Over the past few years I've been fortunate enough to travel for work and to visit friends who have moved abroad. On some of the trips, I've found myself thrown in with some of the most diverse and unusual people, all of whom were trying to get along for the sake of everyone's enjoyment.
As the European Games opened in Baku on Friday with Lady Gaga belting out Imagine from behind a grand piano buried in foliage, it was impossible to know for sure how John Lennon would have felt about his iconic protest song being appropriated by one of the most repressive regimes in Europe. You could take an educated guess though.
June 12th 2015, and the Opening Ceremony of the 1st European Games takes place in Azerbaijan, to much excitement - or did
No 'Olympic Truce' for Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Baku: Barred From Entry and Deported on the Eve of the First European Games
After sending renowned Azerbaijani human rights activists and journalists to prison, the country's authorities have decided to ban foreign journalists and rights groups from the European Games. This latest move highlights the lengths to which Azerbaijan will go to prevent people from seeing what's really going on within its borders.
Azerbaijan is using these Games as a PR tool to launder its image to the world. It wants to show itself as a modern, dynamic, progressive country. What's going on behind the scenes, however, is the complete opposite.
In just over three months, the streets of Baku, Azerbaijan will welcome athletes from across Europe in the first ever European games. Great Britain will send its largest contingent of athletes since the Beijing Games of 2008.
The glitz and glamour of a major sports event are all very well, but not when they are used as an attempt to launder a tarnished image to the world. Amnesty is calling for all Azerbaijan's prisoners of conscience to be released immediately and unconditionally.
The past year has been a difficult year for the whole region. Cold War rhetoric returned to the former Soviet Union and was met with rejection and, at times, with fear. Azerbaijan was not different...
The country's role in the international arena is now extending far beyond sporting and musical events. Most prominently, Azerbaijan currently chairs the Council of Europe, the continent's leading human rights organisation. In the words of President Aliyev, Azerbaijan is a young democracy but one that is on the way to "creating a better world for everyone to live in dignity and peace".
Have you heard of Azerbaijan I asked the interfaith activist? No, was the response back and is that not a place in the East? Another activist blurted out reflexively saying, "isn't it some Russian state?"