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Hosting COP29 Should Not Override Human Rights Concerns
COP29 Gubad Ibadoglu

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Azerbaijan’s government is under scrutiny as accusations of a media crackdown arise ahead of the country’s hosting of the crucial UN climate talks later this year. Human Rights Watch has documented at least 25 instances of journalists and activists being arrested or sentenced in the past year, with nearly all remaining in custody. This pattern of repression raises serious concerns about the country’s commitment to fostering an open and free environment for climate advocacy during the UN Cop29 summit.

COP29 will bring nearly 200 governments, including dozens of heads of state, together in November to discuss the global approach to tackling the climate crisis. However, Azerbaijan’s reputation as an authoritarian state with curtailed media and civic freedoms casts a shadow over the event. Transparency International ranked Azerbaijan 154th out of 180 countries in terms of corruption last year, and the political landscape is dominated by President Ilham Aliyev, who secured over 92% of the vote in recent elections for a fifth consecutive term.

Adding to the controversy is Azerbaijan’s alleged detention of political prisoners. A war with neighboring Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region displaced 100,000 people last year, further highlighting the human rights issues facing the country. Despite these concerns, one of Aliyev’s top advisers recently stated that the government intends to make Cop29 a “Cop of peace” and called for a truce in hostilities worldwide during the talks.

At a pre-Cop29 meeting in Bonn, campaigners expressed their worries that climate advocacy is being stifled due to the media clampdown. The discussions centered around how to provide sufficient financing to help the developing world reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cope with the impacts of global heating. However, the protest held at the entrance to the Bonn talks highlighted another pressing issue—the release of 23 Armenian political prisoners held in Azerbaijan.

Myrto Tilianaki, senior environmental advocate at Human Rights Watch, emphasized the case of Anar Mammadli, a member of the Human Rights Houses network, who was arrested on smuggling charges in April. Mammadli, the founder of the Climate of Justice Initiative, aims to push for environmental justice in Azerbaijan through Cop29. Similarly, Ibad Bayramov is campaigning for the release of his father, Gubad Ibadoghlu, a research fellow at the London School of Economics and civil rights activist imprisoned last summer. Bayramov voiced his frustration, stating, “Cop29 lends legitimacy on the world stage to the government’s illegitimate imprisonment of my father.”

Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever and current climate and human rights advocate, expressed his desire to use Cop29 as an opportunity to shed light on Azerbaijan’s treatment of prisoners. He noted, “I hope that Cop29 can be used as an opening, but it’s appalling that human rights has not been on the agenda.”

Azerbaijan’s government, however, has rebutted these claims. A spokesperson stated, “We totally reject the claims about [a] crackdown against human rights activists and journalists in Azerbaijan. No one is persecuted in Azerbaijan because of political beliefs or activities.” The spokesperson emphasized that any detentions or imprisonments are subject to legal procedures and fair trials.

Nevertheless, as someone who has covered environmental and human rights issues, I understand the fear of reprisal that journalists and activists face. The stories of those who have been arrested and imprisoned for their work resonate deeply with me. The struggle to report on these topics freely and without fear is a constant battle, and the personal impact of these injustices on my profession and the global fight for environmental and human rights is profound.

The upcoming COP29 and Azerbaijan’s role as host underscore the importance of maintaining a free and open space for climate advocacy. The voices of those fighting for a more sustainable and just future must not be silenced, regardless of geopolitical considerations. Hosting COP29 should not override human rights concerns.

While COP29 is a significant opportunity to address the global climate crisis, we must not overlook the human rights abuses in Azerbaijan. By raising awareness, supporting affected individuals, and holding host countries accountable, we can ensure that our pursuit of climate justice does not come at the expense of fundamental human rights.

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