If there is one thing to be learned from recent United Nations Human Rights Committee hearings on Turkmenistan it is that Turkmen officials do not make very good actors.
No matter how hard they tried to convince the outside world that they care about human rights, Turkmen representatives appearing before the committee failed to deliver convincing performances.
Human rights groups characterize Turkmenistan as one of the world’s most repressive states. At the same time, the country’s dismal rights record tends to be downplayed in its bilateral dealings with Western nations, including the United States, largely because Ashgabat possesses abundant reserves of natural gas, and is strategically situated on Afghanistan’s northern border.
The UN committee hearings March 15-16 thus represented a rare occasion when Turkmen officials had to publicly account for their country’s behavior.
Technically, the UN Human Rights Committee was reviewing Turkmenistan’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an agreement that Ashgabat joined way back in 1997. Turkmen officials were supposed to submit a compliance report in 1998, but didn’t get around to actually submitting one until 2010. Last July, the Human Rights Committee responded with a document seeking clarifications on 34 different points concerning Ashgabat’s observance of the rights covenant. The recent hearings wrapped up the review process.
As Veronika Szente Goldston, Human Rights Watch’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the presentations by official Turkmen representatives at the hearings demonstrated that Ashgabat was in a state of “complete denial” when it comes to respecting basic rights.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov presides over a ruthless authoritarian system. Yet in her presentation of Turkmensitan’s compliance report, Yazdursan Gurbannazarova, the director of Turkmenistan’s National Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, asserted that Ashgabat had implemented “progressive changes,” according to a UN account of the proceedings.
“People [Turkmen citizens] are not perceived as objects, but as subjects,” she said.
Prior to his re-election in February, a vote widely perceived as rigged, President Berdymukhamedov expressed a desire to liberalize. He has made many, similar pronouncements since coming to power in late 2006, yet none of them have come to fruition.
On March 16, Turkmen Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Hadjiyev doubled down on disinformation when he disputed the findings of international watchdog organizations, which routinely portray Ashgabat as an implacable enemy of free speech. “People are allowed to collect information and disseminate it [in Turkmenistan],” Hadjiyev claimed during the UN hearings.
Human Rights Committee members clearly had their doubts about the veracity of the statements made by Hadjiyev and Gurbannazarova. One member called attention to the “stark contrast” between the way Turkmen officials portrayed their government’s rights record, and the observations of international rights monitors.
Ashley Cleek contributed reporting for this article.