There is no doubt that the experience of competing in a large sporting event can benefit any athlete, especially if that athlete is competing in the Olympics next year in Rio. You could follow the endlessly exciting social media updates from young competitors who lived in the sporting bubble of the inaugural European Games. Like all great sporting events it should be about the young people, athleticism and participation.
However the human rights situation in Azerbaijan simply cannot be ignored. The federation is fully aware that since 2014, the Azerbaijani government has orchestrated an unprecedented campaign to suppress dissenting voices in the country. The government has detained and brought unfounded criminal charges against dozens of civil society activists and journalists, prompting others to flee the country or go into hiding. In 2014 alone, Azerbaijani authorities convicted or imprisoned at least 35 journalists, human rights activists, and political activists (“Azerbaijan”, Human Rights Watch World Report, 2015).
Regardless of its merits as a sporting occasion, if this new event had gone ahead alongside the release of some of the scores of political prisoners held by Aliyev’s regime on trumped-up charges then it could have justified some of the claims being made on its behalf as a progressive force for good in opening up this young country to the world. Instead, the crackdown intensified and freedom of speech was quashed.
Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162 out of 180 countries for press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it as the fifth most censored country in the world.
Last October, Human Rights Watch awarded the International Olympic Committee a virtual “gold medal” for putting human rights in its host city contracts for the first time. The clause, part of Thomas Bach’s Agenda 2020 reforms that helped him win the presidency in 2013, referred to sustainability and labour laws rather than freedom of expression but were nonetheless hailed as a step in the right direction.
The IOC has hidden behind the fact that the European Games is not an official IOC event and pointed to its own protocols to ensure freedom of the press during the summer and winter Olympics. But Baku 2015 was conceived and organised by the European Olympic Committees and is inextricably bound up in the Olympic movement. All the talk about the Olympics promoting peace and tolerance can hardly amount to much if the games are used as a cover to crack down on civil liberties and freedom of expression.
The UN Human Rights Council delivered a lengthy condemnation of the human rights situation in the country signed by 25 countries. “It is unfortunate that, while Azerbaijan is investing significant efforts in promoting its image abroad, these efforts are being undermined by its actions at home,” it said. “We call on Azerbaijan to end its crackdown on civil society and respect fundamental freedoms, and to create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate free from hindrance and insecurity.”
The EOC needs to signal to would-be hosts that rights abuses, corruption and repression have no place in the Olympic movement.