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UK Embassy cancels queer event after moderator calls Azerbaijan a dictatorship

1 June 2021
The Rainbow Flag flying alongside the Union Jack in front of the British Embassy in Baku on 17 May 2021. Official photo.

The UK Embassy in Baku has ‘postponed’ a planned webinar on queer rights after the moderator of the event labelled Azerbaijan a dictatorship.

Journalist Maksym Eristavi was invited to moderate the online event, titled ‘Building strong, safe, and supportive societies’, which was scheduled for 26 May and was meant to mark International Day Against Homophobia a week earlier. 

Tweeting about his participation, Eristavi said he was happy to be moderating the event. ‘[The] Azerbaijani dictatorship made sure that the country is the most dangerous place to be queer in Europe. That’s why uplifting voices of LGBTIQ+ Azerbaijanis is extra important’, he wrote.

A day later, Eristavi said he had been dropped by the embassy over his comments.

Following the announcement, at least one of the four speakers at the event, Azerbaijani queer rights activist Vahid Aliyev, withdrew in protest, after which the embassy announced they had ‘posteponed’ the event. No details of a new date have been announced.

Eristavi told OC Media that the British Embassy had first emailed him and asked him to delete the tweet.

‘Of course, it is not their business, it is my opinion and is also internationally recognised that the Azerbaijan Government is a dictatorship. Of course I would not delete or edit it’, Eristavi said.

‘After that, they told me they had dropped me from the event because they thought that calling Azerbaijan a dictatorship, bringing attention to human  rights violations during this event, would be a political event, and this was not the direction they wanted to go.’

Maksym Eristavi. Image via Facebook.

‘I understand that many Western embassies in authoritarian countries sometimes need to make some compromise in terms of how they  communicate, so they can keep working in authoritarian countries. However, for me this was a very disturbing example of the same kind of compromise’, Eristavi said. ‘we are not part of the Embassy.’

‘I feel like it's extremely unprofessional, unethical’, he concluded. 

International rights groups frequently describe the Azerbaijani government as dictatorial. In their 2021 Nations in Transit report, the Washington-based Freedom House labelled Azerbaijan a ‘consolidated authoritarian regime’, scoring the country 1/100 in their democracy index.

Vahid Aliyev dropped out of the event after learning about why Eristavi had been excluded.

‘The panel itself was organised in support of LGBTIQ+ rights, but the organisers should keep in mind that LGBTIQ+ rights does not only mean marriage equality or civil partnership laws’, Aliyev told OC Media. ‘LGBTIQ+ rights do include the right to freedom of speech and thought too.’

‘I may agree or disagree with what Maksym posted on Twitter, however, dropping him just because his thoughts is unjust and wrong.’

‘The institution, in this case the [British Foreign Office], disrespectfully approached the situation and censored Maksym by simply dropping him. This was a blatant disregard of rights and freedoms. That's why I did not take part in the event, and dropped out too.

The UK Embassy did not return repeated requests for comment.

UPDATE 02/06/2021: A spokesperson for the US Embassy in Baku told OC Media that while they ‘regret’ that the event was postponed and that they were ‘looking forward to scheduling a future event to highlight LGBTI issues in Azerbaijan in partnership with our friends at the British Embassy.’

‘LGBTI human rights are important to the US government, as evidenced by the recent statements by President Biden and Secretary Blinken commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia. Here at the US Embassy in Baku, we flew the Pride flag on IDAHOT day to show support for Azerbaijan’s LGBTI community.’

UPDATE 2 02/06/21: The British Embassy in Baku has responded to our request for comment:

‘The British Embassy in Azerbaijan is a steadfast supporter of LGBT+ rights in Azerbaijan and has delivered a series of activities to support the LGBT+ community. The Embassy has proudly flown the Rainbow flag since 2017 and until 2021 was the only Embassy in Baku to do so. The UK Government will continue to support the LGBT+ community in Azerbaijan, and across Eastern Europe.’

‘The UK Government is conscious of the outstanding contribution by Maksym Eristavi to the LGBT+ community and are deeply proud that he is a Foreign Office International Leaders Programme Alumni. We respect and appreciate all the work Maksym has done to fight for equality and LGBT+ rights, particularly in Eastern Europe.’

‘The British Embassy in Baku hoped to hold an online discussion of LGBT+ rights on 26 May, which would have been more ambitious than previous events marking IDAHOBIT. Ultimately the Embassy, with the agreement of the event’s co-organisers, had to postpone the event. Despite this disappointment, the British Embassy will maintain its interest in LGBT+ rights in Azerbaijan and will continue to mark IDAHOBIT publically.’

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