Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

Kazakhstan Escapes Censure Over Rights

Pavol Stracansky

ASTANA, Dec 9 2010 (IPS) - As Kazakhstan’s chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) comes to an end, its authoritarian leadership has been accused of ignoring pledges to improve human rights and instead stifling opposition and cracking down on freedom of expression.

Human rights groups say that the country’s already dubious rights record has, rather than improved while chairing Europe’s top democracy organisation over the last 12 months, got worse.

“Kazakhstan has not done what it promised to do on human rights when it was given the chairmanship.

“Things such as the criminalisation of journalists and government critics are continuing and in fact these tendencies have been on the rise in 2010,” Dmitri Makarov of the International Youth Human Rights Movement told IPS.

Kazakhstan, a resource-rich former Soviet state in central Asia ruled since 1991 by autocratic president Nursultan Nazarbayev, has faced international criticism for its human rights record for years.

Abuses of fundamental freedoms have been documented at all levels of society.

When it was given the OSCE chairmanship Kazakh authorities pledged to implement democratic reforms and improve the human rights situation. But critics say that the last 12 months have seen a “stagnation” of rights in the former Soviet state.

Rachel Denber, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “With so much international scrutiny while holding the chairmanship this year, it would have been thought, and ought to have been the case, that Kazakhstan would do more to improve the human rights situation. But that did not happen.

“Problems with journalists being accused of crimes and people being arrested for organising peaceful assemblies continued. These have happened in previous years and went on happening despite more intense international scrutiny.”

This year new legislation was brought in imposing extreme penalties on journalists for libel. A newspaper editor is still serving a three-year jail sentence for publishing classified information after what rights groups say was his conviction in an unfair trial.

Internet sites are regularly blocked and the authorities have also refused to register the major opposition party Alga.

The country’s leading human rights activist, Yevgeny Zhovtis, remains in prison despite appeals for an independent investigation into a car accident in which another man died. Rights campaigners say that the trial against him was unfair.

Peaceful assemblies have also been punished as authorities continue to enforce severe restrictions on freedom of assembly.

And earlier this year the UN accused the government of trying to mask the atrocious state of its prisons as horrific protests against jail conditions saw hundreds of convicts slice their stomachs open. Inmates say torture, beatings and rape are not uncommon.

The continuing human rights abuses in the oil-rich state have led to questions over its chairmanship of a body supposed to be promoting democratic rule and rights.

One rights activist who investigated the prison torture claims told IPS: “Some OSCE sources have privately told us that the energy resources in Kazakhstan and the geopolitical location of the country in relation to NATO supply lines for troops in Afghanistan were why the country was given the chair of the OSCE.”

The Kazakh leadership has rebuffed criticisms of its rights record, saying that the country’s political stability and relatively high living standards compared to its Central Asian neighbours must be insured before deep democratic reforms can be implemented.

Ahead of the OSCE’s first summit for 11 years which saw world leaders meet in Astana at the start of this month, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry admitted the speed of implementing democratic reform had been questioned by Western leaders, but that the country’s commitment to it had not.

A spokesman told media that Kazakhstan had adopted an approach of “economics first, politics second and evolution, not revolution”, which had secured the country’s stability.

Indeed, at the summit Western leaders appeared to steer clear of any strong criticism of Kazakhstan’s rights record. Any negative comments on its human rights were tempered by praise for its relative performance on them compared to other central Asian states.

Some analysts have suggested that Western leaders are reluctant to openly attack Kazakhstan for fear of upsetting an important geopolitical ally in what is a volatile region of the world and a state with such huge potential energy resources.

But activists say that they must not stop pressing Astana on rights issues.

“Giving the chair to a former Soviet country for the first time was possibly done to invigorate the OSCE and may have been a good idea in bringing central Asia into international focus. But I do not think that that has to be done at the expense of human rights,” Makarov told IPS.

Others also fear for the future development of human rights in Kazakhstan and say that Western democracies have now missed their chance to help push through democratic reforms in the state.

Debner told IPS: “Western governments should have done more to try and get Kazakhstan to improve its human rights record years before it was awarded the chairmanship. Once they gave Kazakhstan the chairmanship they gave away a big gift and lost the moment to work with them on human rights. They have not done enough.

“There is a big question now as to whether the countries which fought to get Kazakhstan the chairmanship will continue to press Kazakhstan on its human rights record once the chairmanship passes. If they start to turn their attention away the situation may not get worse but it will certainly not get better.”

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