Azerbaijan, COP29 host, shows disregard for climate action and human rights

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

This year's Petersberg Climate Dialogue, an annual international climate negotiation hosted by the German Federal Foreign Office, was more than just a discussion about the key challenges of international climate policy. The event took place from April 25–26 and was attended by Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, the country that is hosting the 2024 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP29), the world's largest international climate summit. The meeting was also a chance to ask some uncomfortable questions and hear some unsettling truths about Azerbaijan's plans for climate action.

In her opening speech, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock posed a series of questions focused on the future of the green economy and concrete steps governments are taking to meet the commitments they made during previous COP conferences.

According to remarks delivered by President Aliyev, the answers to all these questions were already defined by God, for God has gifted his country with oil and gas reserves and, as such, Azerbaijan should continue investing and producing fossil fuels. The country's leader also vowed to boost its natural gas exports to Europe.

At the same conference, COP29 president Mukhtar Babayev's contradictory remarks raised further confusion over Azerbaijan's climate policy. Babayev said:

Failure to meet the goal [of limiting global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, based on the Paris Agreement] will lead to loss of homes and inhabitants. It would be a devastating and existential threat — especially to less developed countries and small island states. … Everyone has a duty to make sure their actions match their words.

Rights and freedoms in the shadow of energy plans

When the decision to grant Azerbaijan the host country status was announced back in December 2023, questions loomed over the host's track record on human rights and freedoms, as well as its steadfast commitment to fossil fuels and its limited plans to curtail emissions. The country's economy heavily depends on oil and gas outputaccounting for roughly 90 percent of Azerbaijan's export revenue. While Azerbaijan has two documents acknowledging the limits of the hydro-carbon fueled growth model, it isn’t currently on track to change these models and likely won’t meet its goals of net zero emissions or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In an interview with Politico, Patrick Galey, a fossil fuel investigator with Global Witness, said Azerbaijan was following the UAE's lead in its fossil fuel policies. The latter was the host of last year's summit. “Just like the UAE, Azerbaijan is planning a massive increase in gas production. Just like the UAE, Azerbaijan plans to legitimize its authoritarian regime by hosting these global talks. And just like the UAE, Azerbaijan appears set to use COP to develop its international business ties,” noted Galey.

Meanwhile, the recent crackdown on journalists and activists in the country signals that the summit will take place in a country where human rights and freedoms remain a major concern.

The government's crackdown on civil society

For years, Azerbaijan has had one of the lowest international track records on citizens’ rights and freedoms. However, President Aliyev, has insisted persecutions against civil society are justified. When answering questions following a press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Aliyev said there were no human rights violations in Azerbaijan, no censorship, no restrictions on media freedom, and that the country ensured access to open internet. 

Rights watchdogs see it otherwise. According to the annual Freedom on the Net report by Freedom House, the internet in Azerbaijan is not free. The targeting of several online media platforms since November 2023, arrests of independent and opposition reporters, hacking of their social media accounts, removal of their online content, and denial of rights violations paint a different picture. The country currently ranks 151st out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index.

In Berlin, President Aliyev touched on recent investigations and arrests targeting a series of independent and opposition media adding, “These investigations were lawful. Any given country must defend its laws. And if there is a media platform which unlawfully receives funds from abroad being investigated it does not mean that media in Azerbaijan is not free.”  

Days following his return, the “justified” crackdown continued as police arrested Anar Mammadli, a political activist, former political prisoner, and the head of a local pro-democracy NGO, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre (EMDC), on April 29.

Prior to Aliyev's trip to Berlin, another pro-democracy activist and founder of, a website that documents statements by Azerbaijani lawmakers, Imran Aliyev, was detained at the Baku airport on April 18 on bogus smuggling charges. During his hearing, signs of torture were visible on his body. According to local journalists, after stating that he was tortured in detention, Aliyev was then subject to repeated physical intimidation at the detention center. If convicted, Aliyev could face five to eight years imprisonment.

Meanwhile, police continued questioning journalists in an ongoing investigation against Toplum TV. At least two journalists — Cavid Ramazanov and Gulyeter Mahmudova were questioned between April 25 and 27. On March 6, Toplum TV, an online news channel, had its office stormed by the police, staff detained, equipment confiscated, and the building sealed shut. The same day, Toplum TV's YouTube and Instagram accounts were hacked. The perpetrators removed years’ worth of content from their YouTube channel and renamed it, leaving the channel inaccessible. Toplum TV's Instagram account was deleted.

Since the raid, one Tolplum TV journalist, Mushvig Jabbarov, has been sentenced to four months in pretrial custody on bogus smuggling charges. The platform's co-founder, media law expert Alasgar Mammadli, has also been sentenced to four months facing the same charges. Two other Toplum TV journalists — Farid Ismayilov and Elmir Abbasov — were arrested and then released under house arrest, facing similar smuggling charges.

The charges leveled against Toplum TV and at least five other political activists arrested since March 6 follow a pattern of crackdown and media censorship that has picked up in speed since November 2023.

Since the beginning of April, at least seven individuals were questioned as part of an ongoing investigation against another independent media platform Abzas Media. Abzas Media, an independent online news platform, had its office searched, and much of the team arrested on the same smuggling charges since November 2023.

Needless to say, within Azerbaijan, there is no independent reporting on the environmental impact of the country's fossil fuel production. When regional environmental protests shook the country in the summer of 2023, journalists were barred from covering the protests. Similarly, Anar Mammadli, a political activist arrested on April 29, was one of the founders of a new initiative COP29 – Climate of Justice Initiative, which, among many areas of focus, also investigated pollution around the Absheron peninsula as a result of oil extraction and water pollution in the area.

In response to the ongoing crackdown in Azerbaijan, the European Parliament adopted an urgent resolution on April 25, 2024, calling for an “immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners” and for “EU sanctions under its global human rights sanctions regime to be imposed on Azerbaijani officials who have committed serious human rights violations.”

The resolution was adopted by 474 votes in favor, 4 against, and 51 abstentions.

The resolution also called on the European Commission to suspend the strategic partnership with Azerbaijan in the field of energy. The bloc signed an agreement with Azerbaijan to double gas imports by 2027. During his visit to Berlin, President Aliyev used these agreements to justify the continued production of oil and gas.

Azerbaijan authorities were quick to respond to the resolution, dismissing the document as groundless and politically motivated.

Separately, on April 27, US Congress saw the introduction of the “Azerbaijan Sanctions Review Act.” The act, the first of its kind, “would enable sanctions against senior Azerbaijani officials for their role in the Karabakh war, and human rights violations, including violent repression of political opposition,” as per reporting by Turan News Agency.

While the annual COP conferences are intended as a space for serious environmental discussion and policy making, the previous two hosts, Egypt and the UAE, used the events to greenwash their images and crack down on civil society.  With Azerbaijan's contradictory statements, shoddy human rights track record, and passive climate policies, some activists are bracing for much of the same.

Thus, many environmental activists are losing faith that the COP conferences can be a meaningful source of climate action, with some even choosing to boycott the event.

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