Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Sixth Report


102. When the states of Central Asia and the South Caucasus were unexpectedly presented with their independence, there was a widespread feeling in the Western world that, now free from Soviet communism, they should be encouraged to develop the culture and institutions of pluralist democracy and market economics. The principal vehicle chosen to carry them forward to this goal was the CSCE (later OSCE) of which all the new states became members, committing themselves in the process to introduce the necessary reforms. To underline the message, the United Kingdom also introduced theoretical conditionality to its aid programme—the Know How Fund—which identified a convincing commitment to reform as a basic requirement to qualify for aid grants. A similar conditionality was adopted by many EU partners, not to mention the EBRD.

103. The Government has said it remains committed to pressing for "greater respect for international standards of human rights" in the region, and to "encourage progress towards democratic and economic reform."[235] We examine below the current state of human rights in the countries of the region, and the Government's progress towards meeting these objectives. We also assess the role of those multilateral institutions—the OSCE, the EU and the EBRD—which have responsibilities for the promotion of human rights and good governance across the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

104. Despite early promise, the only states in the region to have made significant, albeit hesitant and incomplete, progress towards the twin goals of democracy and a market economy have been Georgia, Armenia and the Kyrgyz Republic. All the others have, in different ways, failed to fulfil the early hopes placed in them by optimists in the West. In these states the population now enjoys less in the way of basic political freedoms and human rights than under Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika policies of the late Soviet period. In the words of Dr Neil Melvin, the trend in the Central Asian states has been towards "the creation of authoritarian regimes reliant upon coercion, corruption and nepotism."[236] Ms Holly Cartner, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, told us that "in Central Asia and some countries of the Caucasus, governments, to varying degrees, have purposefully degraded transparency and the rule of law, through a clear pattern of censorship, intimidation and physical abuse."[237] Amnesty International UK submitted a paper detailing its specific human rights concerns in all the states of the region between July and December 1998.[238] The European Commission said that it had "serious political concerns over the respect of human rights and democratic principles in almost all of the New Independent States."[239]

Country assessments

105. We received a substantial body of evidence concerning the human rights situation in the individual countries of the region. The Government, via the FCO, gave us its assessment of human rights in each of the republics, and we also received memoranda from a number of concerned NGOs. We set out below our analysis of this evidence. During our visits we were, wherever possible, able to meet representatives of opposition parties, human rights NGOs and the independent media.


106. The FCO told us that Armenia's human rights record had "slowly improved" since independence: opposition parties and NGOs are allowed to operate, and there is a "reasonably free" media.[240] The main human rights issues identified by the FCO include bullying and corruption in the army, the rights of religious minorities and police treatment of detainees. Human rights organisations which we met in Armenia broadly agreed with this assessment. Human Rights Watch describes human rights violations in the army and against detainees as "rampant", and criticised the bullying and victimisation of conscientious objectors, as well as Armenia's intolerance towards "non-Apostolic religions."[241] Amnesty International UK detailed the review in October 1998 by the UN Human Rights Committee of Armenia's initial report on its implementation of the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.[242] While it welcomed Armenia's acknowledgment of its problems during its "transitional phase", Amnesty urged full and prompt implementation of the Committee's recommendations to the Armenian Government, to include human rights training for the judiciary and the establishment of an independent body to investigate the complaints of detainees. Article 19 welcomed Armenia's "significant progress" in the promotion of freedom of expression since independence, but identified elements of state control over the media incompatible with Armenia's international obligations.[243]

107. The conduct of the parliamentary election on 30 May 1999 was an important test of Armenia's achievement of human rights standards. This fact was widely acknowledged by political leaders in Armenia, particularly as the international community had viewed the 1998 Presidential elections as "containing serious irregularities" and the 1995 Parliamentary elections as "free but not fair."[244] The Council of Europe's Ad Hoc Committee to observe the elections identified inaccuracies in voting lists and some irregularities in voting by the military at the 30 May election, but concluded that the election "constituted major progress in implementing the Council of Europe's standards" and "confirmed the country's commitment to democracy."[245] The OSCE's Election Observation Mission's preliminary statement also identified a number of problems relating to the accuracy of voters' lists and "numerous technical and organisational shortcomings." However, it concluded that the elections were "an improvement over prior elections", and were "conducted in a generally peaceful and orderly manner which was free of intimidation." In particular, the OSCE believed the Armenian authorities were "to be congratulated that freedom of association and assembly were respected and no cases of political repression were reported to the Mission."[246]


108. In Azerbaijan, the government exercises strict control over the political process with limited regard for human rights or basic freedoms. However, considering the volatility of Azerbaijani politics in the immediate post­Soviet period (two coups d'état and as many attempts) and bearing in mind the social pressures exerted by the occupation of large areas of Azerbaijani territory by the Armenians, it is heartening that the press enjoys a good deal of freedom and that opposition political parties and movements are able to function at all. The FCO assesses Azerbaijan's human rights record as "generally poor", although it acknowledges progress on press censorship and the abolition of the death penalty. It is concerned about the harassment of opposition activists and the independent media, reportedly appalling prison conditions, and allegations of police torture.[247] Human Rights Watch deplored Azerbaijan's failure to commit itself to the standards "required of . . . a country seeking entry to the Council of Europe," citing in particular police repression of opposition views both before and after the presidential elections of October 1998.[248] Amnesty's concerns include the conviction of political prisoners on the evidence of statements allegedly extracted under duress, and the possible misuse of laws against insulting the president "to stifle legitimate political comment."[249] Article 19 noted that "in practice the government commonly restricts the right to freedom of expression."[250] In Azerbaijan we were able to meet representatives of a number of human rights NGOs. They told us that despite the fact that the new Azerbaijan constitution accorded with 33 international declarations on human rights, abuses continued to take place. Prison conditions had improved to some extent for convicted prisoners and human rights organisations were able to visit them in prison. Permission was not given for visits to remand prisons, where people could be kept for years before trial. There were allegations of the torture of remand prisoners and conditions continued to be very harsh. The full trade union rights of workers in the oil industry were also not respected according to some whom we met in Azerbaijan.


109. The FCO believes that Georgia is making "steady progress" towards international human rights standards. Opposition activists are allowed freedom to operate, and there are independent media and an active NGO sector. Poor prison conditions and treatment of detainees still cause some concern.[251] While Human Rights Watch told us that there had been progress in human rights-related institutional reform, it was still concerned about the brutality of the security forces, the implications of the conflict in Abkhazia for human rights, and continued discrimination against the Meskhetian community seeking the right to return to Georgia after its forced deportation in the 1930s.[252] Amnesty reported the abolition of the death penalty, but noted instances of torture and ill-treatment in custody.[253] Article 19 told us that in the field of media freedom "generally few abuses have been reported in recent years," but noted the continuation of indirect censorship "at a practical level."[254] Mr Ballantine, of Amnesty, expected the Council of Europe to take a strong position with Georgia over the abolition of the death penalty, which is mandated by Protocol 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights to which Georgia is now a state party.[255] In meetings with a number of local human rights organisations in Georgia, we were told of problems with the judicial system and the police, of the continuing numbers of political prisoners and constraints on the media. The freedom with which these issues were discussed, however, suggested that Georgia is well advanced along the road to an open society.


110. In Kazakhstan, President Nazarbaev has progressively gathered more and more executive power into his own hands, and has gradually curtailed the freedoms which the post-independence constitution seemed to guarantee. The country's human rights record is assessed by the FCO as "patchy with a gradual deterioration": restrictions have been steadily imposed on the freedom of the press, and opposition figures find it difficult to operate, although NGOs are said to be "relatively active."[256] Human Rights Watch raised its many concerns over the conduct of the presidential elections in January 1999 with the Chairman-in-office of the OSCE: these included new laws stifling the exercise of electoral rights and violations of "freedom of association, speech and political participation."[257] Nevertheless, it recognised that the government of Kazakhstan "tolerated opposition political activity and a vibrant media." Amnesty reported that an opposition leader had been imprisoned for one year for "insulting the honour and dignity of the President."[258]


111. In the Kyrgyz Republic, still easily the most open of the Central Asian states, President Akaev has manipulated the constitution to strengthen his personal power and to prolong his tenure. He has also shown there are limitations to his tolerance of press criticism. The FCO believes that the Kyrgyz Republic has the best human rights performance in Central Asia, though its record is nevertheless said to be "mixed".[259] There are concerns about the treatment of the independent media and of unofficial Moslem groups who are said to be "fundamentalist". While in Bishkek we heard that the leading human rights NGO had had its registration annulled and its leadership discharged and replaced by the State. Human Rights Watch had no comment to make on the Kyrgyz Republic, though Amnesty noted that in 1998 34 death sentences were passed, and four carried out, before a two-year moratorium on the death penalty was introduced in December.[260]


112. In Tajikistan, the concept of tolerant pluralism failed so disastrously after independence that civil war was the outcome rather than civil society, which is still almost totally absent even now that a sort of peace has been negotiated. The FCO has expressed concern about politically-motivated murders and restrictions on the media.[261] Human Rights Watch told us that "repression of liberties is prevalent" in those parts of the country which the Tajik government controls: however, the government is not in control of the security forces, and civilians are abused every time the 1997 ceasefire agreement is breached.[262] Amnesty reported pre-trial torture of political prisoners and the passing of several death sentences.[263]


113. In Turkmenistan, the government has established an intolerant dictatorship under the highly personalised rule of President Niyazov, the Turkmenbashi.[264] While the Constitution of Turkmenistan "guarantees a wide range of human rights", the FCO told us that these are "in practice widely ignored."[265] Little progress has been made since the establishment in 1996 of an Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, although some political prisoners have been released after pressure from the West, and a moratorium on the death penalty was announced in December 1998. Human Rights Watch described the government of Turkmenistan as:

    "one of the most repressive in the world. It permits no political opposition, no freedom of assembly, and no opportunity for public debate, and retains a Soviet-style secret police and Soviet-style intimidation tactics."[266]

The government continues to imprison political dissenters in psychiatric asylums. Amnesty reported a number of human rights violations against prisoners of conscience, and the detention of an opposition leader and a Human Rights Watch researcher.[267] We were told of KNB (former KGB) harassment of those who had contacts with international organisations such as the OSCE and of those who attempted to set up any form of NGO. There was a lack of understanding in the Government about NGOs, which were seen as a potential political threat, however innocuous their area of interest might be.


114. In Uzbekistan, a sophisticated PR campaign involving high­profile but meaningless state­controlled human­rights offices and dramatic but carefully stage­managed international conferences, have failed to conceal the fact that elections are flagrantly rigged, the opposition brutally suppressed, the media strictly controlled, and all manner of human rights violations perpetrated on a massive scale. Uzbekistan's human rights record is judged as "poor" by the FCO: civil and political rights are "severely curtailed", and unofficial religious groups are routinely harassed.[268] The FCO told us of a campaign being waged against the so-called "Wahhabi" Moslem sects in the Fergana Valley, following murders of local officials, and there have been "disappearances" of alleged Islamic extremists. It believes that the judicial system is unreformed, a number of what the FCO described as "show trials" have been held and the fabrication of evidence by the State is frequently alleged.[269] A number of trials have been held following the Tashkent bombings of 16 February: in addition to the principal trial in Tashkent, which concluded in June with the sentencing to death of six of the twenty-two accused and long prison terms for the remaining sixteen, trials of alleged conspirators have been held throughout the country. Human Rights Watch confirmed the tight control of the government on human rights NGOs and other organisations, and noted a "pattern of politically-motivated arrests" after the February bombings.[270] Amnesty gave more details of those arrested and extradited from neighbouring countries, and also detailed the new articles in the Uzbek Criminal Code prohibiting the organisation of unregistered religious groups and private religious teaching.[271] Article 19 told us that "government repression greatly impacts the media.... by creating an atmosphere of intimidation and producing a generalised chilling effect on the work of journalists."[272] We met representatives of a number of independent human rights organisations: one of these, Mr Mikhail Ardzinov, of the Independent Organisation for Human Rights of Uzbekistan, has since been taken briefly into custody, beaten up, charged with "hooliganism" and threatened with psychiatric detention.[273]

115. From the other evidence submitted to us, and on the basis of our visits to the region, we believe that the FCO's generally depressing assessment of the human rights situations in those countries we visited is reasonable and accurate. However, monitoring of the human rights situation is only one of the Government's responsibilities. We discuss below what the Government does—and what it can do—to make a difference in this area.

The role of the United Kingdom in promoting human rights and good governance

116. Our witnesses in general welcomed the emphasis which the FCO had given to issues of human rights and good governance. The FCO told us that the Government "lobb[ies] frequently on human rights issues, often with [its] EU partners and the US."[274] During our visits we were impressed by the contacts built up by British embassies with local human rights NGOs, and heard that the "open door" approach of embassies was greatly appreciated, especially in countries such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan where human rights NGOs unrecognised by the government found it difficult to operate. The protective effect of this approach in Azerbaijan meant that those NGO representatives who were known to have regular meetings with the Ambassador had less trouble from the authorities. An opposition leader in Turkmenistan, released from two years' detention in a psychiatric hospital after attempting to found an independent political party, went straight to the British Embassy in Ashgabat: as the Independent Power Corporation told us, "in his judgment, that was the most natural thing to do."[275]

117. Several witnesses emphasised the difficulties facing the Government in the monitoring and promotion of human rights issues in the region. Cecil Ballantine, of Amnesty International UK, believed that a major problem in the FCO's effort in monitoring human rights issues was one of resources:

    "When you have vast countries of enormous size with limited populations and a large rural hinterland, staffed by an ambassador and two or three other officers, it is very difficult, given the best will in the world, to ensure that a full monitoring programme of human rights takes place."[276]

It is evidently difficult for posts with small staffs to undertake to monitor and report thoroughly on human rights issues, even in the relatively small countries of the South Caucasus. This difficulty may be alleviated by maintaining productive exchanges with local and international human rights NGOs, as well as with embassies of other EU member states and the United States.

118. Witnesses told us of the diplomatic obstacles to the delivery of a clear and consistent human rights message to the states of the region. Anthony Hyman told us that "on the politically-sensitive issue of promoting democratic rights and civil liberties in Uzbekistan . . . the British embassy has repeatedly failed to get any backing from its European partners."[277] We refer below to an instance of common EU action in Uzbekistan which appears to have been the exception from the norm.[278] While Mr Ballantine welcomed the openness of the Government on human rights issues, he said that "a culture of human rights within the diplomatic community", within which he included multilateral organisations such as the EU, the Council of Europe and the OSCE, was "only at the beginning."[279] Mr Hyman said that the United States had shifted its policy in Central Asia towards the support of authoritarian regimes, "which unfortunately appears to have left the UK Government without any firm policy vis-à-vis democratisation."[280] Jonathan Goodhand of INTRAC told us that the Government had "very limited" room for manoeuvre in this area: its priorities should be to "keep dialogue and engagement going [in a] long-term perspective."[281] There are clearly difficulties involved in working in this environment, and we are concerned that some of our EU partners, and the United States, are not fully committed to making genuine advances in this area. However, given the real significance and importance of establishing human rights and civil society in the region, we recommend that the Government, working on its own, and in co-ordination with its EU partners and with the United States, should act to give a fresh impetus to the monitoring and promotion of human rights in the South Caucasus and Central Asia.

119. Mr Sammut believed that a subtle and nuanced approach to human rights issues by Western governments, particularly in the states of the South Caucasus, was of only limited value: "the message needs to be hammered in forcefully, clearly and loudly."[282] We agree. We recommend that the Government continue to emphasise that the achievement of high human rights standards is an essential element of any true partnership between the United Kingdom and the countries of the region.

Practical assistance from the United Kingdom

120. Dr John Anderson said that "whilst it is easy to offer pious declarations about human rights and democratisation, it is difficult to find practical ways of making a difference."[283] He suggested that contributions might be made in the areas of civic education and the rule of law, "areas with no immediate financial benefits for Britain but areas where investment may reap benefits for both the West and the citizens of Central Asia."[284] We agree that the provision of practical assistance in these areas is one way in which the United Kingdom can actively assist in the development of good governance.

121. We commented in our recent report on Foreign Policy and Human Rights[285] on the value of the Human Rights Projects Fund, a dedicated central fund to which Posts make bids to support local human rights projects. The budget for the fund in the present financial year is £5.13 million.[286] Six projects were supported by the Fund in the financial year 1998-99, in Georgia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, although in the current financial year no projects have yet been approved.[287] Funding for human rights projects is available from a number of other Government sources: within the FCO, Eastern Department and individual Posts can draw on the Wider Europe Command programme budget and the East West Contacts Fund, while Heads of Mission can apply for allocations from the small grants scheme administered by the Know How Fund (KHF). The FCO gave us details of grants made from these funds to support human rights-related activities, including participation in human rights-related courses, publication of reports by local NGOs, the raising of awareness of electoral issues and the sharing of experiences of parliamentary practice:[288] for example, two delegations of MPs from Azerbaijan have visited Westminster since 1997 under KHF auspices.

122. The FCO also provides military and police training and assistance through its ASSIST[289] programme, established in 1998 to replace UKMTAS (United Kingdom Military Training and Assistance). The programme's objective is "to promote respect for civilian democratic government and practices, the rule of law, international human rights standards and humanitarian law within overseas military and police forces."[290] Funding for ASSIST in the region is administered through Wider Europe Command, which has an overall budget of £1.4 million to allocate to thirty countries. In 1996-97, UKMTAS provided assistance for all states in the region save Tajikistan: in the past and present financial years ASSIST has only supported military training projects in Georgia. An associated budget for English-language training (ELT) has funded small ELT programmes in a number of states, under the auspices of the British Council, and a substantial ELT consultancy in Turkmenistan which is now funded by the Ministry of Defence.[291]

123. It is unclear to us why this potentially valuable programme has been cut back. There are serious concerns, indicated above, about the behaviour of the military and the police in a number of states of the region. It is vital to train police and security forces to avoid abuses of civil rights. ASSIST-funded programmes may be able to make a positive contribution to changing the culture of certain security forces. We believe that urgent consideration should be given to the establishment and development of ASSIST programmes with states of the region wherever practicable.


UKMTAS and ASSIST actual expenditure, from 1996-97 to 1999-2000 (in £)*
1996-97 (UKMTAS)
1997-98 (UKMTAS)
1998-99 (ASSIST)
1999-2000 (ASSIST)

* MB = Main UKMTAS/ASSIST Budget ELT = UKMTAS/ASSIST English-language Training Budget POLOT = Police and other Training Budget
+ Includes £16,680 (Armenia) and £8,266 (Georgia) from POLOT Budget, now incorporated into ASSIST
Source: FCO: Appendix 34, Evidence p. 216; Appendix 40, Evidence p. 230

124. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy has a significant role to play in the promotion of good governance. Its Chief Executive, Ms Alexandra Jones, told us that she was determined to intensify the Foundation's activity in the region, and said that its work has increased in Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Uzbekistan, Armenia and Georgia.[292] She noted that no funding bodies were active in Tajikistan, because of the dangerous security situation, nor in Turkmenistan, because of the strength of its dictatorship. The projects outlined in the Foundation's memorandum cover a wide range of good governance activities in the countries concerned, from seminars on political and civic education in Armenia to legal advice to the mass media in Kazakhstan. The recent 33 per cent increase in the Foundation's budget, from £2 million in 1998-99 to £4 million in 1999-2000, is extremely welcome.

235   Evidence p. 79. Back

236  Appendix 7, Evidence p. 128. Back

237   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193. Back

238   Evidence pp. 28-45. Back

239   Appendix 33, Evidence p. 202. Back

240   Evidence p. 82. Back

241   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 194. Back

242   Evidence p. 31. Back

243   Appendix 9, Evidence p. 132. Back

244   Evidence p. 82. Back

245   Council of Europe document As/Bur/AKArm(1999)2. Back

246   Preliminary Statement of the OSCE Election Observation Mission, Yerevan, 31 May 1999, available on ODIHR website: Back

247   Evidence p. 83. Back

248   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193.  Back

249   Evidence p. 29. Back

250   Appendix 9, Evidence p. 136.  Back

251   Evidence p. 85. Back

252   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 194. Back

253   Evidence p. 29. Back

254   Appendix 9, Evidence p. 139.  Back

255   Q75. Back

256   Evidence p. 87. Back

257   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193. Back

258   Evidence p. 30. Back

259   Evidence p. 88. Back

260   Evidence p. 30. Back

261   Evidence p. 89. Back

262   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193.  Back

263   Evidence p. 30. Back

264   The title means "Father of all the Turkmen", and was conferred upon the President by the Turkmen Medjlis in 1993. Back

265   Evidence p. 90. Back

266   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193.  Back

267   Evidence p. 30. Back

268   Evidence p. 92. Back

269   Evidence p. 92. Back

270   Appendix 29, Evidence p. 193.  Back

271   Evidence pp. 30-31. Back

272   Appendix 9, Evidence p. 142.  Back

273   Report distributed by Human Rights Watch, 25 June 1999. Back

274   Evidence p. 81. Back

275   Appendix 30, Evidence p. 196. Back

276   Q64. Back

277   Evidence p. 4. Back

278   See below, paragraph 138. Back

279   Q64. Back

280   Evidence p. 4. Back

281   Q65. Back

282   Evidence p. 25. Back

283   Appendix 5, Evidence p. 124. Back

284   ibid.  Back

285   First Report of the Committee, Session 1998-99, HC 100. Back

286   Appendix 34, Evidence p. 216. Back

287   HC Deb, 11 May 1999, cols. 110-117w, and 8 July 1999, col. 597w. Back

288   Details of these disbursements are contained in Appendix 34, Evidence pp. 216-218. Back

289   Assistance to Support Stability with In-Service Training. Back

290   Appendix 34, Evidence pp. 215-216. New ASSIST criteria were reported to the House on 15 June 1999: HC Deb, cols. 117-18w. Back

291   Appendix 40, Evidence p. 231. Table overleaf gives details of expenditure to date. Back

292   Appendix 35, Evidence p. 222. Back

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