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Rights and wrongs ahead of Baku’s Cop29 hosting

After recent climate conferences in Egypt and Dubai, Azerbaijan will be the next authoritarian petrostate to host this year’s climate change conference. Activists are hoping that the event will help bring global attention to worrisome human rights trends within the country.

Four months ahead of the Cop29 climate conference in Azerbaijan, rights organisations have joined international officials in calling for the respect of human and environmental defenders and journalists in the fossil fuel-producing country and those travelling to the annual gathering in the capital in November.

But where former host countries Dubai and Egypt deployed tactics to silence critics Azerbaijan appears to have gotten an early start in that process.

Emin Huseynov, a former journalist in Azerbaijan and co-founder of Geneva-based Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety (IRFS), said he confronted Baku’s lead negotiator, Yalchin Rafiyev, at recent United Nations climate talks in Bonn.

He asked him: “How will it be possible, as you speak here, to host a meaningful and equal Cop29 in Baku for everyone when you have jailed your own civil society?”

Huseynov, who was forced to leave his country in 2015 after IRFS’s main office was raided and he was charged with abuse of power and tax evasion, was speaking at a side event at the Human Rights Council. His organisation and others attending the council said the government has intensified its crackdown on government critics, including environmental defenders, over the past year.

Now living in Switzerland, Huseynov said that Baku’s representative in Bonn responded that groups like his own were politicising the issue of Baku’s Cop hosting.

“This latest crackdown is not about some incidental issues, it’s a systematic crackdown, an annihilation programme against Azerbaijani critical NGOs and media,” said Samad Rahimli, a lawyer and founding board member of III Respulika Platformasi (Third Republic Platform), an exiled NGO focused on improving governance, at a recent council side event in Geneva.

Michel Forst, the UN special rapporteur on environmental defenders under the Aarhus Convention, recalled that as a party to the convention, Azerbaijan had the obligation to protect the defenders.

“With the Cop29 happening in Azerbaijan, there is the opportunity for new challenges and the need to work together with different actors, including the head of Cop, to address what is happening and (for me) to learn from testimonies from civil society,” he said.

Forst, whose mandate includes monitoring human rights violations linked to the environment and providing recommendations to governments, attended Cop28 in Dubai. “I was concerned about what I saw and the testimonies I heard,” he added.

Read more: Threatened environmentalists have a new protector

Cop29 welcome mat

In recent years, Azerbaijan’s gas exports to the European Union have increased significantly amid efforts to reduce its gas dependency within the bloc on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine. But those ties have become an embarrassment to the EU in light of state repression.

Since late 2023, when Azerbaijan was nominated to host Cop29, the government has stepped up efforts to stifle any dissent. At least 25 journalists have been detained, including six who attempted to cover a protest in June 2023 by villagers against the expansion of a nearby tailings pond by a gold mining company, Anglo Asian Mining. Locals suspect the reservoir’s toxic material of contaminating water and soils, which the firm denies. Its Iranian-American chief executive is reputedly close to President Ilham Aliyev.

Ahead of an early snap presidential election in February, the number of reporters jailed or detained ticked up further. Civil society groups estimate that more than 300 political prisoners are now being held. Some family members have been subject to physical abuse while others have had their funds frozen.

The timing of the snap election came after Baku took full control of Nagorno-Karabakh in September, prompting more than 100,000 ethnic Armenians to flee. The region had already been blockaded from receiving food and medicine.

Azerbaijan ranks among the lowest globally on transparency – 158 out of 180 – on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, while Reporters Without Borders puts it at 167th place out of 180, between Egypt and Bahrain.

In April, on his return to Azerbaijan after speaking at the Human Rights Council’s last session about the country’s rights violations, Anar Mammadli, member of the Cop29 Climate Justice Initiative, was jailed on trumped up “smuggling” charges.

Yves Lador, a representative of the environmental NGO Earthjustice in Geneva, reflected on what that meant for activists ahead of Cop29. “Just a few weeks ago…we were working openly with (Mammadli) in the preparation of Cop29. It is the first time that we directly see this hit at the heart of those working on preparing a Cop. We see (it) went one step further,” Lador said at a side event.

Referring to IRFS, which organised last week’s side event, a representative of the Azerbaijan government refuted the “baseless accusations by the corrupt NGO which uses the Human Rights Council to spread fake narratives and lies”. She said Baku “continued to build dialogue and cooperation with local and international NGOs not just within Cop29 but on other matters as well.”

A government-organised trip in April for foreign journalists planning to cover Cop29 brought them to Nagorno-Karabakh, where the government showcased a programme aimed at putting the region on a net zero track, which included razing towns and transforming landscapes to source necessary minerals.

Hoping to achieve recognition

Some civil society groups say that the major climate event, which typically draws tens of thousands of participants from around the world, may help shed more light on rights activists in the host country.

Mohamed Lotfy, co-founder of the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedom, said that the detention of an Indian environmental activist, Ajit Rajagopal, in 2022, for attempting to walk from Cairo to Sharm El Sheikh, where Cop27 was being held, inspired NGOs in the country. “There is good news, in that hosting Cop opened the eyes of the world on the situation of human rights in Egypt… It allowed climate activists to connect with other groups for the first time in 11 years and was a good opportunity for NGOs to speak out.”

He said the slogan “No climate justice without human rights”, which has since become a common call at international climate events, was created as a result.

But he told Geneva Solutions that participation of Egyptian NGOs at the conference was limited, as those who would not speak critically about human rights or climate change were “hand-picked” by authorities to be accredited. “They will occupy space, burn oxygen in the air and fill gaps in official photos, and then the government will say ‘we had 100 NGOs from Egypt participating: a record high number’.”

The Egyptian rights defender said the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which convenes the events, was also to blame for not practising its own due diligence on how the Egyptian government allocates credentials. “They dealt with Egypt as if it was the UK or Germany”, which allow independent NGOs to be represented.

In the end, after meeting with Forst, Egyptian NGOs were able to attend Cop27 with badges allocated to foreign NGOs, under a “gentlemen’s agreement” between the government and the UNFCCC, Lotfy said.

What about the host agreement?

So far, similar concerns exist among civil society groups in Azerbaijan, where IRFS says only a single NGO, IDEA, an environmental group run by Aliyev’s daughter, Leyla, has been admitted to the upcoming Cop.

After Dubai, where an NGO, where an NGO was de-badged for holding a press conference on Palestine in the restricted conference area where protest sites were more limited than usual, many rights groups remain distrustful of arrangements made between host countries and the UNFCCC. Activists are again calling for transparency of the bilateral agreement with Azerbaijan.

Read more: Rights groups accuse UN climate body of censorship at Cop28

Alexander Saier, media lead at UNFCCC, wrote to Geneva Solutions that the “host country agreements for the purpose of the organisation of meetings are subject to limited publication under the Limited Publications policy of the UN secretariat.”

Concern over press coverage in Baku is also on the rise after Western journalists were refused entry to an energy summit in June opened by the president.

Forst recalled that all 47 signatories to the Aarhus convention “have an obligation to also promote and facilitate the participation of defenders in all Cop meetings including the Cop in Azerbaijan”.

This article was published courtesy of Geneva Solutions, under Creative Commons BY 4.0.

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