To boycott or not: Rebecca Vincent devotes a post to this issue after seeing the Malmo Eurovision song festival

May 20, 2013

A long and very interesting blog post on Al-Jazeera ( by Rebecca Vincent goes back to Azerbaijan 2012 and reflects on the pros and cons of boycotts as an action to tool for human rights defenders:
“As an estimated 125 million viewers tuned in to watch the grand final of the 2013 Eurovision Song Contest in Malmö, Sweden, on May 18, I could not help but think how different this year’s Eurovision experience was from last year’s, when the contest was held in Baku, Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan became the host of the contest through Eurovision’s normal process: the country whose entry wins the contest one year becomes host the next. Azerbaijan’s competitors, Ell and Nikki, won Eurovision 2011, and so Baku was set as the location for Eurovision 2012. However, Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record made the country a controversial choice. Over the past several years, Azerbaijan has become increasingly authoritarian, as the authorities have used tactics such as harassment, intimidation, blackmail, attack and imprisonment to silence the regime’s critics, whether journalists, bloggers, human rights defenders, political activists, or ordinary people taking to the streets in protest. When pressed, even the generally spineless European Broadcasting Union, which organises Eurovision, had to admit that Azerbaijan did not respect the right to freedom of expression. 

But Eurovision 2012 was by no means the only time the question had arisen: should international sporting and entertainment events be held in non-democratic countries? Other notable examples of controversial events include last month’s Formula One Grand Prix race in Bahrain, the Euro 2012 football tournament in Ukraine and various Olympic Games. 

The question of whether to boycott such events in non-democratic countries is complex, and responses are often divided, both among the international community and domestic groups, even those staging protests in connection with these events. 

For example, during the protests in the run-up to the Formula One Grand Prix race in Bahrain, protesters did call for a boycott, chanting: “Your race is a crime”. However, Sheikh Ali Salman, the head of opposition bloc Al-Wefaq, which organised some of the protests, told Al Jazeera, “We do not want to hold up the race, but we are trying to benefit from the increased media presence.” 

Indeed, the increased international media attention to non-democratic countries when they host such events can help significantly in shedding light on human rights abuses that would otherwise not be exposed to the mainstream international public. But once this international attention has faded, local activists can be left in a worse position than when they started – as currently seems to be the case in Bahrain. 

Azerbaijan’s Eurovision experience


Eurovision’s aftermath


Views of local activists


The boycott dilemma 

It can be difficult for international observers to determine their best course of action when it comes to these events being held in non-democratic countries. As a general guideline, I believe that we should take our cue from the local activists, assessing how to approach each event on a case-by-case basis. We should strive to abide by a “do no harm” principle, seeking not to make the situation unnecessarily worse for individuals already at risk. Activists in repressive countries are used to taking on a certain degree of risk, and are best placed to assess what tactic is more likely to be effective, and whether the potential gains are worth the potential costs. And most importantly, we should ensure that we remain attentive and supportive in the aftermath of these events, as local activists become more vulnerable to acts of retaliation once international attention has shifted from their country. 

Although there certainly were repercussions against activists who were critical in the run-up to Eurovision and other international events in Azerbaijan in 2012 (and in fact, I was kicked out of Azerbaijan in connection with my human rights work shortly after the country hosted the Internet Governance Forum in November 2012), I stand by the decision we took not to call for a boycott of the event. Because of the courageous efforts of local activists in the run-up to Eurovision 2012, the world now knows more than it used to about human rights violations in Azerbaijan. These brave individuals deserve international support and protection as they face retaliation for exposing unsavoury truths. 

And as international attention shifts from Eurovision until next year’s contest in Denmark, I hope some will at least remember the words of Eurovision 2012’s winner, Swedish pop star Loreen, who was the only competitor to take the time whilst she was in Baku to visit local rights groups and ask questions about the human rights situation in the country. When asked about the experience by a local newspaper, she said “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things.  Indeed, one should not.”

Rebecca Vincent is an American-British human rights activist currently based in London. She is a former US diplomat and has worked with a wide range of international and Azerbaijani human rights and freedom of expression organisations.

Follow her on Twitter: @rebecca_vincent – You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets

One Response to “To boycott or not: Rebecca Vincent devotes a post to this issue after seeing the Malmo Eurovision song festival”

  1. Rene Wadlow Says:

    A well-balanced approach setting out good guidelines
    Thanks, Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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