Human rights groups criticise EU’s Azerbaijan gas deal

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The Guardian

Human rights groups have criticised an EU deal to ramp up gas supplies from Azerbaijan, as Europe scrambles to secure non-Russian sources of energy.

The European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Monday hailed Azerbaijan as a “crucial” and “reliable” energy supplier, as she announced an agreement with Baku to expand the southern gas corridor, the 3,500km pipeline bringing Caspian Sea gas to Europe.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, EU officials have been touring the world’s fossil fuel producers in search of alternative suppliers, amid growing fears the Kremlin will completely shut down gas flows to Europe.

Standing alongside Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, Von der Leyen said the EU was diversifying away from Russia and turning “towards more reliable, trustworthy partners”, adding she was glad to count Azerbaijan among them. “You are indeed a crucial energy partner for us and you have always been reliable.”

Aliyev, who has presided over rampant corruption and the repression of activists and independent media during his 19 years in power, described the memorandum of understanding on energy signed with the EU as “a roadmap for the future”.

Under the agreement, gas supplies to the EU from Azerbaijan are forecast to reach 20bn cubic metres a year in 2027, up from 8bn currently. Supplies are set to increase to 12bn by 2023.

The plan to more than double existing capacity in five years will “require significant investments to the expansion of the southern gas corridor pipeline network” the memorandum states. It adds that both sides will try to develop infrastructure, “to the extent possible”, ready to be converted for renewable gases.

Von der Leyen said she had discussed with Aliyev his country’s “tremendous potential” for renewable energy, such as offshore wind and so-called green hydrogen. She also urged Azerbaijan to join 119 countries in signing the global methane pledge, a pact to cut the potent greenhouse gas by almost a third in the next decade.

The energy agreement is expected to pave the way for deeper cooperation between the EU and Azerbaijan, on trade, aviation and the development of Baku port.

Human Rights Watch said the EU should not have signed the memorandum, nor enter a mooted new bilateral agreement, without insisting on political reforms: the release of scores of political prisoners and changes to laws that heavily restrict non-governmental organisations and the media.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues”, said Philippe Dam, acting EU director at Human Rights Watch. “The reality is that Azerbaijan authorities have been famous for cracking down on civil society activists investigating corruption, especially when it comes to oil and gas.”

According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 40 opposition leaders, journalists and civil society leaders were released from jail in March, but dozens of others remain wrongfully imprisoned. The NGO has also reported multiple cases of torture and abuse in custody. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” Dam said.

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Other campaigners accused the EU of undermining its climate goals, while enriching autocrats. “It is extraordinary that the EU seems intent on not learning from its current predicament, and is pushing to build more pipelines which would lock us into gas in the long term,” said Barnaby Pace, a senior gas campaigner at Global Witness. “A rapid boost for renewable energy and home insulation should be the obvious answer to the crises Europe is staring at – and certainly not repeating the mistakes that have taken us to this point.”

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, said: “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

July 19, 2022 at 07:56PM Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

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