Rebecca Vincent: “Speak out against human rights abuses”

(TURAN’s Interview with American-British human rights defender on Azerbaijan) Rebecca Vincent, a leading human rights activist,is perhaps more popular than many rights defenders in Baku.

You can read and hear her speak about the situation on human rights, and, more specifically, issues around the protection of rights in Azerbaijan, a country where most critics are silenced or forced to flee the country, according to international reports.

30-year-old former American diplomat has recently been on Azeri government’s lips, as top officials have publicly attacked her in the media, following the decision to ban her from the country. US Embassy in Baku defended its former employee; in its couple separate statements during the past few months. Based in London, Rebecca currently acts as advocacy Director of the Baku-based Human Rights Club, while also working on a freelance basis for other Azerbaijani and international human rights and freedom of expression organizations.

TURAN’s correspondent interviewed Vincent in Washington, DC where she was visiting last week to address American audience regarding rights abuses in Azerbaijan.

Q. How would you define yourself? Who is Rebecca Vincent?

A. I’m a human rights activist or a human rights defender, and I’m also writing on human rights issues in Azerbaijan, I’d say also a commentator on Azerbaijan…

Q. You are one of the very few foreign diplomats that remained devoted to Azerbaijan even after leaving the embassy post in Baku. How does it feel?

A. Well, I felt sort of an obligation… The first time, when I came to Azerbaijan, I was a diplomat; I was a human rights officer at the US embassy. And after working on these issues it’s very hard to walk away, so when I decided to leave the State Department, I kept working on human rights issues in Azerbaijan. At first for international NGOs – I have worked for Article 19 for a number of years – and last year I have moved back to Baku and started working directly with local rights groups… I didn’t see any other way, sort of once you are aware of these issues, if you can help, then I think if you are in the position to do it, then you definitely should continue to speak out.

Q. Why are you targeted?

A. I believe that I’m targeted because I expose issues that the government would prefer to keep hidden. I’m drawing light, especially, at the international level, to human rights abuses, and speaking out in a way that they would prefer to silence.

Q. How does it feel to be targeted by the Azeri government?

A. I think it is easier for me than my local colleagues. I’m not Azerbaijani, it’s not my home country, there’s only so many ways that they can pressure me. I’ve been kicked out of the country, and I’m often attacked and defamed in the local press, but again I’m a lot safer than my local colleagues, who face potential attack and imprisonment, you know, a range of pressures.

Q. Why do you care about Azerbaijan in particular?

A. Azerbaijan was my first assignment with the State Department, which is sort of how I started working on it, and I fell in love with it. Like I said, that’s a very difficult thing to walk away from when you speak the language, when you know the people, when you know the issues that are going on. I think I can’t walk away.

Q. Do you feel pressure from your friends and family about it? Do they tell you that you should maybe do something else instead?

A. No, not at all! My friends and family have been very supportive across the board and in fact they have pointed out that I have raised awareness among many people abroad who would know nothing about Azerbaijan. A lot of my friends and family do follow me on Facebook and Twitter, and have started looking at these updates from Azerbaijan. And I know of cases, where friends who work in things that might seem to be unrelated to human rights, have found a way to integrate that into their own work. I think people are just generally very encouraging.

Q. Did your activism change your life?

A. Yes, it has changed my life. I have to say, especially, the last year having thought of being kicked out of the country. I would still like to go back, and I’m pursuing a legal case, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Q. It’s rare to see a foreigner pursuing a case at an Azeri district court. Do you have any hope for justice?

A. No, I don’t… They might surprise me, but I’m eventually expecting to get justice at the European Court. That’s the case for many Azerbaijanis as well. With cases related to democracy and human rights, really it’s the European Court where people can expect to get some justice.

Q. Do you have any message to Azeri people or maybe to those foreigners who want to speak out, but don’t do it so far?

A. I think, definitely speak out… Specially, to those foreigners who aren’t in the country, who aren’t at risk, if they are in the position to help, then they definitely should. And to people in the country I would just say to not lose hope. I know, it’s very difficult to stick with this, and there are a lot of risks, but really, the situation won’t change if people don’t demand accountability from their government, and exercise their rights…