South Africa Resists Proposal to Designate Azerbaijan as Inactive OGP Member

28 April 2016

South Africa, the lead co-chair of the Open Government Partnership, is advocating continued diplomatic engagement with Azerbaijan instead of making Azerbaijan an “inactive” OGP member for violating OGP principles, as recommended by an OGP subcommittee, according to OGP officials and informed sources.

The OGP Steering Committee is nevertheless expected to declare Azerbaijan inactive on May 4 when it considers the subcommittee’s advice.

The controversy results from complaints by three international nongovernmental organizations that Azerbaijan unduly restricts the activities of civil society organizations (CSOs). An OGP evaluation supported the contentions and the Criteria & Standards Subcommittee set specific benchmarks for Azerbaijan to meet – that it mostly has not, the subcommittee recently reported.

A vote to declare Azerbaijan “inactive” – a sanction likened to a yellow card in football – would be the first time the Steering Committee has so disciplined a member. The 11 CSO members on the Steering Committee are expected to support inactive status, but the 11 government members are reportedly divided on the matter. If a vote is held it would be the first in the OGP’s almost five-year history.

South Africa is leading the reluctance.

Ayanda Dlodlo, the Deputy Minister for the Public Service and Administration of the Republic of South Africa, traveled to Baku, Azerbaijan, in March and at an event there “expressed her pleasure at the active participation of the civil society institutions in public discussion” of action plans to fight corruption and open government, according to a statement characterizing her position put out by the Azerbaijan government.

South Africa has described  its mission to the OGP Steering Committee, but asked that the report remain confidential. It was not included among the pre-meeting documents released on the OGP website and instead was sent to members in a “separate packet.”

FreedomInfo.org requested the report April 27, along with four other related but undisclosed documents. The OGP Support Unit within hours provided all but the report labeled “confidential” by South Africa, saying that it “was circulated on their behalf by the OGP Support Unit.” The OGP official continued, “As such it would be inappropriate for us to disclose. I suggest you submit the request to the Government of South Africa.” FreedomInfo.org has made such a request and will appeal the OGP denial under the OGP disclosure policy.

In one of the documents newly provided, the subcommittee explains why it thinks Azerbaijan has violated OGP principles. The subcommittee’s  report says Azerbaijan not fulfilled its commitments or followed to the subcommittee’s roadmap to avoid inactive status. Among other things, the government failed to provide an national action plan by the end of 2016, the report says, and it has not created a better environment for CSOs, particularly by retaining a ban on foreign funding of CSOs.

On April 28, Azerbaijan informed the OGP that a national action plan was on its way.

Also now disclosed is a rebuttal from the Azerbaijan government, sent on April 15 to the Steering Committee. It describes “open” consultations and lists legal actions taken against NGO officials that have since been dropped. The document says “commitments on improving enabling environment for civil society institutions and prioritizing support to projects and initiatives on open government are integrated to new Action Plan.”

Progress Inadequate NGO Says

A staff member with one of the other groups that initially brought the complaint told FreedomInfo.org that Azerbaijan has made some progress, but not enough.

Asmara Klein, of Publish What You Pay in London, told FreedomInfo.org that PWYP partners in Azerbaijan saw the recent consultation undertaken on the National Action Plan “as an encouraging sign on the part of the authorities.”

“Recent steps undertaken by the authorities in Azerbaijan are positive – release of several political prisoners, unfreezing of organisational and personal bank accounts for some members of the EITI coalition there, stoppage of excessive screening practices at the border for some activists – but we believe that those remain discretionary and limited in nature,” Klein summarized.

“The encouraging signs lead us to believe that Azerbaijan should benefit from continued engagement in the OGP context but we think that more needs to be done to meaningfully address our concerns regarding the limitations imposed on domestic and foreign NGOs operating in Azerbaijan,” she said. She concluded:

Given that the government is currently falling short of its OGP commitment to `protect the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion’, we support moving to inactivity for Azerbaijan whilst providing support to actors on the ground to continue working on the implementation of key recommendations, including a progressive national Action Plan.

Year-Long Process

Getting to this point has taken a year. A decision to declare Azerbaijan inactive would be the first such use of policy designed to maintain its credibility.

One other matter is in process, concerning Hungary, but preparation of the evaluation has been delayed.

The OGP “response policy,” adopted in 2014, lays out detailed procedures for handling allegations about members and is weighted to encourage continued participation and “engagement.” The 69 OGP members join voluntarily and agree to make transparency improvements, expressed in national action plans.

As described on the OGP website: “The policy is titled “Upholding the Values and Principles of OGP, as articulated in the Open Government Declaration” and it has two tightly defined objectives: a) Assist a country in question to overcome difficulties and to help re-establish an environment for government and civil society collaboration, and b) Safeguard the Open Government Declaration and mitigate reputational risks to OGP.”

The pre-meeting materials for the Steering Committee stress that being named as an inactive member is not the same as being expelled and that there goal is get Azerbaijan reinstated.

As an inactive member Azerbaijan would have a year to show clear evidence that the concerns have been addressed. Azerbaijan would be able to submit a National Action Plan as evidence of progress made. It would not be allowed to vote in Steering Committee election or attend OGP meetings.

The complaint from three CSOs ­– CIVICUS, Publish What You Pay, and Article 19­ – regarding Azerbaijan was sent March 2, 2015, and the OGP Criteria & standards subcommittee announced in May of 2105 that the its findings supported the complaint. The Azerbaijan government is making it “difficult if not impossible” for nongovernmental organizations to operate, the subcommittee concluded.

This triggered the prescribed “Stage I” response, including “diplomatic outreach” with the government, an “offer to broker technical assistance to work on the issues raised” and an invitation to the government “to work with the Criteria and Standards subcommittee in establishing a work plan with regular check-ins and a timeline for Azerbaijan to address the situation.” (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.)

Eight months later, in its February 2016 meeting, the subcommittee found that the Stage I deadlines “have expired without satisfactory resolution,” its findings described in an annex to the minutes. (See previous FreedomInfo.org report.) Among other things, Azerbaijan had not completed a new action plan by the end of 2105, as suggested. The subcommittee also wrote:

In recommending that the Steering Committee move to stage two actions, the CS is particularly troubled by the constraints in the operating environment for NGOs and the absence of efforts to address these constraints through the draft National Action Plan. Such constraints are evident in the laws on grants, non-governmental organizations, and registration of legal entities and state registry, and the Code on Administrative Offenses; the freezing of bank accounts of some NGOs promoting open government; and the incarceration of NGO activists and journalists promoting open government.

In April of 2015, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative sanctioned the government of Azerbaijan for impeding civil society participation in the EITI process. (See previous FreedomInfo.org article.)

For background on the creation of the OGP and EITI policies on civil space, see November 2014 FreedomInfo.org analysis.

Turkey Role Also Up for Review

The Steering Committee is also slated to consider Turkey’s status.

Turkey has failed to prepare national action plans in two successive action plan cycles, and also risks being declared an inactive member.

Again, South Africa is opposing such a step and is encouraging continued engagement.

For more than year, such efforts appear to have failed. “Turkey does not currently have an assigned lead ministry or official point of contact despite CS’s repeated attempts over many months to engage the government of Turkey,” according to information prepared for the Steering Committee.

For other news on Steering Committee agenda see previous FreedomInfo.org article.

See all previous Freedominfo.org coverage of the OGP since 2011 here.

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