By Sara Hickman, Official State Musician of Texas
I have declined an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit a beautiful country and witness the world’s most-watched cultural event. That’s because my trip to Azerbaijan for Eurovision this week would be sponsored by a government responsible for grave human rights violations.
Amnesty International has been diligently shining a light on human rights abuses in ex-Soviet Azerbaijan, which gets to host this year’s popular European concert competition – Eurovision. Azerbaijan has over a dozen recently-arrested prisoners of conscience, oppressed press, and almost no permitted political rallies. I would love to visit Azerbaijan, but not at the expense of indirect association with human rights violations.
Before I explain further, I must give my most sincere gratitude to the generous, kind people at the Texas-based Institute of Interfaith Dialog for their sincere wish for me to accompany them on this journey to witness the beauty of Azerbaijan, its ancient history, and, most certainly, its culture and people. I hope you will forgive me, that I have not embarrassed you, nor discredited you in any way. It is, truly, not my intention. Your work is crucial, and your group brings diverse religions together for peaceful opportunities to exchange ideas and philosophies.
However, I have faith you must understand. The oil company that was paying for my travel, Socar, is owned by the government of Azerbaijan. In particular, this is the same oil company that has displaced people by tearing down their homes (without compassion, proper compensation, or even advance notice) and assaulted (just last month) journalists documenting the illegal demolition.
The government of Azerbaijan has also tortured, detained, and imprisoned people speaking out about continued human rights abuses. These people include protesters, songwriters, journalists, and the everyday people: all crying out to have freedom of expression, and the release of those in jail.
I was asked to be a representative of Texas, but in all good conscience, how could I represent any state, country or, most importantly, friends, family, and myself by traveling on the very dime of the company who are abusing fellow human beings while the Azerbaijan government condones and stays silent over these horrific actions?
Had I decided to go, I very much doubt I could have visited with the everyday Azerbaijani people nor see their daily lives to get a true, overall vision of the real Azerbaijan. I am certain I would have been shown a glamorous tour of the “good side” of Azerbaijan.
This was a hard decision. Should I go and try to stand up, to try and call attention to those in need? I, probably, would have been sent home. So, I came to the conclusion that by NOT flying overseas, I might have a better chance at showing I stand in solidarity with the suffering of my brothers and sisters I may never meet, but by speaking out, I hope to get others to understand why they should speak out, too.
I regret if I have upset the sincere people who invited me on this extraordinary opportunity, but I cannot support a government that has violated the rights of its citizens, which they have been doing even before Azerbaijan won the right to host Eurovision.
Human rights abuses anywhere must be brought to light so that human rights abuses everywhere can come to an end.
Still…I need your voice. I need you to sing out with me. While under the spotlight of Europe’s largest cultural show, you can call attention to those in dire need. You. And you. And all of us. One thing you can do is to join Amnesty International’s call for action to free imprisoned Azerbaijani blogger and youth activist Tural Abbasli.
Will you sing the song that calls out for change, or will you simply tune in and tune out?
Sara Hickman is Official State Musician of Texas and mother of two daughters.