Turkmenistan’s dismal human rights record will soon be the subject of a review by the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT). Watchdog groups rank Turkmenistan’s government as one of the world’s most repressive, and non-governmental organization activists say Turkmen leaders show little interest in reforming. But, they add, an atrocious democratization record is not enough to forestall efforts by Western governments to strengthen relations with Ashgabat.
Turkmenistan is scheduled to make its first-ever presentation to the CAT in Geneva in mid-May. An initial report submitted by the Turkmen government last year glossed over its questionable record and instead emphasized rights provisions in the country’s constitution. Human Rights activists, meanwhile, have bombarded CAT with information highlighting systemic and ongoing abuses. For example, a report forwarded to the CAT in March by Civicus, an umbrella organization representing civil society groups, in conjunction with human rights activists from Turkmenistan, described conditions in Turkmen jails as “dire.” Overcrowding, corruption, rape, poor nutrition, beatings and other forms of torture are commonplace, the report asserted.
Renate Bloem, Civicus’ representative to the UN in Geneva, doesn’t expect Turkmenistan to get off lightly during the CAT review process. “This is the first time that Turkmenistan will make a report,” Bloem said. “It’s a very nice presentation in terms of what Turkmenistan has been doing, in terms of implementing the Convention against Torture. But of course the Committee is not stupid. They have received from many independent NGOs, exiled or otherwise, very relevant information. Committee members will have enough information to really question the Turkmen delegation.”
The review process will culminate with CAT members making comments on Turkmen practices and offering recommendations. “There is some hope that the committee’s concluding remarks and recommendations will be used by people to do some efficient lobbying with,” Bloem said.
Other observers are less optimistic. Even if the CAT review process confirms the existence of a serious problem in Turkmenistan, some activists say the United States and European Union are unlikely to alter their current diplomatic stances toward Ashgabat. Two powerful factors – Turkmenistan’s abundance of energy, and its strategic position as one of Afghanistan’s neighbors – are pushing Washington and Brussels to expand engagement with Ashgabat. What is perceived as strategic necessity is likely to keep on trumping rights concerns.
Specifically, observers believe CAT’s review will have little bearing on whether the EU finally ratifies its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with Turkmenistan. The EU-Turkmen PCA was signed way back in 1998, but ratification has been held up in large part by lingering concerns about Ashgabat’s rights record. The PCA would provide a framework for expanded EU-Turkmen economic cooperation, especially in the energy sphere. The European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee approved the PCA in January, setting the stage for ratification later this year.
The EU also has an Interim Trade Agreement (ITA) in place with Turkmenistan, approved by the European Parliament in 2009. Before the PCA faces a ratification vote in the European Parliament, expected in June, a delegation of Euro MPs is slated to travel to Turkmenistan on a fact-finding mission. Currently only one member of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights is included in the delegation. The trip is scheduled to take place in late April.
Both the ITA and PCA have provisions that require the Turkmen government to uphold basic rights. Even though Turkmenistan is clearly not in compliance with those provisions, the EU seems unlikely to invoke the rights clauses to either suspend the ITA or further delay PCA ratification. Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, said that while the CAT review may bring conditions in Turkmenistan into the spotlight, the human rights clauses embedded in the EU agreements have “no practical meaning.”
“The EU says that there is the possibility of suspending the ITA if it gets to a situation where the Turkmen government is violating human rights. But that’s laughable,” Szente Goldston said. “Turkmenistan is in such flagrant violation of the human rights clause that no sooner than you conclude an agreement with Turkmenistan you would have to start suspension procedures. How absurd is that?”
Deirdre Tynan is a Bishkek based reporter specializing in Central Asian affairs.