A group of Azerbaijani human rights defenders has sent a letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Thorbjorn Jagland, calling for a legal assessment of the proposed amendments to the Azerbaijani Constitution. The appeal says as follows:
‘We are writing to urge your office to initiate the provision of the Venice Commission’s opinion on the proposed changes to the Constitution of Azerbaijan as well as on the compatibility of the planned referendum with Council of Europe standards.
We believe that some of the proposed amendments are contrary to the Council of Europe’s statutory principles (democracy, human rights and the rule of law). Their adoption would further aggravate the democratic deficit in a country where the balance of powers between the organs of government is distorted, and where there is a dominance of power in the hands of the President. In other words, the proposed changes would only foster current undemocratic system in which the imbalance of powers is effectively institutionalised in the person of the present incumbent.
The bigger legitimacy of a referendum lies in the fact that votes are free to form and a express their opinions. They must be informed of the effects of the referendum. The present regime’s intolerance of criticism, and the continuing restrictions on the media and on freedoms of expression, assembly and association, make it highly unlikely that a balanced assessment of the proposed amendments will be available to the electorate before the referendum.
On 18 July 2016, President Aliyev signed a decree submitting the draft Referendum Act “On Amendments to the Constitution of Azerbaijan Republic” to the Constitutional Court. The Constitutional Court approved the Referendum Act on 25 July 2016, following which President Aliyev set the referendum for 26 September 2016.
As laid out in the Venice Commission Code of Good Practice on Referendums, when a text is put to the vote at the request of the executive, Parliament must be able to give a non-binding opinion on the text put to the vote. In the case of the current referendum, Azerbaijan’s Parliament, Milli Meclis, has not been consulted.
This attempt by Azerbaijani government to hastily ram through changes without consent from Parliament, combined with complete absence of public debate on the issue, suggest that the conduct of the current referendum is contrary to Council of Europe standards.
In light of the above, we urge you to request the Venice Commission’s opinion as a matter of urgency. We believe that the opinion would be pivotal in protecting the Constitution of Azerbaijan and more broadly human rights and the rule of law in Azerbaijan.’
The appeal was signed by Intigam Aliyev, Legal Education Society, Emin Huseynov, Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, Rasul Jafarov, Human Rights Club, Anar Mammadli, Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Centre, and Dr. Leyla Yunus, Institute of Peace and Democracy.