Azerbaijan to U.S.: What About Human Rights?


One of the world’s worst jailors of journalists wants you to know that it’s extremely concerned about the state of civil rights in the U.S.

Azerbaijan, an oil-rich Caucasian country known for its decidedly imperfect human rights record, held parliamentary hearings on Jan. 15, to look into a number of civil rights issues in the U.S., including panels on ethnic, racial and religious discrimination, violations of free thought and freedom of the press, and whether lawmakers were applying double-standards in ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. (Their answer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is yes.) According to the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one lawmaker questioned “why U.S. think tanks are criticizing Azerbaijan given that the Guantanamo Bay detention facility is still open.” Another noted that the election of Barack Obama, the first African-American president in U.S. history, has done little to heal race relations in the country.

The U.S. embassy in Baku was hardly amused, noting in a statement issued the same day of the hearings that U.S. officials were aware of their country’s current struggles. Officials noted that the U.S. doesn’t claim to be perfect, but they are proud of their country’s willingness to change and learn from its mistakes. The U.S. welcomes dialogues and ideas that will propel the country forward.

Azerbaijan’s inquiring comes approximately one month after Khadija Ismayilov, a prominent journalist known for her investigative work on human rights abuses and corruption, was forced into a two-month-long pretrial detention in early December. Ismayilov, who works for RFE/RL’s Azeri service, was summoned after a man claimed she attempted to pressure him into committing suicide. Her arrest has been condemned widely and was described by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe as “orchestrated intimidation.” Undoubtedly, the hurdles Ismayilov must jump through at this time aren’t her first, nor will they be her last.

What is clear is that Azerbaijan, like Russia, is placing renewed emphasis tried-and-true Soviet-era techniques, including “whataboutism,” a term coined by U.S. analysts to describe the Soviet officials’ attempts to deflect Western criticism by appealing to the West’s failures. By broadcasting the West’s errors and pointing to its own moral failings, leaders attempt to steer the conversation away from their own misdeeds. Azerbaijan doesn’t have nearly the same media reach as Russia, whose network of English-language news/propaganda outlets is unrivaled. It does, however, have the blessing of operating under the aegis of being a U.S. and EU ally, meaning it can probably get away with a lot more chest thumping than Putin’s Russia at the moment.

Whether Azerbaijan’s criticism of the U.S. will have any effect on domestic opinion isn’t for me to say. One thing is for sure: If the West ramps up its criticism of Ilham Aliyev’s regime, it should expect significant blowback. After all, Aliyev has made his intentions quite clear when he tweeted that, “Attempts to tarnish, sully and belittle Azerbaijan, a country that enjoys great authority in the international arena today, are all in vain.”