by Paula Schriefer
Vice President for Global Programs
It is an increasingly common occurrence for repressive countries with dismal human rights records to put themselves forward as hosts for major international forums—whether in the sphere of sports and entertainment or in politics. Think China, who hosted the last summer Olympics, or Russia, who will host the next winter games, or Kazakhstan, who hosted the last Summit of the OSCE. All are examples of countries whose treatment of both its own citizens and its neighbors belies the spirit of human achievement and international cooperation such venues are intended to foster. The latest addition to this phenomenon is Azerbaijan, an oil-rich country in the South Caucasus region with a particularly dismal record on human rights, which has won its bid to host next year’s annual Internet Governance Forum.
The authorities continue to imprison journalists and bloggers who express dissenting opinions. Violence against journalists has not abated, and the media is harassed with impunity. Libel is a criminal offense, which the government frequently uses for political gain.
The country fares somewhat better in terms of internet freedom, for which it receives a Partly Free rating in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net survey, although the report notes increasing government controls and highlights the well-publicized case of bloggers Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizade, who were convicted and jailed on dubious “hooliganism” charges after posting a video on YouTube that satirized the government. The young men were only released after extensive international pressure.
This is not a pretty picture and certainly not an environment conducive to the kind of open, multistakeholder approach that has characterized the IGF process to date. For those unfamiliar, the IGF is a highly unusual and refreshing forum in which government officials, business types, techies and civil society representatives all come together on an equal footing to discuss and debate the myriad of complex issues surrounding how internet should and should not be governed. Such a forum is nothing like the typical international forums at which government representatives read prepared statements, and civil society representatives vie for limited speaking time—typically at the end of the day or session, when many of the key government representatives have already left the room. If the internet is to remain a system that drives innovation and enhances global communications, discussions surrounding its governance must remain open to all spheres of society that use and sustain it.
Of course, the hosting of the next IGF in Azerbaijan does not spell automatic doom for an open and inclusive process. Civil society groups have already begun to lobby to ensure that Azerbaijan maintains a multistakeholder approach and does not penalize its own citizens for opinions they may express at the meeting. If Azerbaijan does not live up to these obligations, as Tunisia did not when it hosted the IGF in 2005, this will present an opportunity to shine the international spotlight on its bad behavior when it comes to human rights. Indeed, the 2005 IGF (then called the World Summit on the Information Society) led to a surge in international solidarity with Tunisian human rights defenders, though the country would remain deeply repressive until the revolution early this year.
Azerbaijan’s oil wealth has so far largely shielded the country from serious criticism by democratic governments despite the plethora of evidence of abuse documented by domestic and foreign human rights monitors. And the country’s leadership clearly sees the hosting of the IGF as a way to garner legitimacy as an accepted player in the international arena. It will surely attempt to use the forum as a screen to obscure the messages of its human rights critics at home and abroad. We now have our work cut out for us to make sure that this effort does not succeed.