On Saturday night, we have that annual marvellous celebration of kitsch, the Eurovision Song Contest. Jedward, the Irish twins seemingly devoid of the embarrassment gene, are back, Russia promises to entertain with its troop of provincial grannies, while the UK has resurrected a 76 year old Engelbert Humperdinck for the occasion.
Yet these delightful absurdities are overshadowed by controversy over the site of the event, Baku in Azerbaijan. Baku got the gig because Azerbaijan won last year. But the Azerbaijani government is not one of the world’s good guys, with a shocking human rights record including gross suppression of civil and political rights, torture and corrupt government.
Should Azerbaijan have been disqualified as a host on human rights grounds? One response is to argue that Eurovision is inherently apolitical. After all, its signature charm is that most of the songs are only good because they are so bad. But Eurovision isn’t free of politics. Eurovision voting, which is frankly half the fun of the broadcast, is clearly political (with, eg, Greece and Cyprus commonly swapping maximum points). Azerbaijan’s longtime enemy Armenia has boycotted. Its entries in Eurovision are reportedly censored on Azerbaijani TV.
But if we start imposing human rights criteria for Eurovision hosting, several States could be in serious doubt as viable hosts. After all, Russia with its Putocracy (and fresh from its war with Georgia), and Turkey with its oppression of Kurds, have hosted in the last decade. And what if the UK had hosted the year it played a key role in launching an illegal war on Iraq?
It’s a difficult equation. Certainly, Eurovision will showcase Azerbaijan to the world and in that sense be a bonus to its government. But Eurovision has also attracted much attention to the neglected subject of Azerbaijani human rights, just as the Bahrain Grand Prix focused the spotlight on that country’s brutality. A key challenge for the human rights community is to maintain that scrutiny to generate real pressure for change.
At the least, heightened human rights awareness of the hosts of such events must be expected. Organizers should be prepared to address human rights issues with honesty and responsibility, rather than hide behind appeals to non existent apoliticism. And contestants are fair game to receive human rights related questions, though we can’t expect them to be human rights experts.
Furthermore, a line must be drawn when human rights abuses are credibly linked directly to the event in question. Worryingly, Panorama recently aired a documentary in which it alleged that homes were arbitrarily bulldozed (including with people inside) to make way for the Eurovision venue, the Baku Crystal Hall, and that Azerbaijanis had been persecuted for voting for Armenia in previous Eurovision competitions. Eurovision’s organisers, the European Broadcasting Union, cannot wash its hands of such allegations of abuse of the purposes of its competition. If proven, Azerbaijan should be banned from future song competitions until compensation is paid for Eurovision-related violations.