Freedom of association A series of amendments to national legislation adopted since 2009 have seriously restricted the right to freedom of association in Azerbaijan and made it extremely difficult for independent NGOs to operate in the country. Independent NGOs have also been targeted by criminal investigations, raids of their offices, freezing
of their accounts and persecution of their leaders. As a result, the country’s once vibrant civil society has significantly declined.

Following amendments adopted in recent years, national legislation now provides for a cumbersome registration procedure for NGOs that allows for wide government discretion; far-reaching restrictions on concluding grant agreements and accessing funding for NGOs, especially foreign funding; extensive state control of the activities of NGOs and excessive reporting obligations for them; harsh penalties for violations of legal requirements applicable to NGOs; and broad grounds for suspending and closing down NGOs.
In the concluding observations adopted after its November 2016 review of Azerbaijan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Human Rights Committee denounced the current crackdown on NGOs, including highly restrictive legislation and practices that prevent them from “operating freely and without fear of retribution for their legitimate activities”.

In the outcome report on his visit to Azerbaijan in September 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said that he was “struck to observe the drastic impediments to the right to freedom of association caused by the legislative amendments to laws regulating civil society operations”. He stated that the “already challenging environment for NGOs has turned into a total crisis”. In its December 2014 Opinion on recent amendments to Azerbaijan’s NGO legislation, the Venice
Commission concluded that “the cumulative effect of those stringent requirements, in addition to the wide discretion given to the executive authorities regarding the registration, operation and funding of NGOs, is likely to have a chilling effect on the civil society, especially on those associations that are devoted to key issues such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

The adoption and implementation of restrictive legislation and policies, combined with stigmatizing language used by government officials have also fuelled negative and hostile public attitudes toward NGOs, especially those working on human rights issues. In a trend similar to that seen in other countries of the region, human rights NGOs and their leaders have been accused of promoting the interests of foreign donors, advocating “non-traditional” values, threatening national security and the like.