William Hague came under fire from a host of human rights campaign groups last night as he prepared to sign a major gas pipeline deal with the controversial regime of Azerbaijan.
The Foreign Secretary is in the capital of Baku today to sign a deal for the line which will feed into the Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline and transport 16 billion cubic metres a year of offshore gas from Azerbaijan to southern Italy.
BP, Statoil, Total and others are investing, along with the Azerbaijan government, around $45bn in the new pipeline and expansion of the existing terminal facilities in what will create a fourth major pipeline route into Europe.
It will help BP profit from its exploitation of the Shah Deniz gas field, which it operates with a consortium of smaller companies.
However, critics argue the deal will also provide revenues for the dictatorial leader Ilham Aliyev, whose regime in October appeared to release by accident details of his landslide election victory the day before polling began.
The UK, according to Amnesty, provides almost half of all foreign investment in the country, largely due to BP’s work on the gas field there.
The NGO’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “Azerbaijan has an appalling human rights record and the country is currently embarked on a particularly aggressive crackdown on freedom of expression.”
He urged Mr Hague to seek guarantees on human rights, as well as focus on “gas and profit”.
Amnesty has regularly cited concerns about the numbers of prisoners of conscience in the country.
A Foreign Office spokesman acknowledged concerns about human rights there and said in a statement: “We have a strong and wide-ranging bilateral relationship with Azerbaijan and we discuss human rights along with a broad range of other subjects on a regular basis.”
Those in favour of the pipeline point out that it will mean the BP-led consortium will nearly double its gas output from Shah Deniz from its current 9 billion cubic metres output. The pipeline will go through Turkey and Georgia to as far as Italy and Greece, adding to southern Europe’s security of supply.
Emma Hughes, of the activist group Platform, said: “Hague’s trip follows hot on the heels of another undemocratic election in Azerbaijan. Making energy deals with this corrupt dictatorship means that the UK’s ‘dash for gas’ is contributing significantly to the political repression of democracy activists in Azerbaijan.”
Azerbaijan may be classed as an “emerging” economy, but in the world of oil and gas it is one of the longest established exporters by pipeline in the world. In the 1870s, the Nobel family, which went on to establish the peace prize of the same name, began refining and exporting the kerosene that seeped up out of the ground.
Robert Nobel had been sent on a mission to the country to find walnut trees to use as rifle butts for the family gun factory. He failed but hit upon the idea of an oil pipeline instead, as an alternative to the more costly transport with barrels.