Opinion: Human rights and all that jazz

This weekend thousands of Liberal Democrat activists will arrive in Glasgow for the Federal Conference. They’ll debate the major political issues of the day; hold the government to account for its failings and attend the odd fringe meeting. After all, free political discussion and association is a vital element of any modern democracy. But one exhibitor at conference doesn’t agree. The European Azerbaijan Society will be holding  their traditional jazz evening on Sunday, yet this organisation backs the Azerbaijani government that arrests, tortures and jails political activists and human rights campaigners. In Glasgow, activists go to conference. In Azerbaijan, they go to prison.

The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) describes itself as an independent organisation dedicated to forging relationships between Azerbaijan and Europe. In fact, it has has troubling links with the highest echelons of the Azerbaijani dictatorship. Its director, Tale Heydarov, is the son of one of Azerbaijan’s richest and most powerful men (Emergencies Minister Kamaladdin Heydarov). A leaked US diplomatic cable spoke acknowledges that far from being independent,  ‘[TEAS’s] talking points very much reflect the goals and objectives of the GOAJ [government of Azerbaijan].

TEAS promotes an image of Azerbaijan as a free, law-abiding nation well on its way to becoming a full-fledged Western democracy. But according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that’s far from the truth. In Azerbaijan, elections are rigged, and those who oppose the regime are locked away for years at a time. In 2013, eight youth activists, some under 18, created a Facebook event calling for a peaceful protest for democracy in the country. They were arrested, and some were tortured. They are still being held, and have now been sentenced to between six and eight years in prison. According to Human Rights Watch the government’s “poor record [has] dramatically deteriorated” with crackdowns on journalists, opposition activists and civic society.

We should always be open to discussion and debate at conference, but some organisations cross the line. Should we be accepting money from organisations linked to human rights abuses, organisations that back up dictatorships? Surely, if we believe in liberty and in human rights, conference is the exactly the place we should be standing up for them. Unless TEAS can show that it is not linked to systematic human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, it has no place at Liberal Democrat conference. If you agree that Lib Dems shouldn’t take money from organisations backing dictatorships and human rights abusing regimes, please sign our petition here.


* Sophie Bridger is a former by-election candidate and President of Liberal Youth Scotland. She was Scotland’s diversity champion and lives in Glasgow.

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  • While I agree with the gist of this article, I see the Chinese Liberal Democrats, who actively encourage trade and other ties with China, are also hosting an event at your conference, but I’m not aware of any complaints about that. I guess the bigger and richer the dictator, the more prepared people are to hold their noses and do business with them.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 1st Oct '14 - 7:47pm

    Chinese Liberal Democrats are not the Chinese Government or a front organisation for them. Your comparison doesn’t work.

  • Mark Smulian 1st Oct '14 - 7:56pm

    Sophie is quite right. I actually attended this event a few conferences back having been told by one peer that it was simply a jazz evening. Far from any hard sell, it was not immediately obvious who was sponsoring it and why until someone from TEAS made a very brief speech. Presumably the Azeris think they get something out of this curious exercise.
    However, a government like that ought not to be using a Lib Dem conference, even if indirectly, to try to burnish its image.
    This is the latest, and unflattering,statement from ALDE that I could find on Azerbaijan: http://www.aldeparty.eu/en/news/sing-democracy-wins-2nd-iflry-freedom-award
    and this denunciation of its government came last summer came from Liberal International:

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