In the Human Rights Council – Interview with His Excellency Mr. Elchin Amirbayov, Ambassador of Azerbaijan to the United Nations

Under his ambassadorship, the image of Azerbaijan has been promoted on the international scene here in Geneva, and Mr. Ambassador Elchin Amirbayov has been one of the key players on the Human Rights Council since it’s very beginning. Not a week passes without a meeting concerning the Human Rights Council – either a sub-commission, a committee or whatever-and Mr Ambassador and his dedicated team of young diplomats are rushing from one meeting to another. We wanted to know a little more about their daily experience, so we give the floor to His Excellency…
Q: You have been involved in the Human Rights Council ever since its beginning. Could you tell us something about it?
What was the Human Rights Commission ceased to exist about three years ago. Azerbaijan was elected to sit on the last session of this Commission. In fact, we had been elected for a three-year period, but we had only been serving for about a year when we were told that « the Commission is gone; a new human rights body will be set up to replace the old one ». We were also told that new elections would have to be held for the new body. Given the importance of Azerbaijan’s membership in this major human rights body, we decided to put forward our candidature once again.
So, we had to start from scratch with a new election campaign. As you probably know, we are members of the Eastern European Geograph-ical Group. Within the United Nations you have five regional groups: African; Asian; GRULAC, which is the Latin American and Caribbean group; the Western European group which also includes the US and Canada; and then the Eastern European Group.
Within our regional Eastern European Group we faced fierce competition, with thirteen (!) candidates for six seats. Six countries who gathered the required majority of votes on the part of the members of the General Assembly elected were Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, the Russian Federation and Ukraine. It was a staggered membership, which means that, once elected, lots are drawn to determine how long you will sit on the Council: one, two or three years. We were lucky to get a three-year period, together with Russia. For us it was important to ensure that there was a certain continuity upon being re- elected to the Human Rights Council.
Q: Why?
We believe that the Council is a universal human rights body, and that it is the primary human rights body in the United Nations system. Given the fact that the Human Rights Council is a subsidiary body of the General Assembly, its status is now elevated compared with the previous Commission, which was merely a subsidiary body of ECOSOC – the Economic and Social Council.
Our participation and membership in this Council were basically dictated by our desire to follow human rights developments more closely, and through our constructive and active engagement to extend our humble contribution in setting up the Council. This new body was created by a General Assembly resolution, many aspects related to its functioning remained rather vague, quite a few elements were invented for the first time, so it took quite an effort on the part of all members and observers on the Council to « put some flesh on the bones », that is to go ahead with the institutional building of the newly created body, which was not an easy task at all.
One of the distinctive features of this Council is to ensure that it is not a closed body, that it’s transparent, inclusive and non-discriminatory with regard to members and observer states and broader international community, including in the first place the civil society.
It took quite an effort on the part of all the regional groups and the first the President of the Human Rights Council- Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico. He tried his best to ensure transparency of the process and to provide all member states of the UN with a certain sense of ownership over the crucial formation phase of the work of the Council. Still, he benefited a lot from close interaction with a selected core group of countries, who would be willing to and would actually act as « friends of the chair ». They would try to overcome differences that existed and come up with a consensus text that would lay the groundwork for the Council’s work. It was not an easy task, but nevertheless this was indeed the final outcome. The primary significance of this outcome was that the new Council has ushered in a new, fresh spirit of consensual decision-making inviting all those who are faced with this or that difficulty to walk an extra step and arrive to a mutually acceptable compromise. Lack of consensus on such an important document as the institutional building package would immediately send the wrong message to the outside world, in the first place to those who were welcoming the establishment of the new global human rights body with a hope that it would indeed make a difference for the victims of the human rights violations. First, it would mean that countries cannot even agree on the basic text and, secondly, it would create a very dangerous precedent for the future work of the Council. A lot of countries did not really believe in the longevity of this body. They thought that it was difficult to expect that it would be different, right after the demise of the previous Commission.
The fact that consensus was a major cornerstone of this new process helped a lot to put it on the right track. As I said, lots of lacunae still were there to be filled when the General Assembly adopted the resolution on the creation of this Council. Sometimes in diplomatic parlance it is called « constructive ambiguity » simply because one then may interpret things differently. This may be helpful when a decision is taken but then, when you need to put the decision in practice you face up the challenge of addressing those ambiguities.
Anyway, the reached consensus text required quite an effort by all members involved and was therefore a good achievement. During that period Azerbaijan was co-ordinator of the Eastern European Group on Human Rights. Basically, our job was to participate in restricted discussions in a bureau consisting of the President, the vice-presidents and co-ordinators of the regional groups. We represented the Eastern European Group, made up of twenty-two countries and very diverse in nature some of them having quite differing views on various issues. It was quite an experience for us. Our delegation is not big, it consists only of a few people, but we tried to be as accurate, as constructive and as transparent vis-?-vis our group as possible. We were acting as co-ordinators, taking views and messages back to our constituency and trying to reflect their views in the bureau discussions. We acted as a channel of communication between the bureau and the group. It was an interesting experience and very useful for us: to better understand firstly, the human rights machinery and secondly, the specificities of this new body. As a bureau member, we also felt a certain additional responsibility to make sure that our job was done properly.
Q: You said that your mission does not have a lot of staff, which implies that you were constantly working on this issue?
That is true, especially given the fact that I’m also entrusted with several other responsibilities, as the Azerbaijani ambassador accredited in Switzerland, the Holy See and the Principality of Liechtenstein. When it comes to Geneva as a diplomatic posting, it is a very busy place with a large number of international organizations dealing with different issues and anyone working here has to clarify for himself or herself a list of priorities because it is hardly possible to embrace everything here. As to the Human Rights Council, since this was the period when-so to speak-the child was just born, particular care had to be applied on the part of all so that it survived and grew into a healthy child. Another thing was that because the Council lived through the phase of institutional building it was almost all the time in session, like a perpetuum mobile, so for small-sized mission representing a member of the Council it was difficult to do something else than the Human Rights Council (smiles).
Another task in front of us was the chairmanship during one calendar year over the OIC Group in Geneva of which there are fifty-seven members. As a member state of the OIC, that had hosted the Meeting of Foreign Ministers of the OIC in 2006 we had taken over the chairmanship of the group. Here I should pay a special tribute to the Permanent Mission of Pakistan in Geneva led by my friend Ambassador Masood Khan, who did a marvellous job of Coordinator of the OIC Group on human rights and humanitarian issues and has been providing for an exemplary leadership all this time.
Another matter that expanded our experience in a particular field was Azerbaijan’s membership in the Working Group on Situations. This is a specific group made up of five ambassadors representing major regional groups and dealing with individual complaints filed with the Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights. The Group works within the framework of a confidential procedure that used to be called « the 1503 procedure » and now – the Complaint Procedure. Any individual may file a complaint against a State, for instance, saying that his or her rights have been infringed in this or that way. These complaints are first screened by a group of experts that used to be called the Working Group on Communications. When it is judged that the complaint meets certain criteria of eligibility Member States may in fact consider them, first within the Working Group on Situations and if the case is considered to be serious enough, within the Human Rights Council at large.
We were nominated to represent the Eastern European Group, and it was quite a delicate and sensitive experience in itself since the complaints filed have to do with the states-members of the United Nations. Here you are expected to make a pronouncement with regard to alleged violations or human rights problems or concerns in other countries. We were joined by other countries-Argentina, France, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, one from each regional group-so there were five of us and tried to do our best to arrive at consensual decisions on each and every complaint, and it is gratifying that in most cases we succeeded to achieve this goal.
Q: What are the priority areas for Azerbaijan on the Human Rights Council?
A lot of issues dealt with by the Council are of genuine interest to us, but if we have to prioritize I should mention in the first place two initiatives put forward by Azerbaijan on which resolutions were tabled and adopted by consensus. The first one dealt with the protection and promotion of cultural rights in situations of armed conflict. Our major idea behind this initiative was to draw the attention of the HRC and of a broader international community on the equal importance of all categories of human rights: political, economic, social and last but by no means least cultural rights. All human rights should be treated equally, as they are interdependent and indivisible. So, there should be no hierarchy between those rights.
We looked at issues of violations of human and cultural rights in the context of armed conflicts. Very often parties to an armed conflict while conducting their activities deliberately destroy part of the cultural artefacts, religious objects, monuments, cemeteries, other symbols considered to be part of another party’s cultural heritage so as to erase the traces of that party’s or people’s presence in the country. We have faced this problem in the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. As you know, roughly 20% of our territory or almost one-fifth of the internationally recognized territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan is currently under foreign occupation and in these areas all traces of Azerbaijani culture have been either seriously damaged or destroyed. Therefore, without naming the country concerned, we thought that it is important for us to flag this serious concern and to say that cultural rights in a more general framework shall be respected by States, especially given the fact that many States have certain clear-cut commitments under inter-national law as parties to various international conventions or other binding legal instruments. They have to live up to that commitment and this process should be closely scrutinized and assessed by the international community.
For this reason, our initiative was greeted with a great deal of interest and enthusiasm, and opposition from some States who thought that the Human Rights Council is not the place where cultural matters should be dealt with and this the territory of UNESCO. We, on our side, tried to convince our interlocutors that the emphasis of this initiative is not on culture as such, but about cultural rights being an integral part of all human rights. We succeeded in doing so, around thirty countries have joined Azerbaijan as co-sponsors of this draft. Through lengthy consultations with interested stakeholders, we managed to come up with the version of the draft that has not been challenged and was adopted by consensus during the sixth regular session of the Council last September.
The second initiative put forward by the delegation of Azerbaijan was adopted very recently, on 28 March of this year. We initiated and managed to adopt, once again without a vote, a traditional draft resolution on missing persons. Missing persons is another area which involves serious elements of human rights law and international humanitarian law. Our resolution focuses on the persons who went missing as a result of an armed conflict. In our own case, we have more than 4,400 people who still fall under this category as a result of our ongoing conflict with Armenia. We are not the only State that has this problem. This is why Azerbaijan had consistently pursued the matter both here in Geneva since the time of former Commission on Human Rights and in New York within the framework of the General Assembly. It was the first time the newly created Human Rights Council addressed this problem, so the major thrust of Azerbaijan at this particular time is that the Human Rights Council should keep this issue high in its agenda and mobilize the attention of the international community to the relevance of this problem today when we still have many armed conflicts taking place all over the world. It was not just an attempt to repeat the previous texts. We wanted to submit some fresh ideas and to strengthen the operative part of the draft and make it more result oriented: hence, our idea to use the new tool of the Council – thematic panel discussions – at one of the forthcoming sessions of the Human Rights Council -hopefully in September-with the participation of all interested stakeholders, including Member States, NGOs, national human rights institutions, the ICRC, etc. We hope to initiate and facilitate an interactive dialogue on the existing problem concerning missing persons.
We think that this panel, when conducted, can add to our efforts to raise awareness about this issue in the international community. After this interactive panel we expect the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a summary so that later the Human Rights Council can task the newly created Advisory Committee to prepare a study on best practices existing in the world on missing persons.
The Advisory Committee is a think-tank consisting of eighteen experts on human rights of high standing, which is tasked by the Council to conduct studies and engage in research on particular subjects. It will present the results of its studies to the Council, and receive an endorsement or approval by the Council.
So these two resolutions were the two major Azerbaijani initiatives. Let me tell you that the second one-the one concerning missing persons-was co-sponsored by thirty-eight countries, all Member States and observers on the Council. This was quite a success. We engaged all interested parties in very intense bilateral and multilateral consultations and ended with the text that enjoyed the support of all stakeholders.
The last thing I would like to mention here in terms of our activities concerning the Human Rights Council is our recent election campaign for the Advisory Committee. Again, it was a very long and rewarding campaign. The Eastern Europe Group, to which we belong, was given two vacancies, but there were four candidates, because Russia, Poland and Croatia also put forward candidates. We presented our candidate, a renowned lawyer and professor of international humanitarian law at Baku State University, Mr Latif Husseinov. We introduced him to all regional groups where he presented himself, described his CV, his intentions and what he would do if he were elected. The result of the elections, which took place on the 26 March, was that he was elected, together with the candidate of the Russian Federation. We are confident, that given his vast expertise and rich experience in the field of protection and promotion of human rights Professor Husseinov’s work as a member of the Advisory Committee will contribute to the efficiency and performance of this new advisory body of the Human Rights Council.
We also would like to believe that his election is a recognition of the constructive role that Azerbaijan plays in the Council and is testimony to our strong commitment to high cause of protection and promotion of human rights. We look forward to continuing further our active participation in the Human Rights Council in the months to come. Q: You are really investing a lot of time and efforts into this.
We are doing this with dedication and with pleasure, and we also gain valuable experience. As a country with a relatively young diplomatic corps, we need experts in this field as well. Geneva provides an excellent training ground for diplomats, not only for junior staff but also senior diplomats because it exposes them to very different fields of activity and organizations.
Q: What would you say to people who believe that the Human Rights Council has not really been a success?
I belong to the group of people who, while assessing the performance of the Council, would rather talk about the glass being half full, rather than half empty. It is easy to criticize and to say that it is not very different from the previous Commission – but the facts prove that it is! Concrete examples that I have cited above, as well as the general attitude of the Member States, clearly demonstrate that we all are on the right track. It is through constructive engagement and mutual respect of all concerned will we be able to achieve feasible results on the ground. Without the engagement and commitment of the government concerned, it’s na?ve to believe that anything will change. A government should not feel that the Council is a tribunal, but rather an opportunity for constructive dialog that would lead to practical betterment of the situation on the ground. That is why I do hope that given the first promising results the criticism of the Council in the mass media will be ebb. In the meantime, it’s also hard to expect that a body that has only served one year can remedy all the difficulties that exist. However, the path that is being taken is the right one. The important thing is that on the difficult and controversial issues, you always see willingness and readiness by the parties to engage in collective work and come up with solutions. If you look at the ratio of decisions taken by the Council by consensus and those by the former Commission you will see a stark difference. And I believe it is only good that consensus building starts to become the name of the game. This adds to the ability of the Council to ensure effective follow-up of the taken decisions, which is directly linked to the issue of credibility of the Human Rights Council. It is not a secret that one of the major setbacks that may have triggered the demise of the Commission was the fact that the implementation of adopted resolutions was at a very low level. Why? Simply because many of the decisions were adopted at the cost of the split membership and the adoption of decisions had become the end in itself and lead to unnecessary politicization of the whole body.
Finally, we felt this new positive spirit of constructive engagement and genuine cooperation in the course of the first two weeks of the Universal Periodic Review – a major new tool of the Council to scrutinize the human rights records of all states of the United Nations. I hope the spirit will prevail in the future thus filling the new Council with more motivation and strength.