Kazakhstan’s human rights record is under scrutiny as Astana launches a bid to secure a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Two opposing narratives are emerging about Kazakhstan’s rights record: President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s administration is claiming that great strides in protecting human rights have been made over the past two decades, while activists are citing shortcomings in Astana’s performance and are calling for international pressure to encourage corrective measures.
Addressing the UNHRC on March 1, Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev extolled Kazakhstan’s progress. “Over all these years we have steadfastly worked to realize basic human rights and freedoms, including in close cooperation with specialized organizations from the UN system and international human rights structures,” he said. “This strategic priority is the point and goal of the large-scale socioeconomic and sociopolitical reforms in all spheres of our society.”
To illustrate Kazakhstan’s positive record, Saudabayev singled out the adoption of a National Human Rights Action Plan and Gender Equality Strategy; legal reform; and cooperation with the UN to tackle torture within the penitentiary system.
He said projects were being launched in areas that “directly concern the basic rights of our citizens to a life of dignity and quality” – improving healthcare and education, creating jobs, and poverty reduction.
These programs are part of Nazarbayev’s vision for the coming decade, as the country embarks on what Saudabayev described as “a new stage of social modernization and further political liberalization … to consolidate the wellbeing of the people and develop democracy in Kazakhstan.”
A stellar human rights record is no prerequisite for a UNHRC seat – current members include countries under fire over rights violations, including China and Russia. Another member, Libya, is currently suspended over its suppression of popular protests.
However, rights activists are expressing alarm over Kazakhstan’s bid and are urging the international community to lobby for improvements.
“Kazakhstan is clearly not deserving of a seat on the Human Rights Council,” Veronika Szente Goldston, advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), told EurasiaNet.org. “Its rights record falls well short of the requirement to ‘uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.’ We hope Kazakhstan’s partners will make it clear to Kazakhstan’s leadership that until meaningful and long overdue reform steps are forthcoming, it should not expect any support for its membership bid.”
Another organization expressing apprehension is the London-based ARTICLE 19 freedom of expression watchdog. “ARTICLE 19 is extremely concerned about the possibility of Kazakhstan being a member of the Human Rights Council and we oppose this candidacy, because we believe that the Kazakhstan government is not a genuine supporter of human rights,” Executive Director Agnes Callamard told EurasiaNet.org.
“As we witnessed closely last year during Kazakhstan’s OSCE chairmanship, the Kazakhstan Government frequently violates human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, and there is no evidence of a change,” Callamard said.
Szente Goldston urged UN member states to examine Kazakhstan’s recent record: “UN member states don’t have to look further than to Kazakhstan’s Universal Periodic Review last year to see just how problematic its human rights record is. More than one year later, the commitments Kazakhstan made to address the concerns raised during the review remain unfulfilled.”
Roman Vassilenko, chairman of the Committee for International Information at Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry, told EurasiaNet.org that the government has no further comment to make on the concerns voiced by watchdog groups, pointing to Saudabayev’s UNHRC speech as the expression of Astana’s standpoint.
Saudabayev insisted that Kazakhstan paid scrupulous attention to human rights during its OSCE chairmanship, “strictly adhering to the fundamental principles and values of the organization” and giving “equal attention to the whole human rights spectrum.”
Activists in Kazakhstan, however, want to see action not words. Roza Akylbekova, acting director of the Almaty-based Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, says Astana must live up to its lofty international achievements. After chairing the OSCE last year, this year it is chairing the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
“A country like Kazakhstan, with such ambitions … it is very important for it to bear responsibility and meet commitments, which we are unfortunately not seeing today,” she told EurasiaNet.org. “What is very important from the international community is not accepting double standards.”
She is calling for wholehearted efforts by Astana to observe human rights at home, including legislation to advance the National Human Rights Action Plan so that it “does not remain purely as a declaration.”
Akylbekova’s organization is familiar with the difficulties sometimes encountered by Kazakhstan’s human rights campaigners. Its director, Yevgeniy Zhovtis, is serving a four-year prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter in a case that international rights groups say is politically motivated. In January, Zhovtis was denied parole.
“He is a political prisoner,” contends Akylbekova. Kazakhstani authorities hotly dispute that allegation, insisting that Zhovtis’ conviction, along with other controversial verdicts – such as those involving entrepreneur Mukhtar Dzhakishev and journalist Ramazan Yesergepov – followed due process.
HRW’s World Report 2011 catalogues a series of rights abuses in Kazakhstan, including infringements that “chill the environment for freedom of expression,” restrictions on freedom of assembly, labor market abuses, and violations of the right of refugees to be protected against refoulement – deportation to countries where they face the risk of torture.
HRW is urging Kazakhstan to release Zhovtis and Yesergepov, ease the media environment, and relax restrictions on freedom of assembly.
Political freedoms are also under scrutiny in Kazakhstan ahead of an April 3 snap presidential election that Nazarbayev is certain to win. Kazakhstan has never held an election judged free and fair by international observers, though Nazarbayev has pledged efforts to hold a fair vote this time.
For rights activists, what counts is Kazakhstan’s commitment to improving the overall human rights environment. “The idea of human rights will be discredited if a government which constantly fails to fulfill its human rights commitments joins the Human Rights Council,” Callamard said.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asia.