By Gara Allahmanli
In 2013-2014, state pressure on civil society in Azerbaijan markedly increased. Several NGO representatives were arrested during this period, and legislation ensuring their freedoms was largely manipulated. During these years, many organizations had to cease their activities, and many employed in this sector were forced to leave the country.
The question remains – what is the status of NGOs in Azerbaijan today? Has the pressure and ban on their activities been reduced?
Akif Gurbanov is chairman of the Institute for Democratic Initiatives. He is a former member of the Central Election Commission. The Institute for Democratic Initiatives (IDI) was established in 2013 by prominent lawyers and public figures. The mission of the organization is to create an open society. The organization puts together journalism, human rights and leadership training for young people within their School of Democracy. In addition, the Institute covers a variety of areas such as policy, law, and education.
Akif Gurbanov says about the current problems NGOs in Azerbaijan face:
“I think that freedom of association is violated in the process of creating NGOs. In the absence of a letter of guarantee from any authority or person close to the government, state registration is required in the application to the Ministry of Justice for the creation of any public association. Even if all the laws are implemented, there is a huge bureaucratic hassle is needed for an NGO to register for more than 145 days. In reality, this process is not always carried out. This registration is based on political review and political order. This is the most important problem.
Freedom of assembly of civil society is also violated. Private or public spaces are not permitted for NGOs to hold offices, hold conferences or hold events in closed spaces. There is virtually no space for outdoor events with the participation of the media. One of the most crucial problems is the independence of financial resources. Grants allocated by local donors are clearly allocated to those who support the government’s position and are not afraid to criticize openly. Independent people are not allowed to benefit from these resources. For foreign donors, there has been a limitation that it has become an actual ban. As a result of this bill, there is no foreign donor in the country. There are also limitations in the legislation regarding the collection of donations. The identity of the contributors should also be specified in detail. In this case, citizens are afraid to assist any NGO. On the other hand, NGOs have difficulty attracting volunteers. Each NGO need to insure its own volunteers. The insurance process creates difficulties both financially and administratively. In that case, NGOs will be deprived of any volunteer involvement. “
Bashir Suleimanli is the chairman of the Institute for Citizens’ Rights.
The Institute for Citizens’ Rights (ICR) was established in 2012. Although the documents were sent to the Ministry of Justice, the ministry refused to register them. In this regard, the founders appealed to the court. At present, the complaint is in the European Court of Human Rights. When Bashir Suleymanli was elected Deputy at the Election Monitoring and Democracy Center (SMDT), along with the chairman of the organization, Anar Mammadli, he was falsely accused and arrested for preparing an analytical report on the 2013 presidential elections. He was released in March 2015. The main areas of activity of the ICR are the protection of political freedoms, the legitimate rights of citizens and the propagation of election law. At the same time, the organization is working to increase the activity of citizens living in the regions of Azerbaijan.
Bashir Suleimanli says about the current challenges of civil society:
“The change in legislation in 2014 worsened the status of NGOs. These legislative acts impose restrictions on the activities of NGOs. Both the law on grants and the laws related to legal entities hinder NGOs from working freely. Financial resources have been restricted. In practice, activities have also become impossible. We want young people to be involved in this field. This is important for their personal development, and is essential for the development of civil society and society as a whole. While there are about a hundred thousand universitiy students in Baku, nearly a thousand of them do not participate in the activities of NGOs. The environment for their organization and expression is very limited. Students active in social activism are subjected to pressure by university administrators. As a result of these pressures, young people are afraid to be active in the work of civil society. The situation of civil society in the regions is not good. In the past years, civil society activists have been removed from the field as a result of various pressures. “
Rasul Jafarov is chairman of Human Rights Club (HRC). He is also one of the NGO representatives arrested in 2014. Human Rights Club was created by a group of young human rights activists on December 10, 2010 – World Human Rights Day. The main goal of the club is to promote human rights and fundamental freedoms in Azerbaijan and to promote broad democratic development. To this end, HRC follows developments in human rights in the country, investigates information about violations, carries out campaigns on disturbing events, and promotes national, regional and international advocacy. HRC’s key target groups are youth, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, civil society and political activists, as well as other individuals whose rights are violated. Famous human rights defender Rasul Jafarov expresses his concern over the state of civil society in Azerbaijan:
“The situation with human rights in Azerbaijan today is worse than in other countries. After 2014, changes to the legislation made it difficult for civil society to function freely and independently. It’s an impossible situation. Legislation should be changed in accordance with the principles of freedom of association for the solution of the problem, and the opportunity for civil society to function. Serious problems for civil society events continue. Freedom of assembly is restricted not only outdoors, but also indoors.
Serious financial difficulties still continue. This is related to legislation. The activity of external donors was virtually forbidden. Whether local donors or NGO Council, or separate ministries, allocate these grants to a given circle. These grants are usually given to NGOs that do not have a critical position.I would even say that these grants are distributed by domestic donors in the form of very serious corruption. At the same time, the volume of grants is very low. It is impossible to keep civil society alive and achieve its development. Under all these conditions, it is inappropriate to talk about the development of civil society and NGOs. “