. Finally, I appreciate the fact that the PPE Group has finally joined the joint resolution as initially foreseen, as at certain times it was at risk.
Marietje Schaake, author. − Mr President, as the Eurovision finalists warm up their voices and practise their dance routines, the voices of the people in Azerbaijan are muffled. Much as the authorities may want to make the Eurovision Song Contest the ‘Great Azerbaijan Show’, the world is not blinded by glitter, glamour and propaganda.
We are very concerned at the ongoing violations of human rights in Azerbaijan, and polished statements from the government do not convince. It is only actions that speak. Today, two vice-chairs of the Müsavat party, a member of Liberal International, Tofiq Yaqublu and Gulaga Aslanli, were detained in the streets of Baku. Only one in six vice-chairs has not been arrested. An advisor of the party leader is under house arrest; people are being threatened by the authorities; Anar Gerayli has been missing for two days.
Arif Hajili and Tural Abbasli and various other human rights activists and members of the opposition have been detained for over a year. These people are recognised as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International and to them I want to say: ‘We will not forget you’.
To the Azeri authorities I want to say: ‘Live up to your responsibilities to respect human rights, and adhere to your commitments in the OSCE framework and in the context of the Association Agreement. Do you want to be a part of the EU Neighbourhood Policy or not?’ Azerbaijan will have no credibility with the EU if it does not stick to its agreements: full stop!
Véronique De Keyser, author. – (FR) Mr President, some 10 days ago, when I was watching Euronews, I saw a magnificent broadcast about Azerbaijan which discussed the Eurovision Song contest. Not a word was said about human rights. All we saw was the Crystal Palace. I thought at first it was an advertisement, but no, it was a Euronews broadcast.
That is why today’s motion for a resolution is extremely important. In no way do I support a boycott of Eurovision, which would, in any case, be very difficult to achieve, but we had the same discussion amongst ourselves over the Olympic Games in China. We decided that it offered a unique opportunity: 600 million viewers will watch this broadcast on Saturday. It is a unique opportunity to show that in Azerbaijan, besides gas, besides oil and besides money, there is another issue that is highly problematic, to say the least, and that is the human rights situation.
There is a further consideration: thousands of owners of flats and houses have been evicted to make way for the construction of the Eurovision buildings, and have received not much compensation. I think that this is beyond the pale. That is why I am particularly pleased by the fact that, ultimately, our friends in the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) supported this resolution. It is absolutely essential.
(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))
Frank Engel (PPE), blue-card question. – (FR) Mr President, first of all I basically wanted to support you, Ms De Keyser, in the analysis you have just made of the situation. Furthermore, I wanted to ask you, as you are the first to have spoken along these lines, whether you might not also believe that, when we recently made our assessment of the Association Agreement with Azerbaijan, we adopted a position that largely disregarded everything we are discussing today. Would it not have been more useful to have made it clear right from the outset that Azerbaijan is still not yet like other democracies? We are probably working towards doing something today which is slightly different from what we did only a month ago.
Véronique De Keyser (S&D), blue-card answer. – (FR) I would not wish to ‘let the cat out of the bag’, as it were, Mr Engel, but what I can say is that we have not disregarded the human rights issue, in the groups at least. There has obviously been the question of realpolitik, in light of issues such as energy, our crisis and what Azerbaijan might mean to us in terms of pipelines to allow us to bypass Russia, and so on. You know the issue as well as I do. However, there is the argument that runs as follows: ‘If we only signed agreements with countries that are true democracies, we might just run out of steam’. What I can say, in any case, is that not only was the issue of human rights raised, but that it remains absolutely central to us. I believe that one day we shall have to link – and that is essentially our ambition here in Europe – issues of trade to those of democracy. It is a constant balancing act to achieve this.
Monica Luisa Macovei, author. − (RO) Mr President, the cases of Idrak Abbasov and Khadija Ismaylova are just two examples of the pressure exerted on journalists in Azerbaijan. I call on the authorities to ensure the investigation and conviction of perpetrators, and also to investigate all claims of violence and arbitrary detentions against peaceful demonstrators, including this week’s events. The immediate release of the persons detained on the basis of politically motivated charges, be they journalists, human rights activists, or any other person, is vital and in accordance with the basic rules on human rights protection.
I should remind you that Azerbaijan is member of the Council of Europe and signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights. Azerbaijan has also taken up a non-permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for the period 2012-2013, and, by this, it has committed to support the values expressed in the UN Human Rights Charter.
In conclusion, I expect the Azerbaijan authorities to comply with their commitments regarding human rights and I call upon them to do so.
Bernd Posselt, on behalf of the PPE Group. – (DE) Mr President, contrary to what has been expressed here, our group is a co-signatory to the resolution on Azerbaijan. This weekend, this House will be watching Baku closely. This will not be just because of the Eurovision Song Contest – despite the fact that one of our colleagues, Dana Scallon, won the Song Contest over 30 years ago. Our main reason for watching with interest is that Azerbaijan is an important partner of the European Union, a member the Council of Europe and a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention and is therefore more committed than other states to adhere to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
Azerbaijan has taken these steps voluntarily, which we welcome. That is why Azerbaijan must also accept closer scrutiny. I would like to state quite clearly that the actions prior to the Eurovision Song Contest – demolishing buildings, driving people out of their residential areas without paying compensation, the insufficient rule of law, the beating of demonstrators, the suppression of the freedom of the press and religious freedoms, the violation of human rights – are unacceptable specifically because Azerbaijan is an important and valuable partner for us.
Mitro Repo, on behalf of the S&D Group. – (FI) Mr President, the Eurovision Song Contest has definitely turned the media’s attention to Azerbaijan for a while, and the Azerbaijanis have also taken advantage of the situation to demonstrate on the streets against the wretched state of their society and of freedom of speech there. Numerous people have actually been charged and imprisoned in Azerbaijan, having exercised their freedom of speech by condemning the country’s Government.
The shadow of totalitarianism still hangs over Azerbaijan, and the development of democracy and a market economy that respects human rights still has a very long way to go. I would ask whether a country like Azerbaijan can ever act as a guardian of world peace, a rotating member of the UN Security Council, when it flagrantly violates the human rights of its own citizens.
The Azerbaijani authorities should repeal the provisions on blasphemy and slander in their Criminal Procedure Code and embark on major reforms to ensure that freedom of speech is exercised in Azerbaijan. The European External Action Service (EEAS) must insist that Azerbaijan should investigate all cases relating to restrictions on freedom of speech, and should also take practical measures in order to improve the situation with respect to human rights throughout the country and to release political prisoners.
Gerben-Jan Gerbrandy, on behalf of the ALDE Group. – Mr President, in Baku last month I had the opportunity to ask President Aliyev about his plans for improving the situation with regard to democracy, human rights and freedom of the media in his country, especially as we look towards the Eurovision Song Contest this week. With astonishing self-confidence, he answered me that there was no reason to improve the situation because it was already perfect.
To be honest, I am not surprised by his self-confidence because, let us face it, the world, including the EU, is interested in Azerbaijan only because of gas and oil and important pipelines to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan; we are not interested in the people of Azerbaijan. Commissioner Füle may have criticised the Azeri human rights situation, but two weeks later President Barroso was in Baku, and he did not mention human rights once. He was talking only about energy. So, is the message from the EU ‘Never mind human rights – energy is what it’s all about’?
If we continue to let energy interests take democracy and human rights hostage, the situation in Azerbaijan will never improve. Let us be honest: in the long term, the EU also secures its energy interests much better by fighting for a stable democracy in Azerbaijan than by supporting the current regime of President Aliyev.
Jaroslav Paška, on behalf of the EFD Group. – (SK) Mr President, Azerbaijan is a country that, under the Eastern Partnership programme, actively participates in the European neighbourhood policy, and as part of our political and economic convergence, negotiations on an association agreement are under way. Azerbaijan is also one of our major economic partners, and it is therefore natural that we are very sensitive to the political environment in the country. Where there are repeated signs of a deterioration in the area of human rights, it is thus our duty, in a friendly manner, to draw the attention of our partners to the fact that gubernatorial methods of intimidating journalists, NGOs and the political opposition are incompatible with a civilised and democratic form of government. An appropriate diplomatic notice concerning the harmonisation of legislation in Azerbaijan in the field of media, freedom of association, democratic elections and penalties for defamation with international standards would therefore certainly help to create a better legal framework for the peaceful transformation of society. Finding a suitable way of appealing effectively to the Azerbaijani authorities must therefore be a major challenge for our foreign service.
Eija-Riitta Korhola (PPE). – (FI) Mr President, Azerbaijan is now in the public eye, because the country is hosting the Eurovision Song Contest this spring. However, the news coverage has been mainly negative, as there is definitely room for improvement in the country’s human rights situation. Problems have included restrictions on the media and on political activity in particular, and the difficulties that have been caused for the work of NGOs. Journalists, representatives of NGOs and active users of social media have been harassed, threatened and imprisoned.
The Azerbaijani Government has made many promises to improve the situation. It has published a National Action Plan on Human Rights, and has reformed its legislation in many ways. Recently, Azerbaijan set up a committee to investigate human rights violations. However, the government needs to ensure that the committee is absolutely impartial and that it conforms to international standards.
Azerbaijan is also one of the European neighbourhood policy partners. The country must promptly implement its National Action Plan on Human Rights under the neighbourhood policy, and demonstrate its sincerity with respect to the Association Agreement talks in progress.
I would like to say that I will be voting in favour of the resolution.
Corina Creţu (S&D). – (RO) Mr President, I think our resolution is useful, first of all because it places emphasis on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan and I hope the local authorities will take immediate action in order to comply with international commitments undertaken. Beyond its artistic side, hosting the Eurovision competition has also a powerful symbolic meaning for Azerbaijan, and, as it has already been said here, the fact that such an event has taken place in this country should not make us overlook the major violations of human rights. The restrictions imposed on peaceful demonstrations and the intimidation actions carried out against independent journalists, as well as the non-transparent way in which certain properties have been expropriated are causes for concern.
I too call on the authorities in Azerbaijan to take action in order to tackle these situations, and, especially, stop all pressure exerted on the freedom of expression. Moreover, I call on the Commission and the other European institutions to strengthen their cooperation with Azerbaijan in order to encourage the respect of human rights in this country.
(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))
Metin Kazak (ALDE), Blue-card question. – (BG) Mr President, I would like to ask you the following, Ms Creţu. The questions you are asking are, of course, vitally important, but do you think that the urgency in this case is justified?
Given that we, as the European Union and Azerbaijan, are involved in many bilateral platforms such as the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly, in addition to which Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, and all these long-standing issues are discussed broadly and at length, do you think that this resolution will help us resolve these problems?
Corina Creţu (S&D), blue-card answer. – (RO) Mr President, I believe that, when it comes to saving human lives and respecting human rights, it is never too soon or too late. On the other hand, I share your view regarding our duty to support this country’s integration in the system of European values, but then again, I believe there is no justification for the events currently unfurling in Azerbaijan.
Norica Nicolai (ALDE). – (RO) Mr President, I take the opportunity of this debate on an emergency resolution regarding Azerbaijan to call into question the status of these emergency resolutions. When were serious, fellow Members? When we voted the Association Report with Azerbaijan by overwhelming majority in this House? When were we serious? When our countries supported Azerbaijan in becoming a non-permanent member of the Security Council? When is it that we are serious? When we are asking Azerbaijan to support our energy policies through projects that may bring benefits to the European citizen? When is it that we are serious? Could it be during our countless and inefficient debates on human rights matters, which have no actual result whatsoever? In this resolution, like in so many others, we appeal to issues which have never been resolved, and which have been subject to more resolutions.
I believe beyond any doubt that Azerbaijan is not among the reputable countries in terms of respecting human rights, but I do believe that we are bound to withhold a certain standard in our own political views, a certain level of coherence and a certain type of approach, all of which should make us trustworthy in front of the European citizen. Let us not discuss human rights now, but instead vote for the access of the European Union to an energy policy favourable to the European citizen.
I think this discussion is very useful, but we must have another one, with a much wider scope, on precise criteria we apply to association agreements and suitable economic policies.
(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))
Bernd Posselt (PPE), Blue-card question. – (DE) Ms Nicolai, are you aware that we are not diplomats or business people, but rather parliamentarians whose primary concern is human rights? Are you also aware that this is a regular practice with partner states in the Council of Europe, for example Russia and, this week, Ukraine? Of course we must pay attention to the human rights credentials of our partner states in particular.
Norica Nicolai (ALDE), blue-card answer. – (RO) I agree. I value your opinion, but I would be curious myself: did you vote in favour of the Association Agreement with Azerbaijan? For in that case as well, the condition was to respect human rights. This is precisely the matter at hand; the double standard in various attitudes and decisions.
Sari Essayah (PPE). – (FI) Mr President, I am very pleased that the European Parliament is now jointly expressing its concern regarding the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, because the Eurovision Song Contest has put the country on the world map, and the public relations campaign that has cost millions of dollars is an attempt to present a modern, progressive image of the country. However, behind this sanitised façade there is another reality. There has been barely any change in the fundamental rights of the country’s citizens during its 20 years of independence and relative stability. Instead, President Aliyev’s regime has become stronger, and the international community has largely ignored the fact.
Although criticism of Azerbaijan has now been stepped up slightly, there is little criticism permitted within the country. Censorship is on the increase, and people are frequently punished for criticising the President or the country’s leaders, whether this concerns policy towards the opposition, journalism, art, civil activism, education or even social media.
Liisa Jaakonsaari (S&D). – (FI) Mr President, my thanks go to Ms Essayah and the other members of the Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats), for its joint resolution. It is very important that, once again, the European Parliament is urging the Azerbaijani authorities to release political prisoners and all those who have been detained for political reasons.
I would also like to point out that the European Parliament will be monitoring developments in Azerbaijan very closely, especially after the Eurovision Song Contest. The competition is important, and I would encourage all the singers, artists and those taking part in this important contest to sing in favour of freeing political prisoners. For it is not really acceptable that people have to spend their lives in the grip of fear, or that the media, journalists, representatives of the opposition and human rights defenders live in fear.
Janusz Wojciechowski (ECR). – (PL) Mr President, I support the motion for a resolution. We believe that it is very important for Azerbaijan, a country with a very long and fine history, and which is endeavouring to join the family of European nations in many different fields, as demonstrated by its participation in European sporting competitions, and also in another extremely important event, the Eurovision Song Contest. However, since Azerbaijan wishes to link its future with that of Europe, it should aim for European standards in terms of human rights. The human rights situation is unfortunately very poor, and getting worse. Since all the eyes of Europe will be on the country, now is a good time for us to voice our opinion on this matter and to send a powerful message to the Azerbaijani authorities. Thank you.
Tadeusz Zwiefka (PPE). – (PL) Mr President, Commissioner, it is a simple fact that over the past 20 years, ever since Azerbaijan gained independence, we have witnessed extraordinary economic growth in this country, which is regarded as one of the most dynamically developing countries in the world. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same about the democratic process in Azerbaijan, since practices continue which unfortunately still leave much to be desired, in particular as regards freedom of speech, in spite of this powerful and glorious economy. Whenever we cite examples of what is wrong in Azerbaijan, we must always remember to say that the independent media are unfortunately not accorded the position they deserve, and that journalists who dare to criticise the local or supreme authorities are immediately prosecuted. I would once again like to mention the case of Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced to a total of eight years in prison for publishing two articles in the local press. These practices are absolutely unacceptable. I can only regret that the justified criticisms being voiced today were not given due attention during the Eastern Partnership summit which took place in Baku in April. Thank you.
Evgeni Kirilov (S&D). – Mr President, human rights and democracy building, particularly in the EU neighbourhood, are of paramount importance. As in other cases, if there are no urgent reasons we should not deal with them through these urgent procedures. Certainly, as colleagues pointed out, in the case of Azerbaijan there have been setbacks. But what is the urgency now?
It seems it is the upcoming Eurovision Song Contest. Colleagues express concern that the authorities might clamp down on their opponents after the contest. I fear the Azeri authorities will regard this resolution as a stab in the back on the eve of the contest, together with the stab they received from neighbouring Iran a day ago. As a result, I am afraid, this resolution will reinforce hardliners.
It would be wise to postpone the vote on this resolution and have a special debate in plenary together with Commissioner Füle. This could be a result-oriented approach, since the Azeri authorities, I am sure, will be aware of the present text of this motion.
(The speaker agreed to take a blue-card question under Rule 149(8))
Bernd Posselt (PPE), Blue-card question. – (DE) Mr Kirilov, are you aware that the freedom demonstrators were on the streets for the whole week before the Eurovision Song Content, that they were baton-charged, and that our electorate witnessed it all on the television? They would be surprised to hear that you do not believe this to be an urgent matter, but that the question should be postponed until these people have been put in gaol.
Evgeni Kirilov (S&D), Blue-card answer. – Mr Posselt, yes, I am closely following the events in this country. I read today in the International Herald Tribune that yesterday a peaceful demonstration of young people against the regime passed through the main streets without permission.
There are certain things which have to be discussed very deeply and seriously with the authorities, but what I am saying is that this is not the way. Look how many people were here today! This is not the way to deal with a country which is quite important and is in a very strategic neighbourhood area of the Union.
Eduard Kukan (PPE). – (SK) Mr President, the protection of human rights, the promotion of democracy and the rule of law, and freedom of expression and association are fundamental principles on which the EU bases its policy towards its partners. This also applies to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is a partner country of the European Union, and it will therefore be monitored and – where justified – criticised in cases of human rights violations. The representatives of Azerbaijan should take such criticism very seriously. The issues that Azerbaijani officials should tackle promptly and openly include the organisation of peaceful protests and rallies and the detention of activists and journalists. Cases of attacks on journalists, civil society leaders and human rights activists should be resolved as soon as possible. This is the minimum that we should demand from Azerbaijan as a partner country of the European Union, which is why we should now adopt this motion for a resolution.
Ana Gomes (S&D). − (PT) Mr President, it is regrettable that President Barroso went to Baku and kept quiet about the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, which has deteriorated despite the promises of reform and undertakings given to the EU.
These human rights violations, threats, attacks, imprisonment of journalists, violent repression of peaceful demonstrations and arbitrary expropriations are currently taking place under the spotlight of the Eurovision Song Contest.
In negotiating the Association Agreement with Azerbaijan, the European Union must include concrete clauses and objectives regarding democratic reforms to be realised during the period of the agreement, with particular regard to the freedoms of the press, of expression and to demonstrate. The agreement must include an effective mechanism for monitoring the reforms, including sanctions for failing to deliver.
Janez Potočnik, Member of the Commission. − Mr President, honourable members, European Union-Azerbaijan relations are far from having exploited their full potential. To provide for the country’s political association and economic integration with the European Union, Azerbaijan needs to make significant further efforts to meet the action plan commitments in the field of deep and sustainable democracy, including electoral processes, the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the independence of the judicial system. This assessment is clearly reflected in the ENP progress report issued on 15 May.
The heavy-handed suppression of a wave of moderate protest actions in March, and in particular of the rally in Baku on 2 April, signalled an important setback on the democratisation and human rights front, and signalled non-compliance with the commitments taken towards the EU and in the framework of the Council of Europe and the OSCE. At the same time, the EU welcomes the recent release on 16 May of Elnur Mecidli and hopes for further releases on the occasion of Republic Day on 28 May.
There are frequent reports of violations of property rights, with forced evictions, sometimes against previous court decisions, and without due notification. It remains to be seen how new rules on evictions adopted by the Council of Ministers on 27 February will be implemented and whether they will improve the situation.
Many of you have mentioned the Eurovision Song Contest, which offered a window of opportunity for the authorities. The opportunity seems to have been missed. On 16 May, at a conference on media freedom organised by the Sing for Democracy campaign, the government rejected any criticism but stated that in some individual cases of complaint due investigation is under way. This includes the case of Khadija Ismaylova, an investigative journalist who was harassed, with an attempt at blackmailing. Also on 16 May, during protest actions by the opposition, tens of activists were arrested and later released at a distance of 60 kilometres from Baku.
The media environment is curtailed by self-imposed censorship, and harassment of journalists is frequent. Recent examples include the detention of two journalists in the regional city of Quba and the arrest of a number of journalists on charges of spying for Iran. There are unfortunately many others.
As mentioned, Commissioner Füle’s visit to Baku from 2 to 4 April, on the occasion of the Euronest meeting, gave the opportunity to highlight the EU’s growing concerns about human rights at high political level. The EU reiterates the need for Azerbaijan to fully respect its commitments in the framework of the Council of Europe and the Eastern Partnership. As you know, the EU and Azerbaijan have a very substantial and comprehensive bilateral agenda. The main principle on which the EU builds relations with any country is respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. If the former is compromised then our cooperation loses its essence. There is full transparency concerning in what respect and how the EU assesses the human rights situation in any given country and, as I have already mentioned, the ENP progress report issued in May reflects this assessment clearly.
Finally, the full implementation of the European neighbourhood policy action plan is expected. Political prisoners should be freed, and freedom of assembly and expression should be guaranteed. The EU calls on Azerbaijan to extend an invitation to the Special Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe for political prisoners.
President. − The debate is closed.
The vote will take place shortly.
Written statements (Rule 149)
Kristian Vigenin (S&D), in writing. – The urgency resolution proposed by several political groups on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan is a clear example of the shortcomings in the European Parliament’s procedures and approach.
Respect for human rights is high on the EU agenda in its relations with third countries, especially as regards the immediate neighbourhood. The case of Azerbaijan is on the EU radar. The authorities do not deny the problems, they participate in a dialogue and try to address our concerns.
I personally believe that the ‘urgency’ procedure is not appropriate to tackle such complex problems, in the presence of a limited number of MEPs. The only reason I see to rush for such a resolution is the Eurovision Song Contest and the excellent PR opportunity for the EP to gain some visibility.
Such a superficial approach, however, undermines our consistent strategic policy towards the South Caucasus. All those who know more about Azerbaijan understand that this resolution will rather do harm to the human rights cause. Since we observe certain setbacks in most of the countries in the Eastern Neighbourhood, as a Chair of the Euronest Delegation of the EP I will ask for a special debate in plenary with Catherine Ashton and Stefan Füle.