Western criticism of Azerbaijan’s human rights record mostly ignores one area of real progress – juvenile justice. The country has gone further than some other former Soviet republics in diverting children in conflict with the law away from the cycle of arrest-charge-prosecution-trial-conviction-punishment. For minor offences, the police usually mediate informally, or enlist teachers or religious leaders to find an arrangement between young offenders and victims. As a result, official crime statistics now attribute only 1.5% of crimes to children under 18 years old. That’s a fraction of the child crime recorded in neighbouring Georgia.
Despite its suspicion of NGOs receiving foreign funding, the Azeri government invites some NGOs to monitor detention facilities and make public recommendations for respect of legislation and further humanisation of the penetentiary system.Other NGOs are also involved in psychosocial support to young offenders, an area where the government would like to see even more actors involved.
This and other social work niches might provide a solution for some of the NGOs who face bankruptcy under Azerbaijan’s strict NGO regulations, which require government approval of every foreign funded project. It might also be a way out for western donors. The EU has a great portfolio of NGO projects, on paper. But in reality most of them are suspended or haven’t even started because of the restrictive legislative and regulatory framework. A closer alignment to the government’s priority reforms might help rebuild confidence and credibility of all partners.
The Azeri government isn’t desperate for western approval. But it seems to welcome European benchmarking and standards in juvenile justice.
For the EU, governance reforms are a priority across its future members and the broader eastern ‘neighbourhood’. Access to justice could be a good theme for relaunching the otherwise unimpressive dialogue with Azerbaijan. When the EU enlargement and neighbourhood commissioner visited Baku a month ago, he was so absorbed in his geopolitical calculations about Ukraine and Iran and oil that he had virtually nothing to say about human rights and civil society. If he wanted to engage with the Azeri government about children’s rights, he might be less embarrassed and tongue tied. More able to engage with the Azeri society. And more able to report some advance for ‘common European values’ .
With rising inequality, exacerbated by the fall in the price of oil, which contributes almost all of the state budget, the Azeri government is worried about ‘antisocial behaviour’ by youth. But rather than the zero tolerance policies tried in Georgia and Ukraine (and thankfully abandoned when they proved to be a failure), Azerbaijan seems to be encouraging its police and prison staff to think more like social workers when dealing with children in conflict with the law.
Of course, there is no substitute for real social workers. But Azerbaijan’s juvenile justice reform looks quite good in regional comparison.
Neighbouring Georgia has a much more sophisticated juvenile justice system. But it struggles with high crime rates, mostly the consequence of its high income inequalities and large numbers of marginalised citizens and displaced persons. The government is very friendly with the NGOs. Actually both sides are equally dependent on foreign funds and equally uncritical of their donors.
Despite a large number of committed child protection professionals and civil society activists, what Georgia doesn’t have is a strong anti poverty lobby. And poverty is at the root of thatbcountry’s child rights problems.
Of course there isn’t a strong anti poverty lobby in Azerbaijan either. Even mild criticism of the ruling elite can get you in real trouble. But, like in some other oil producing countries, there are other reasons why people don’t protest. In 2014 salaries in Azerbaijan increased by 4.5%, with inflation of only 1.5%. So if you have a job, and preferably a civil servant job, you are probably doing OK.
An ideal situation? Of course not. But for children’s rights, not a bad context in which to work.