Groups Allege Azerbaijan Violating OGP Principles

24 March 2015

Three major international nongovernmental organizations have accused the government of Azerbaijan of seriously damaging the ability of civil society organizations to engage in the Open Government Partnership process, using a new OGP process that could lead to the government’s OGP membership begin declared “inactive.

The accusations are the first made under a new OGP “response policy” that establishes a mechanism for complaints that  OGP members, now 65 of them, are failing to live up the the organization’s principles. The system was instituted last year largely out of concerns that some governments were limiting OGP participation by civil society.

The government has instituted new rules and instituted “what can only be described as a crackdown on independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially those which dared to be critical of the authorities,” according to a March 2 letter to the OGP from Civicus, Publish What you Pay and Article 19.

The government’s campaign, documented in a five-page letter and an unreleased “annex,” “has been wide ranging in nature, but it has particularly targeted groups which promote government transparency and accountability.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, another multi-national group, has been investigating similar complaints and its board will consider the situation at an April meeting. (See previous report.)

Complaints to the OGP go first to the Criteria and Standards Subcommittee for evaluation and recommendation, and ultimately the matter could go before the OGP Steering Committee, composed equally of representatives from governments and civil society.

Letter Summarizes Problems

The three groups’ letter states:

Together, the rules subject NGOs to extensive government control, contrary to guarantees of freedom of association, including over their registration, governance, receipt of funding (including blocking new funding) and banking operations (including freezing bank accounts). International NGOs (INGOs) have increasingly been subjected to similar controls. The formal rules have been accompanied by various forms of harassment of NGOs, which range from a smear campaign against NGO leaders and groups which criticize the government to interrogations of activists to actual physical attacks in some cases. Criminal cases and tax investigations – either entirely trumped up or based on the politically-motivated application of excessively flexible legal rules – have been launched against a number of NGOs and activists, as well as a number of INGOs.

These tactics have exerted a powerful intimidating effect on independent NGOs and their leaders. Some activists have censored themselves, withdrawn from NGO work or left the country altogether because they fear retaliation. Many NGOs have stopped operating, in some cases permanently, while others struggle to continue their activities.

The complaint describes problems in five areas: Government Control over Registration and Operations of NGOs; Government Control over NGO Finances; Harassment of Civil Society; Criminal and Tax Cases; and Consultation Failures. Due to the sensitivity of some of the information it contains, we ask the Steering Committee to keep the Annex confidential.

Recommendations Made

The letter suggests a variety of steps the government could take “to re-establish the necessary space for civil society actors to operate freely and independently in Azerbaijan, including so as to be able to participate in and influence Azerbaijan’s OGP Action Plan.”

These include removal of “legal and bureaucratic hurdles outlined above that currently undermine freedom of association” and the lifting of “court-ordered freezes of the bank accounts of civil society organizations.”

At its September 2014 meeting, the OGP Steering Committee adopted a new policy to deal with concerns raised about civic space in participating countries.

The policy has two defined objectives:

  1. a)     Assist a country in question to overcome difficulties and to help re-establish an environment for government and civil society collaboration, and
  2. b)     Safeguard the Open Government Declaration and mitigate reputational risks to OGP.

The policy was finalized in September after about 10 months of development and consideration the Steering Committee. (See previous reports.)

While broader in scope than the EITI policy, the OGP version is designed to encourage members to come into compliance. The policy envisions a process of investigating complaints and working with governments to remedy problems, with the possible sanction of naming a government an “inactive” member.

There already has been an OGP report critical of the Azerbaijan government.

The assessment is contained in a report by the OGP independent reviewer, Kenan Aslanli, who assessed Azerbaijan’s performance on developing and implementing its national plan. The OGP process requires governments to follow a set of guidelines around consulting with civil society, including in-person consultations, wide outreach and documenting input received. This did not occur sufficiently in Azerbaijan, according to the reviewer.

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