The European Union should urge Central Asian governments at a gathering on November 22, 2021, to increase efforts to protect human rights, at a time when Afghanistan and regional issues are high on the agenda, Human Rights Watch said.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and the foreign ministers from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, are to meet in person at the 17th EU-Central Asia Ministerial meeting in Dushanbe on November 22. This will be the first such meeting since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan in mid-August.
“Some Central Asian countries are playing an important part in the global response to the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, but domestic human rights concerns are also central,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Throughout Central Asia, promised reforms have stalled or even backtracked, and the EU should press governments to deliver.”
The EU adopted a new strategy for Central Asia in 2019, which contained stronger objectives for human rights protection in the region. The crisis in Afghanistan is a test of the commitment of the EU to uphold these objectives in the face of other issues, such as security and migration.
In recent months the EU and some of its member states have increased their engagement with Central Asian countries, three of which share borders with Afghanistan. Although the Tajik, Turkmen, and Uzbek governments closed their land borders to fleeing Afghans, Uzbekistan helped Western countries evacuate thousands of at-risk Afghans by allowing planes to refuel and passengers to transit to safe, third countries, and Tajikistan has admitted thousands of Afghan refugees since the beginning of the year.
The EU announced on November 15 that it would establish a coordination hub in Uzbekistan for the distribution of assistance to Afghanistan. The United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) temporarily relocated its headquarters to Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city. Kyrgyzstan has allowed some Afghan students to enter the country.
Central Asian countries and Iran and Pakistan, as neighboring countries, bear the most burdens from displacement from Afghanistan’s instability and humanitarian and economic crises. These countries should press the UN Security Council, the EU, the US, and other governments, to adjust current economic restrictions and sanctions that are contributing to the country’s plight, Human Rights Watch said.
Issues around security and migration have dominated public engagement by European leaders with Central Asia in recent months. In August, EU Council President Charles Michel held discussions with heads of states of all Central Asian countries but failed to mention in public the human rights situation in the region. In October, during Tajik President Emomali Rahmon’s visit to Brussels and Paris, neither High Representative Borrell nor French President Emmanuel Macron made any reference to human rights in their public declarations.
This comes at a time when promises of reforms have stalled or backtracked in countries like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan, while Tajikistan and Turkmenistan’s repressive human rights records have continued to worsen.
In Tajikistan, the host country of the EU-Central Asia meeting, the authorities harass and imprison government’s critics, including leaders of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan and Group 24. A human rights lawyer, Buzurgmehr Yorov, is facing a prolonged prison sentence in retaliation for defending opposition leaders in courts. Torture and incidents leading to multiple deaths in detention have yet to be effectively investigated. The authorities also harass foreign-based dissidents and their family members within the country. Access to critical websites is blocked and human rights groups routinely face harassment.
In Turkmenistan, one of the world’s most oppressive and closed countries, dozens of people remain victims of enforced disappearances, in some cases for well over a decade, while authorities fail to genuinely engage with the EU or the United Nations on the situation and whereabouts of those forcibly disappeared. In July, Khursanai Ismatullaeva, a doctor, was arrested the day after a panel hosted by the European Parliament mentioned her unsuccessful efforts to be reinstated after being unfairly fired from her job.
The country is one of the few without a single registered Covid-19 case, while the authorities retaliate against people who openly demand access to information about the pandemic. No independent civil society groups or media are allowed to operate in the country, and the authorities are retaliating against people perceived to be affiliated with critics who live abroad. Various perceived critics face arbitrary travel bans.
In Kazakhstan, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev claims that his government is pursuing human rights reforms. But despite the adoption of new laws on peaceful assembly and on trade unions, the authorities routinely interfere with and restrict the right to peaceful assembly by detaining, fining, and prosecuting peaceful protesters, and independent trade unions face serious obstacles to register and operate.
In December 2020 and January 2021, tax authorities harassed over a dozen leading nongovernmental groups with fines and suspensions that were subsequently dropped. A released human rights defender, Max Bokaev, remains subject to heavy restrictions after serving in full an unfounded 5-year prison sentence. Supporters of arbitrarily banned opposition movements face charges, prosecution, restrictions, and detention. EU officials should also raise those concerns publicly when President Tokayev visits Brussels on November 25 and 26.
In Kyrgyzstan, President Sadyr Japarov’s election in January was followed by a series of problematic legislative actions by the country’s caretaker parliament. They include a law imposing unnecessary financial reporting requirements on nongovernmental groups and another overly broad bill penalizing “false” information. Several provisions of a constitutional reform criticized by the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission also contradict international human rights. The authorities have not concluded an investigation into the death in custody of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov and refuse to commit to restore Askarov’s legal rights and status and to compensate his family for his death.
In Uzbekistan, the re-election of president Shavkat Mirziyoyev to a second term, with no opposition candidates allowed to run, coincided with clear setbacks on the country’s human rights record. Authorities harassed political opposition figures in the lead up to elections and targeted outspoken and critical bloggers, including Otabek Sattoriy, who was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison in May on dubious criminal charges. The authorities deny registration to independent human rights groups.
A draft criminal code, published by the Prosecutor General’s Office in February, fails to meet international human rights standards and retained many problematic articles, including overbroad extremism and incitement provisions, and criminalization of consensual same-sex relations. Since the EU granted Uzbekistan the GSP+ preferential trade scheme, legally tied to genuine implementation of key human rights conventions, there has been little progress on the areas the commission identified as showing serious shortcomings in the country’s human rights record.
“The EU will only find trusted partners in Central Asia if leaders in the region show readiness to end rights violations and engage in meaningful reform,” Williamson said. “The crisis in Afghanistan poses new challenges in the region, and respect for human rights and the rule of law must be key ingredients in dealing these issues.”