Crown Prince Haakon led a Norwegian delegation to an oil industry conference in Baku in Azerbaijan as planned on Monday, despite widespread and unusual criticism of the royal trip. Haakon hasn’t commented directly on either the trip or the criticism, thus defying human rights organizations and various commentators who wanted him to stay home.
Newspaper Aftenposten even wrote two separate editorials about the issue, first urging state officials to drop their plans to have Haakon along and “let the crown prince stay home.” When neither palace nor government officials responded, Aftenposten followed up with another appeal on Saturday, claiming that it “still wasn’t too late” for Crown Prince Haakon to change his mind and agree with the positions of human rights activists who view Azerbaijan as one of the most brutal and repressive regimes in Europe.
Norwegian state oil company Statoil, which is among the most active foreign oil companies in Azerbaijan, has “closed its eyes” and invested heavily “in a land pervaded by corruption,” wrote Aftenposten’s editorial writer. The newspaper’s leadership said it agreed with Bjørn Engesland of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, who claims along with other human rights activists that the royal visit can be used by Azerbaijan’s dictator as “undeserved recognition” of a regime Norway “has all reason to distance itself from.”
The crown prince’s royal role leaves him unable to take up political issues, critics have argued, or to criticize Azerbaijan’s “systematic violations of human rights.” Even Norway’s political leaders have been silenced by Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, according to WikiLeaks documents obtained by Aftenposten. Aliyev was, for example, furious after a former state secretary in Norway’s oil ministry dared to take up issues like human rights and freedom of expression during a meeting in June 2007. Anita Utseth of the Center Party was yelled at, wrote an American ambassador at the time, with Aliyev telling her she had no right to take up such questions. Several meetings between government authorities in Azerbaijan and the visiting Norwegians were suddenly cancelled, Utseth confirmed to Aftenposten last week.
In a later meeting with British oil firm BP, Aliyev also complained that it was “unacceptable” for Norway to try to teach him about human rights. He threatened that Statoil wouldn’t win a lucrative contract to sell gas from the second phase of the large Shah Deniz area of the Caspian Sea.
That would indicate that the Norwegian politicians traveling with Crown Prince Haakon on this week’s trip risk jeopardizing new contracts if they bring up Azerbaijan’s human rights violations, although State Secretary Espen Barth Eide has claimed that such visits offer an opportunity to do so.
Opposition politicians, including Peter Gitmark of the Conservative Party, went to the unusual step of also advising Crown Prince Haakon against making the trip, because it could lend legitimacy to Azerbaijan’s brutal regime. “It has hardly happened earlier that a leading opposition party has so clearly offered advice on how a member of the Royal Family should take care of his role as a representative of Norway abroad,” Aftenposten wrote, adding more unusual royal criticism of its own in light of Haakon’s earlier commitment to furthering human rights: “When the Crown Prince allows himself to be used by Norwegian authorities as a door-opener, to strengthen ties with this regime, it smacks unfortunately of embarrassing hypocrisy.”
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) has also aired critical reports of Haakon’s trip, but offered another view over the weekend. NRK’s veteran Russian and Soviet Union reporter Hans Wilhelm Steinfeld interviewed an editor in Azerbaijan who was recently imprisoned, Eynulla Fatullayev, and who said he was glad Norway was involved in the country. Both Statoil’s investment and visits by Norwegian authorities including Crown Prince Haakon could have positive influence on human rights issues, said Fatullayev, who was released after serving four years of a 15-year term for criticizing Aliyev’s regime following pressure from countries including Norway.
“I want to thank Norway for supporting and defending freedom of expression here in Azerbaijan, over many difficult years,” Fatullayev told NRK. He also planned to meet Crown Prince Haakon during this week’s visit.
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