Eurovision 2012: Pro-democracy campaigners arrested in Baku as song contest begins

Eurovision 2012 kicks off in Baku, Azerbaijan today and the song contest’s glittering final will be held on Saturday night. With an anticipated audience of 300 million people, Azerbaijani authorities are working hard to promote a positive image of the country abroad as it hosts the contest for the first time.

Baku has seen some major re-development in recent years and boasts modern skyscrapers, a new Eurovision stadium and even a Debenhams, but sadly what it doesn’t have is democracy and press freedom.

In the run up to Eurovision, pro-democracy campaigners have gathered on the city’s streets to protest against a regime that is headed by President Ilham Aliyev – a man who  inherited his power from his father and has effectively made himself president for life.

Campaigners say they have been arrested and beaten by police for trying to stand up to the government. These claims can be backed by a report from Human Rights Watch who witnessed police violently disperse two peaceful protests yesterday. Eleven political prisoners, who were jailed after taking part in anti-government demonstrations last year, are on hunger strike until Eurovision is over. Furthermore, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) claims that Azerbaijan is one of the top ten jailers of the press.

Eurovision is meant to be fun and sparkly but this year’s contest will undoubtedly be overshadowed by recent events. The European Broadcasting Union (EBU), the association of broadcasters that organises Eurovision, has not taken a strong public stance on Azerbaijan’s political situation and maintains the line that the song contest is apolitical.

However, it would be unfair to say that EBU has turned a completely blind eye to the situation. It held a general assembly in Baku in 2010 where it made a public commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of the media in all countries where its member broadcasters operate. That includes Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has nine TV stations but only one is independent and it is often subjected to censorship. Broadcast media is dominated by the state.

Last year Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 143rd out of the 183 countries it surveyed for it’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. The report, which ranks countries according to how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, gave Azerbaijan a score of just 2.4 out of 10 (0 means that a country is perceived to be highly corrupt).

Azerbaijan is a member of the Council of Europe, it has signed the European Convention on Human Rights and is bound by the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. It has also forged positive links with the EU and is a member of EU’s Eastern Partnership, a programme that promotes democracy and good governance, amongst other things. But despite all of this, it still has political prisoners and little freedom of expression.

Europe’s eyes will be on Baku on Saturday night and Azerbaijanis have had a rare opportunity to shine the spotlight on human rights abuses at home. Let’s hope the world’s media doesn’t forget as soon as the singing is over and that change is on its way.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 23 May 2012.


Brighton Declaration will lead to ‘substantial’ reforms to the European Court of Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe unanimously voted in favour of reforming the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on Thursday, at a conference in Brighton, UK.

The conference, instigated by the UK chairmanship of the council, involved delegates from the 47 member states who gathered in the south coast city to discuss the reforms laid out in a draft document, known as the Brighton Declaration.

The Council of Europe, an international organisation that promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is based in Strasbourg and was formed in 1949. The UK is a founding member and holds the rotating chairmanship of the council until 23 May 2012, when it will then pass to Albania.

Reform of the court was a key priority for the UK chairmanship, who believe that that court is being asked for do too much and that it takes far too long for cases to be heard. Throughout the chairmanship, Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed an agenda of increased use of ‘subsidiarity’ – national courts dealing with cases where possible, rather than the ECtHR.

The conference came in the midst of the international legal row over the UK government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada. The UK government wants to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges, but judges at the ECtHR halted those plans amid concerns that Jordan may use evidence in Qatada’s trial that was obtained via torture.

Following institutional changes to the court in 1998, plus expansion to admit new members, the court experienced a substantial increase in its workload. At present, the ECtHR is has a backlog of around 150,000 cases waiting to be heard, and estimates that around 90 per cent of applications made to it are in fact inadmissible under its rules. The court also believes that in about 10 per cent of the cases that are admissible, up to half are repetitive cases about issues that have already been decided by the court.

At the opening of the Brighton Conference, UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared valued in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.”

Under the reforms agreed in Brighton, fewer British cases will go to the ECtHR and more will be resolved in domestic courts.  The measures agreed include:

  • Amending the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria, and therefore making it easier for trivial cases to be thrown out
  • Amending the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation
  • Improving the selection process for judges
  • Reducing the time limit for claims from six months to four

Critics of the declaration have said they believe the reforms won’t really make any difference to the way the court operates. President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, told council delegates that the court’s judges were uncomfortable with the idea that governments could in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve, or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.

Although these reforms have now been officially agreed, Ken Clarke admitted that it will still take years to clear the backlog of cases the court is waiting to hear.

In the meantime, council members have reaffirmed their commitment to guaranteeing human rights in Europe and anticipate a future court that will be able to act quicker and more effectively.

This article was published by The New Federalist on 20 April 2012. 

From Eurovision to human rights reform: Brighton welcomes the Council of Europe

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

As the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe begins to draw to a close, delegates from the Council’s 47 member states are gathering in Brighton to discuss reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will open the conference tomorrow, and delegations have just a day to put forward their views and hammer out a deal, which will be known as the Brighton Declaration. Final discussions and the adoption of the new declaration are scheduled for Friday morning.

Fittingly, the conference is being held at the Brighton Centre – the very same 1970s concrete building that has hosted countless political party conferences and a Eurovision song contest.

Throughout its chairmanship, Britain has advocated the principle of “greater subsidiarity” and wants council members to have more freedom to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights according to their own national legal traditions.

In January, David Cameron spoke at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and said: “The Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dealt with at the national level.”

The conference also comes as Britain clashes with the European court over the case of radical cleric Abu Qatada, whose deportation from the UK was halted by the court tonight after a last-minute appeal.

It’s clear that Cameron’s Conservatives believe judges in Strasbourg have too much power and would prefer a British court to deal with cases wherever it can, but just how much of this view is shared by other members of the Council of Europe will become apparent over the next few days.