by Jeffrey Dunn, Crude Accountability Research Coordinator
While articulating respect for human rights in their business statements, TotalEnergies (France) and Equinor (Norway), are silent about the Azerbaijani government’s arbitrary detention of Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, who researched and exposed Azerbaijan’s lack of transparency in the oil and gas sector. The companies are also silent about the arbitrary arrests of Abzas media journalists, Hafiz Babali, Mahammad Kekalov, Sevinc Vagifgizi, and Ulvi Hasanli.
TotalEnergies is deeply invested in Azerbaijan’s largest oil and natural gas projects, including the BTC pipeline. Equinor has invested in the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli off-shore natural gas field, along with other smaller investments, and in a December 22, 2023 statement, the company committed to a pullout from the country, equating to a loss between $300-400 million.
Total’s Investments in Azerbaijan
Western fossil fuel companies provide over 80% of Azerbaijan’s exports, operating at and maintaining the core sector of the Azerbaijani economy. While BP is the largest among these companies, TotalEnergies (France) and Equinor (Norway) are also deeply invested in some of Azerbaijan’s largest oil and gas projects.
TotalEnergies has been active in Azerbaijan since 1996 and is involved in two major natural gas projects. Total holds a 35% share in the Absheron gas field and a 5% share in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan Pipeline. The Absheron gas field produces up to 5.5 billion cubic meters of gas condensate daily, undoubtedly adding to Total’s $6.5 billion adjusted net income for the third quarter and Azerbaijan’s growing fossil fuel revenues.
To commemorate the launching of the second phase of the Absheron gas field, the Chairman and CEO of TotalEnergies, Patrick Pouyanné, met face-to-face with President Ilham Aliyev and a cadre of Azerbaijani officials in Baku, Azerbaijan, on August 31st, 2023. The leaders also discussed Total’s future prospects in Azerbaijan’s green energy sector, such as wind and solar capacity development in Nakhchivan.
According to Total’s code of conduct and a statement by Mr. Pouyanné, respect for the rule of law and human rights are at the center of Total’s values and shape their business model. The company’s code of conduct explains Total is “uncompromising in [its] operations worldwide” with regard to human rights.
However, as Total met with President Aliyev in Baku and deepened its economic ties to Azerbaijani energy, Dr. Ibadoghlu was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and denied proper medical care, a situation that has only worsened since Total’s meeting with Aliyev.
Equinor’s Investments in Azerbaijan
On December 22, 2023, Equinor announced it was selling its remaining assets in Azerbaijan to SOCAR. With a predicted net loss of 300-400 million dollars, Equinor has not listed any specific reason for the pullout, simply stating “Equinor is in the process of re-shaping its international oil and gas business, and the divestments in Azerbaijan are in line with our strategy to focus our international portfolio.”
Equinor has likewise been active in Azerbaijan since the 1990s, beginning operations in 1994 at the Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil fields (now ACG). Equinor maintained shares in ACG (7.27%), the BTC pipeline (8.71%), Karabakh Operating Company in the Karabakh offshore field (50%), and the Ashrafi-Dan-Ulduzu-Aypara exploratory area (50%).
Equinor’s code of conduct also emphasizes good ethics and respect for human rights stating, “Respecting human rights is essential for our license to operate as a company and these fundamental principles have been embedded in Equinor’s corporate values, Code of Conduct, and human rights policy, adopted by the board of directors of Equinor ASA in 2015 and renewed on 6 May 2020. Our human rights efforts are a journey where we strive for continuous improvement in our performance and behavior.”
Additionally, Equinor outlines its expectations for its suppliers as “we expect our suppliers and business partners to comply with applicable laws, respect internationally recognized human rights and adhere to ethical standards which are consistent with our ethical requirements when working for or together with us.”
Arrests and Detention
On July 23, 2023, Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu was arbitrarily detained by the Azerbaijani authorities and placed in pre-trial detention at the Kurdekhani Pre-trial Detention Center. A renowned academic and human rights defender, Dr. Ibadoghlu was spuriously accused of Islamic extremism and counterfeiting money on behalf of an organization.
In government custody, Ibadoghlu has been denied regular access to medication required to control his diabetes and high blood pressure, has been denied packages from and visitation with family, and is suffering from numerous serious health problems. He has lost over 15 kilograms since his detention. His family is concerned for his health and well-being.
Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu devoted his work to promoting economic development, good governance, and improving transparency in extractive industries.
Governments, international bodies, and civil society across the globe have expressed their deep concerns about the Azerbaijani government’s complete disregard for Dr. Ibadoghlu’s human rights. In this context, TotalEnergies’ and Equinor’s silence is deafening.
On November 20th, 2023, Azerbaijani authorities unleashed a crackdown on independent media outlet Abzas Media, arresting its top leadership after the outlet reported on corruption within the Azerbaijani government. Ulvi Hasanli, director of Abzas Media, was detained by masked men on November 20th. Mahammad Kekalov was taken by Azerbaijani authorities the same day. Kekalov’s whereabouts remained unknown for two days while in Azerbaijani custody. Sevinc Vagifgizi was arrested the next day, November 21st, after arriving at Baku’s Haydar Aliyev International Airport. Babali was detained on December 13, 2023.
The Azerbaijani authorities claim that Babali, Hasanli, Kekalov, and Vagifgizi conspired to smuggle money into Azerbaijan, citing €40,000 which was “seized” at Hasanli’s home and the Abzas Media offices. The journalists have denied these accusations. The charges are eerily similar to those against Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu.
According to his lawyer’s testimony, Hasanli was likely tortured by the Azerbaijani authorities during his detention. Additionally, Kekalov’s lawyer had no access to Kekalov.
Western companies like TotalEnergies and Equinor fail to live up to their human rights obligations in Azerbaijan. These companies profit from their relationships with the Aliyev regime, while simultaneously stating that human rights comprise the center of their company values and business models.
Despite their “codes of conduct,” “ethics,” and significant economic influence in Azerbaijan, these companies are silent on the gross violations of fundamental human rights in Azerbaijan and to the plights of Dr. Ibadoghlu, Babali, Hasanli, Kekalov, and Vagifgizi.
We urge TotalEnergies and Equinor to demand that the government of Azerbaijan immediately and unconditionally release Dr. Gubad Ibadoghlu, Hafiz Babali, Mahammad Kekalov, Sevinc Vagifgizi, Ulvi Hasanli, and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan as a condition of their continued operations in the country.
Cover image: Adobe Stock standard license