Humanists raise concerns over Azerbaijan’s human rights record at Council of Europe 2014 ‘Intercultural Dialogue’ in Baku

9 September 2014

[British Humanist Association 06.09.2014]

Azerbaijan currently holds the six-month rotating chairmanship of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe and hosted a two-day conference earlier this week in the capital Baku entitled Intercultural dialogue: interaction between culture and religion. This annual ‘intercultural dialogue’ involves experts representing religious communities and representatives of ‘non-religious convictions’ as well as Council of Europe officials, diplomats accredited by member states and numbers of Azerbaijani officials. Religious representatives came from the Holy See, the Conference of European Churches, Assembly of Orthodox Bishops of France, Conference of European Rabbis and European Council of Religious Leaders . ‘Non-religious convictions’ were represented by David Pollock of the International Humanist Ethical Union (IHEU), Pavan Dhaliwal from the European Humanist Federation (EHF) and British Humanist Association (BHA), Jean De Brueker from the EHF and Centre d’Action Laïque (CAL) and Panayote Dimitras of the EHF and the Humanist Union of Greece (HUG). Only the Humanist delegation voiced their concerns on the human rights record of the host country.

According to Human Rights Watch in the past two years, Azerbaijani authorities have brought or threatened unfounded criminal charges against at least 40 political activists, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders, most of whom are behind bars. In its September 2013 report ‘Tightening the Screws: Azerbaijan’s Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent,’ and in dozens of follow-up interviews, Human Rights Watch documented the authorities’ use of a range of criminal charges, including drug and weapons possession, incitement to violence, hooliganism, tax evasion, and even treason to silence its critics.

The discussions at the meeting in Baku were centred on three panels: ‘Tolerance of religion and non-religious convictions in culturally diverse societies: a social capital’, ‘Contribution of religions and non-religious convictions to combating all forms of discrimination, intolerance and violence’ and ‘The contribution of cultural heritage of a religious nature to intercultural dialogue and to the respect of the universal values defended by the Council of Europe’. Speaking on the first panel Jean De Brueker drew attention to the rapid growth of non-religious convictions in Europe with religious extremism at the margins. Jean stated that the economic crisis had led to the rise of populism allowing groups to exploit divisions in society. He emphasised the value of human rights in transcending racial and religious divisions and the important of living together with shared common values.

David Pollock, one of the keynote speakers in the next session, made a statement on the rights guaranteed by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (likewise by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and of course to non-religious beliefs applied not only to the religious but to the non-religious too. He cited the Freedom of Thought Reports published in the last two years by IHEU to point to the fact that persecution and discrimination are not suffered only by the religious. In pointing out the various ways of working on human rights issues David commented ‘We take up as individuals cases of persecution regardless of the religion or belief of the victims: we write letters in support of Pastor Nadarkhani in Iran or Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan, for example, or we protest (as I and many others have) at the arrests of Leyla Yunus, the director of the Institute for Peace and Democracy and her husband Arif Yunusov, a head of department in the same Institute here in Azerbaijan – a country with one of the worst human rights records in Europe but ironically currently hosting us here as chair of the pre-eminent European human rights organisation.’

Pavan Dhaliwal, making an intervention at the third panel, outlined the danger of making a fetish of faith when educating young people, particularly at a time when some young people were turning to extremism through the teaching of a one-sided biased view of religion. It simply was not enough to say that conflicts across the globe justified in explicit religious terms were a misconstruing of the ‘real’ religion. She paraphrased  Wole Soyinka: ‘In many parts of the world the scriptures of faith have become indistinguishable from the roll call of death’ and said that the emphasis should be on shared universal values as religions did not have a monopoly on morality. She went on to say: ‘As human rights defenders, we should not be afraid of asking difficult questions, even of our hosts here in Azerbaijan about their human rights record.’

At the end of the meeting a draft statement was put to the meeting deploring the persecution and killing of people in Iraq and Syria simply on the basis of their religion. The majority view was that there should not be an explicit reference to Christians in the statement since, although the major sufferers, they were far from alone. Unfortunately a small number of participants – principally or solely, it seemed, those from the Roman Catholic Church – insisted on the Christian reference and, despite an adjournment for informal negotiations, they would not give way. David Pollock commented to the meeting as it came to an end that this was a highly regrettable example of a small group allowing the best to be the enemy of the good, but to no avail: the statement was not adopted.


For further comment or information contact Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at or on 0773 843 5059.

The British Humanist Association is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people who seek to live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. It promotes a secular state and equal treatment in law and policy of everyone, regardless of religion or belief.