by Rhodri C. Williams
Last week, TN reported on a wave of forced evictions of Baku residents unfortunate enough to live in the path of a grandiose development scheme meant to beautify the Azerbaijani capital for its hosting of the Eurovision song contest next May. Quite coincidentally, TN also carried an update on the progress of voluntary guidelines meant to ensure that respect for human rights standards was ingrained into the practices of even private, non-political actors. A closer look at the situation in Baku indicates that the latter story might perhaps make salutary reading for the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which organizes the ‘non-political’ Eurovision contest.
The latest twist in the EBU’s clammy relationship with its current interlocutors in Baku comes from a recent Guardian article that begins with an airing of the debate on the merits of a boycott of this year’s Eurovision contest. The piece quotes Emin Milli, a blogger beaten and jailed in 2009 over critical YouTube videos, on the importance of the event as a chance to focus the international spotlight on Azerbaijan and its poor record in human rights and democracy. However, this courageous assertion is followed by the EBU’s rather less obviously noble views on the issue of boycott:
Azerbaijan, which won the right to host Eurovision after winning the contest in 2011, has given the organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, a guarantee that foreign delegates will be secure and free from any censorship during their stay.
“We would be very disappointed to have any boycotting,” said an EBU spokesman on Saturday. “We believe strongly that Eurovision is not political. In real life, politics do come up at Eurovision. There was some talk of boycotting England in the 1970s over what was happening in Northern Ireland. But Eurovision can act as an agent of change. It is an event to unite countries and communities and bring understanding. It’s important to know that Azerbaijan’s prime minister has given a guarantee of press freedom during the contest, although we cannot ask for a guarantee for the next 10 years also.”
“It is an astonishing guarantee to have to give,” said Milli. “What does it say about Azerbaijan for the rest of the time?”
This is indeed a fascinating wrinkle. First and most obviously, of course, with regard to the Azerbaijani government, which, as Milli notes, has just conceded that it is not prepared to guarantee media freedom or refrain from censorship at any time other than during the scattering of days when the Eurovision contest is in full swing. How, one wonders, does this apparent policy of default media un-freedom comport with Azerbaijan’s longstanding human rights commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and a signatory to numerous UN rights treaties?
However, even more interesting is what this quote implies about the EBU’s role in affirming (or ignoring) respect for human rights. In the long quote above, the EBU spokesperson begins by denying that the song contest is political, then goes on to defend it as a means of bringing about positive political change, and then brandishes a one-week suspension of Azerbaijan’s media clampdown as an example of such positive change. Should we be impressed?
First, one might take a substantive rights approach. Is a temporary suspension of human rights violations involving censorship sufficient? The US Department of State human rights report indicates a number of other systemic issues in Azerbaijan as recently as 2010. Perhaps EBU might have flexed its muscles a bit. How about extending the one week suspension to cover torture and killing in official custody, for instance? Arbitrary arrest and detention of political activists? Restrictions on political participation and religious freedom? TN readers might suggested forced evictions as well, of course … ?
The absurdity of the situation quickly becomes evident. What would a ban on police torture be worth if it ended as soon as the disco balls came down? Is a temporary ban on media repression worth more? However, at a deeper level, the absurdity of the situation reflects a lack of engagement with what human rights actually mean. Azerbaijan has already committed itself to European institutions and its fellow UN member-states to suspend all such violations for all time. It has acceded to or ratified numerous human rights conventions and is, by all accounts, manifestly failing to comply with these commitments.
In this context, the EBU misunderstands both its role and its power. Its job is not to induce promises of good behavior from Baku. That has already been done and in a legally binding manner. The EBU is no more required to act as a judge of Baku’s compliance. Human rights NGOs, UN treaty-bodies and mechanisms and the European Court of Human Rights have done all the heavy lifting there. But in the face of such overwhelming evidence of skeletons in the closet of the next Eurovision host, the EBU should have anticipated that its ostensibly non-political role would be politicized – both by a regime craving international prestige as a substitute for clear democratic legitimacy and a population craving political rights.
As Europe expands eastward, it bears both carrots and sticks. The Eurovision contest, however silly it might appear to jaded western Europeans, is still seen as a juicy carrot in some quarters. While its administrators are not required to take over the role of wielding the stick of human rights, they should be aware that failure to ensure a minimum degree of coordination and policy coherence between these two approaches will undermine both. This is particularly evident where, as in the case of Baku’s recent evictions, violations of European human rights standards are undertaken in direct connection with hosting the Eurovision contest.
It is high time for the EBU to go beyond the mantra of being non-political and explore how it can complement, rather than contradict, the effort to build a democratic Europe founded on respect for human rights.