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Ahead of Hosting COP29, Azerbaijan Is Ramping Up Human Rights and Environmental Abuses

The international community should hold it accountable.

Words: Kate Watters & Jeffrey Dunn
Pictures: Orkhan Farmanli

In November of this year, COP29, the United Nations Climate Conference, will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan. This marks the third year in a row that the event will be hosted by a government with significant fossil fuel reserves and a poor human rights record — notably for its repression of civil society. As with the UAE (COP28) and Egypt (COP27), there are many reasons to be concerned about the Azerbaijani government’s commitment to solving the climate crisis and to protecting environmental and human rights.

An Oil Rich Climate Host

Azerbaijan’s economy relies heavily on the fossil fuel sector, with oil and gas accounting for 92% of the country’s exports. The largest foreign investor in Azerbaijan is BP, accounting for over 88% of the country’s exports. And, although Azerbaijan has significant potential to increase renewables, at present fossil fuels comprise 98% of the country’s domestic energy supply.

Although Azerbaijan was a founding member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the mission of which is “to promote understanding of natural resource management, strengthen public and corporate governance and accountability, and provide the data to inform policymaking and multi-stakeholder dialogue in the extractive sector,” it was suspended from the organization in 2017 for restrictive changes to its NGO legislation, which limited the ability of civil society to participate in Azerbaijan’s EITI engagement. The Azerbaijani government withdrew from EITI the following day, severely limiting the ability of civil society to monitor the government’s oil revenue expenditures. 

Azerbaijan’s domestic fossil fuel companies are primarily state-owned. The State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (SOCAR) is the key Azerbaijani company engaged in partnerships with international oil companies, whether in upstream or midstream projects. Thus, SOCAR holds shares in the biggest oil fields as well as in refineries and pipeline projects, cooperating with international oil majors. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was vice president of SOCAR before assuming the presidency just before his father, who was president before him, died.

A former SOCAR official for 26 years, Mukhtar Babayev, has been selected as president-in-waiting for the COP talks. He is also the Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources of Azerbaijan, but his appointment raises concerns about Azerbaijan’s commitment to combating climate change. Azerbaijan only signed the Global Methane Pledge on March 4 of this year; presumably in preparation to host COP. Azerbaijan’s climate commitments include signing on to the Paris Agreement and a revised Nationally Determined Contribution, which calls for a reduction in GHG emissions by 35% by 2030 and by 40% by 2050. According to the World Bank, Azerbaijan is not on track to hit these targets. 

Human Rights Concerns in the Lead-up to COP

Azerbaijan’s human rights record is disturbing, and according to Freedom House, the country is “not free,” with a score of 7 out of 100 on its scale of freedom in the world. Azerbaijan is in the midst of a severe crackdown on civil society, which has only worsened since the COP29 announcement was made in December. According to the Union for the Freedom of Political Prisoners in Azerbaijan, as of December 2023, the Azerbaijani regime has imprisoned 254 political prisoners.

The United Nations has committed to a rights based approach to climate change. This must include its engagement with Azerbaijan in the lead-up to COP29.

Among them are independent journalists and the country’s most well-known anticorruption activist, Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, who was arbitrarily detained and subjected to mistreatment and torture, including denial of critically needed medical care. Journalists from the media outlets Toplum TV and Abzas Media have been denied adequate legal representation and charged with spurious claims of currency smuggling.

Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu was violently arrested and arbitrarily detained on July 23, 2023, and has been held in inhumane conditions in a pre-trial detention center since then. Dr. Ibadoghlu’s detention has been extended twice, and he is denied access to critically needed medical treatment for hypertension and diabetes. His family is concerned about his health and well-being.

Ibadoghlu is the country’s key anticorruption activist focused on the fossil fuel sector. Having served as one of Azerbaijan’s EITI civil society representatives before the country’s departure from the institution, he researched the corrupt practices that have kept Azerbaijan’s oil wealth from reaching ordinary people. International outrage over his arbitrary detention and that of independent journalists has resulted in discussions and calls for his release in the US Congress, statements from academics, international civil society, the European Parliament, and the board of EITI

Despite calls from civil society to use its influence to encourage the government of Azerbaijan to release Ibadoghlu, the major oil companies active in Azerbaijan are silent on the issue of human rights. BP responded to a request from Crude Accountability, “We do not typically comment on the legal / judicial processes in the countries in which we operate unless in respect of our activities. In the matter of Dr. Ibadoglu, we are very sorry to hear of his medical condition and hope the situation is resolved swiftly, in accordance with international human rights norms as well as national laws.”

The United Nations has committed to a rights based approach to climate change. This must include its engagement with Azerbaijan in the lead-up to COP29. The international community must insist on the release of Azerbaijan’s political prisoners as a condition of COP29. The lives of Gubad Ibadoghlu and the others who are wrongfully detained depend on it.

Kate Watters & Jeffrey Dunn

Kate Watters is co-founder and executive director of Crude Accountability, an environmental and human rights nonprofit organization that works with communities impacted by oil and gas development in the Caspian and Black Sea regions. Jeffrey Dunn is research coordinator at Crude Accountability. Dunn focuses his research on sanctions evasion and corruption in Eurasia, particularly as relates to the intersection of natural resource extraction and human rights. Dunn is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a Bachelor of the Arts in Russian, Eurasian, Polish Studies and Political Science.

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