Why is oil-rich Azerbaijan hosting the UN’s largest climate conference?

By Mane Berikyan

With the 2024 United Nations Climate Change Conference slated for November, criticism around the host country, Azerbaijan, is mounting.

The UN Climate Change Conference is an annual session bringing together representatives — including world leaders and high-ranking officials of UN member states — and other key stakeholders for climate negotiations. It is the single largest conference in the world where countries, corporations and major actors can discuss and negotiate international climate policy.

Last year’s conference attendees included U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates and other significant figures.

So how did an oil-rich dictatorship with a notorious record for human rights abuses and violations of international law come to host the world’s leading climate conference? Here’s a breakdown.

Prisoners of War in Exchange for Global Platform

The Conference of the Parties (COP) is the supreme decision-making body of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and it is in charge of organizing the annual conference.

Usually, the country holding the COP Presidency hosts the conference. The COP Presidency rotates every year among the five recognized UN regions, and the countries in that regional group must agree on the country representative who will be nominated for the Presidency. This year, that was the Eastern European Group, which includes both Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Baku’s bid to host the conference was approved after Armenia lifted its veto in December, as part of a deal between the countries to exchange 32 Armenian prisoners of war (POWs) for 2 Azerbaijanis detained in Armenia. As a result, Azerbaijan’s COP representative Mukhtar Babayev is the President-delegate for 2024.

Come November 2024, the 2024 UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP29, will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Critics Draw Attention to Baku’s Human Rights Record

“When world leaders arrive in Mr. Aliyev’s Azerbaijan for the United Nations’ COP 29 conference, we hope they do as little as possible to glorify their host — and appreciate the irony of climate talks being held there.” This is what the Washington Post’s Editorial Board had to say on the matter earlier this year, drawing attention to the Azerbaijani government’s brutal crackdown on all dissent and free speech in the country — one of the least free in the world.

Moreover, U.S.-based nonprofit Center for Truth and Justice on Thursday released a statement urging COP leadership and climate organizations to address Azerbaijan’s ongoing human rights violations and to advocate for the release of Armenian POWs ahead of the conference.

The statement draws attention to Azerbaijan’s illegal blockade of the Lachin corridor and subsequent ethnic cleansing of the 120,000 Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh in September of last year. Moreover, it highlights documented cases of torture and abuse of Armenian POWs held in Baku, urging the UN conference’s leadership to raise the issue with the Azerbaijani government and demand their immediate release.

Read more: World leaders should steer clear of Baku climate conference unless political prisoners are released

In May, the family of billionaire and philanthropist Ruben Vardanyan penned a similar letter calling on the international community to demand his unconditional release and the release of the 22 other confirmed Armenian detainees in Azerbaijan before the climate summit in Baku, or to disallow Azerbaijan from hosting the conference.

Earlier this week, Freedom House published a landmark special report on Azerbaijan’s military offensive against Nagorno-Karabakh, deeming it an ethnic cleansing and urging the International Criminal Court to take action. Just days before that, Caucasus Heritage Watch released its findings that Azerbaijan’s destruction of Armenian cultural heritage sites in Nagorno-Karabakh had skyrocketed since last October.

Read more: Freedom House deems Baku’s actions in Karabakh ethnic cleansing, urges ICC to act

Moreover, analysts and high-ranking Armenian officials have raised concerns that Azerbaijan may be launching a new military offensive against Armenia after the climate conference. Last month, Armenian foreign minister Ararat Mirzoyan warned, “Azerbaijan will do everything to disrupt the process of concluding a peace agreement with Armenia in order to launch a new aggression against Armenia after the COP29 summit in Baku in November 2024.”

Is Azerbaijan “Greenwashing” Its Record?

Baku’s record on climate issues is well-documented, as is its rise to power on the back of its lucrative oil industry. Azerbaijan is a leading global producer and exporter of oil and natural gas, some of the most harmful manmade causes of climate change. Earlier this year, at a conference in Berlin ahead of the summit, the Azerbaijani COP29 president shocked attendees when he emphasized his country’s unrestricted right to expand its development of fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

Azerbaijan’s record on the environment has prompted criticism that Baku’s bid to host the biggest climate conference in the world is part of a campaign to “greenwash” its authoritarianism, bleak human rights record and contributions to climate change.

Even though COP29 is about solving the climate change crisis, Azerbaijan relies heavily on oil and gas production, and some say it is “weaponizing environmentalism” through propaganda. The campaign has already begun, with President Aliyev issuing a decree in December proclaiming 2024 as the “Solidarity Year for Green World.”

Will Governments Respond?

Human rights and environmental issues have seemingly never posed an obstacle to countries hosting large UN events, with COP28 and COP27 being held in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, respectively — both countries known for authoritarianism and poor environmental records.

However, Azerbaijan’s gross violations of human rights and international law, as well as Baku’s brazen disregard for past UN court rulings, make its highly-contentious role as host country all the more surprising. Critics and advocates have urged climate organizations and UN leadership to engage with Azerbaijan’s government and impose human rights preconditions to its hosting of the summit, including the immediate release of illegally held Armenian POWs. For its part, Armenia has indicated its prime minister will not be in attendance at this year’s climate conference.

Although Azerbaijan’s bid to host COP29 may be a transparent attempt at greenwashing an otherwise stained reputation, it also presents an opportunity for advocates to bring attention to human rights issues in this oil-rich dictatorship that will soon find itself under a global limelight.

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