Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence - Sixth Report


Memorandum submitted by Holly Cartner, Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

  Thank you for the opportunity to share our concerns with the Foreign Affairs Committee. Human rights problems are an important part of an asessment of a bi-lateral relationship with countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, and I am enclosing Human Rights Watch materials on the region that I hope will be useful to your inquiry [not printed].

  In recent years the regions's energy resources have attracted heightened interest among governments, international financial institutions, and potential investors. The poor human rights records of many of these countries should give pause to potential investors and partners. Failure to protect human rights is often indicative of a government`s weak commitment to the rule of law, which in turn makes for an inauspicious environment for securing investment. Sustained economic development cannot take place in an environment where the government expresses a profound disrespect for human rights, transparency, and the rule of law. 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 repression, censorship, intimidation and physical abuse. Proponents of investment in energy rich countries with repressive governments often argue that engagement and investment eventually leads to better respect for rights. This certainly has not been the case in Azerbaijan, where massive investment has attended a deterioration in the human rights situation, and we believe there are no grounds for making such assertion in relation to Turkmenistan.

  The government of Turkmenistan is 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 uses Soviet-style intimidation tactics. The government has jailed independent, peaceful political activists, and incarcerated at least two in psychiatric asylums; police thugs have beaten others for such sins as meeting with British embassy officials.

  In Uzbekistan, the government has kept a tight grip on power by harassing non-government political parties and independent political activists and by censoring the media; it also has also tightly controlled human rights and other non-government organizations. Throughout the past six years the government has waged a campaign to keep Islam under state control. In at least two security emergencies in the past eighteen months, it has blamed independent Islamic leaders and their followers (whom the government has branded "Wahabists," or "terrorists"). The enclosed report, Crackdown in the Farghona Valley, [not printed] documents the pattern of abuse—arbitrary arrests, planting of evidence, banning of indpendent Islamic religious activity—that occurred in the wake of a security emergency in December 1997. The enclosed letter to Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich documents the pattern of politically motivated arrests that followed the February 16 explosions in Tashkent [not printed].

  General chaos, a repressive government, and intermittent military hostilities characterize the human rights situation in Tajikistan. Six years after the outbreak of Tajikistan's civil war, the economy is in total disarray and the government controls very little of the country, not even its own security forces. In those few spheres where the government does exert control, such as in the political process, the media, and all forms of custody, repression of liberties is prevalent. Moreover, despite the 1997 peace agreement ending the civil war between the government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), hostilities have continued to erupt, and with them, abuse of civilians of the kind that tore southern Tajikistan apart during the conflict's worst days. The enclosed report on Leninabad, Tajikistan's more prosperous northern province, documents the government's sweeping crackdown there in 1997 [not printed].

  The government of Kazakhstan tolerated opposition political activity and a vibrant media, but at the same time consistently subverted, canceled or postponed elections, dissolved parliament, and ruled by presidential decree. The enclosed letter to OSCE Chairman-in Office Knut Vollebaek documents violations committed in the run-up to the 1999 presidential elections [not printed]; during this period, the government cracked down on the independent media, introduced new laws and decrees intended to stifle the legal exercise of electoral rights, and blatantly violated freedom of association, speech and political participation that hinder the development of civil society.

  The government of Azerbaijan has so far failed to commit itself to human rights improvements and institutional reform required of it as a country seeking entry to the Council of Europe. Torture and rampant physical abuse of detainees is common in police custody, as is police extortion and widespread impunity for abusive law enforcement agencies. The government attempts to stifle civil society through violations of electoral rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. Significantly , the run-up to the October 11, 1998, presidential elections was characterized by attempts to stifle the exercise of electoral rights, by police brutality against public demonstrators and physical abuse in custody after their detention, and by harassment and attempts to stifle the print and broadcast media. Yet even following the October presidential elections, the police continued to physically abuse demonstrators, and government officials have turned to the courts—which enjoy no independence from the executive—to squelch freedom of the press through a wave of criminal and civil defamation suits against journalists and newspapers. Moreover, throughout the past year violations of freedom of association and the arbitrary application of registration laws governing non-governmental organizations and other associations hindered and stifled the development of civil society.

  In Armenia, rampant human rights violations in the army and in police custody are testimony to the government's lack of commitment to accountability for abuse and institutional reform. Our research has found a pattern of harassment, beatings, and even deaths of conscripts by older conscripts and officers, often with the aim of compelling conscripts to perform humiliating tasks and to extort money and personal belongings from them. Armenia has no alternative service law, and conscientious objectors, who in most cases confess non-Apostolic faiths, are subject to especially harsh treatment. Armenia has a record of intolerance toward non-Apostolic religions, which is made clear by the 1997 law on religion and by the government's treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses in the country. We have detailed these and other human rights concerns in Armenia in the January letters to the Council of Europe rapporteurs on Armenia, which are enclosed [not printed].

  Georgia has made some progress in institutional reform in areas that affect human rights. We remain concerned, however, by the often brutal conduct by security forces, by the human rights implications of the conflict in Abkhazia, and by the treatment of ethnic minorities. I refer you to the enclosed chapter on Georgia, excerpted from Human Rights Watch's 1999 World Report for elucidation of the first and second of these concerns [not printed]. The treatment of Meskhetians—an ethnic group deported by Stalin from Georgia to Uzbekistan and then forced by local ethnic rioting to flee, mostly to Russia in 1989—has been a long-standing concern for Human Rights Watch (see excerpts from our 1991 report, The Punished Peoples of the Soviet Union). We welcomed the Georgian government's participation in September 1998 conference devoted to the issues of discrimination against members of the Meskhetian community and citizenship matters, and were heartened by the Georgian government's pledge to promote both repatriation and the regularization of their status. Yet one week after the conference, Georgian police detained and deported ethnic Meskhetians who had mounted a peaceful protest in Tbilisi on citizenship and return, casting doubt on the government's original commitment to find a long-term solution to the problem.

March 1999

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