Sport likes to believe it floats above the venal world of politics, and so do charities. There can be no better example of this than the first ever European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Emblazoned across the official website are the logos of the companies who have lent their name to this event: the State Oil Company of Azerbaijan (Socar), BP, Azerbaijan Airlines and, the gamesâ€™ official child rights organisation, Unicef.
This lack of transparency is not confined to Socar. Azerbaijan is one of the least open places on earth, with Transparency Internationalâ€™s Corruption Perceptions Index ranking Azerbaijan 126th out of 175 for transparency, and scoring a miserable 29 on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (clean). Thereâ€™s little space to criticise the regime with press freedom tightly controlled. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 162nd out of 180 for press freedom. This verdict is backed by Freedom House, which gives the state a â€œnot freeâ€ rating.
The political environment in Azerbaijan has a big impact on civil society. While Unicef is free to operate in Azerbaijan (presumably while its logo is used for the European Games), local human rights NGOs are pressured into closure and/or prosecuted by the authorities.
The founder of Sport for Rights, Rasul Jafarov, was jailed on bogus charges in the run-up to the European Games, along with four other human rights defenders. Giorgi Gogia from Human Rights Watch and Emma Hughes from Platform have been barred entry to the country, and representatives from Amnesty International were also told they were unwelcome.
I have been barred entry to Azerbaijan since December 2012 for my work with local human rights NGOs. Azerbaijani media watchdog IFRS is facing criminal prosecution, along with a group of other independent NGOs. How can Unicef have no view on the clampdown on other civil society organisations?
Robert HÃ¥rdh, director of the human rights organisation Civil Rights Defenders, part of the Sport for Rights coalition, is appalled: â€œI donâ€™t understand how Unicef can lend its name to something that is so clearly a part of the propaganda of the dictatorial regime in Azerbaijanâ€, he said.
When asked by a news agency how the Unicef brand is being used in official government propaganda, Unicef spokesman Christophe Boulierac said: â€œThe overall scope of collaboration with the Baku European Games is to promote the right to safe and inclusive sport for boys and girls and the role of sport as a tool for the inclusion of the most excluded children and adolescents in Azerbaijanâ€.
But the organisationâ€™s focus on the inclusion of children in sport, while worthy, is rather short-term. On becoming adults, the children of Baku will be denied a voice in the political process in a corrupt society with an economy rigged in favour of a few oligarchs.
Civil society organisations make tough decisions daily, whether providing aid in a country where famine is a result of political decisions, or bringing support in an environment where corruption is rife. Itâ€™s also true that many organisations need to remain apolitical so they can provide help to the most needy.
However, there is a real difference between organisations that hold their noses in order to work in despotic regimes where their work saves lives, and activity participating in staged propaganda to burnish the credentials of an authoritarian regime.
The children of Azerbaijan have not benefitted from the European Games. An estimated $6.5 bn was spent not on educating them, but on a vanity project and stadiums for games that few will even watch. Human rights are for all â€“ for children, and for adults â€“ and they are political as well as social rights.
Unicef should continue to work to help children in Azerbaijan, but they should not be part of the European Games.
Rebecca Vincent is a human rights activist and former US diplomat. She is currently the Coordinator of the Sport for Rights campaign.
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