By Katherine Dunn
Debate dominated the first day of the No Hate Speech Forum in Gabala, as participants questioned the conference’s Azerbaijani organizer on how the country’s national participants were selected.
Responding this afternoon, NAYORA chairman Shahin Seyidzade said the country’s six participants had been selected after an “open call for participation” created by the Council of Europe, the forum’s sponsor.
NAYORA is the acronym of the National Assembly of Youth Organizations of the Republic of Azerbaijan, which is an umbrella organization for youth groups in the country.
Questions began on Wednesday evening as participants were arriving in Gabala, a resort-town tucked high in the Caucasus mountains. In an email to NAYORA, Eirik Rise, a participant, questioned how participants had been selected, saying he could not see what selection of local civil society was present.
“In which way are civil society organisations and minorities / target groups of hate speech represented at the Forum, and how have the representation of their and other civil society organizations’ representation been ensured?” he asked.
During the course of the forum’s first day, several other participants also requested an answer from NAYORA, including teams from Poland and Albania.
Seyidzade, who chairs the umbrella organization of youth organizations, responded in an interview Thursday afternoon that Azerbaijan had accepted six participants after distributing an online call for participants, which he says was created by the Council of Europe.
However Participants were only accepted from NAYORA members, which are nationally-registered youth organizations.
Participants were then selected by a committee, which included NAYORA, the Council of Europe as well as representatives from several government ministries.
The six selected form part of the 40+ cadre of Azerbaijanis at the conference. The other attendees include volunteer organizers, a media team, IT support and five government employees. In an email to participants Thursday evening, Seymur Huseynov of NAYORA named the participants and their organizations, which include coordinators of the local No Hate Speech Movement, members from the Scouts organization and a member of the Debate in Civil Society Public Union. In the email, he said it was a technical mistake that in a draft version of the participants list, all Azerbaijanis had been listed as representing NAYORA .
The Council of Europe says they expected that NAYORA would select 50 participants, and was surprised to discover that those 40 attending were largely logistical support, not activists.
NAYORA is independent from the government, Seyidzade said, and by law is explicitly non-political, which excludes groups he says are linked to political parties. He said human rights groups are permitted under the organization’s umbrella, but the organization exists only to “create opportunities” for young people separate from their member organizations, and therefore its role in the forum has been largely logistical.
“NAYORA is not responsible for human rights defending,” he said. “NAYORA is a youth platform, but not more. It’s a bridge between different stockholders.”
Debate continued through the afternoon, as participants responded to a tweet from a young Azherbaijani named Gulara Azimzadeh.
“I haven’t been selected to #nohateforum Gabala. NAYORA blocks LGBTQ orgs to speak out. So curious who represents Azerbaijan. #whatashame.”
Seyidzade said Azimzadeh was denied because she is not part of a nationally-registered youth organization.
Azimzadeh refuted this, saying the requirement was never mentioned in the call, and that it is not possible to receive registration for LGBT organizations through the Azerbaijani justice ministry.
During the plenary session Thursday afternoon, Rui Gomes, head of education and training division in the youth department at the Council of Europe said that the Council had faced no restrictions from Azerbaijan in organizing the conference and that they wished to establish that everyone was welcome. He noted they had asked Azerbaijani activists to let them know if they had any difficulties but had not heard from anyone.
The No Hate Speech Forum is funded almost entirely by the government of Azerbaijan. The country currently holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe, and the council says this is why the forum has been hosted in Gabala.
The Council is an organization of 47 states, including the EU member states, which aims to promote human rights and the rule of law.
Photo credit: Samra Sadraddinli