Central Asian countries share much in common in terms of their post-Soviet authoritarian legacy and weakness of democratic institutions. As a matter of fact, their post-soviet transition has been marred by a series of authoritarian malpractices, ranging from centralization and personalization of power to extensive crackdown on civil liberties and political freedoms. According to widely- held beliefs many factors can account for this state, including economic slowdown, traditional culture, weak civil societies, post-Soviet authoritarian legacies, as well as ethnic cleavages. A question arises as to how the leadership changes in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have influenced the state of human rights in these Central Asian countries.
While the three Central Asian states have signed up to major international conventions on human rights, their implementation remains a significant problem. Notably, the three countries are members of the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe (OSCE) with ensuing commitments to respect human rights in compliance with CSCE Helsinki Final Act 1975, The Copenhagen Document 1990 and other related OSCE documents. Moreover, Kyrgyzstan has ratified the 1995 Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).
Table 1 (UN Treaty Body Database)
|Human rights treaties||Kazakhstan||Kyrgyzstan||Uzbekistan|
|Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment||Accession||Accession||Accession|
|Optional Protocol of the Convention against Torture||Ratification||Ratification||–|
|International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights||Ratification||Accession||Accession|
|Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance||Accession||–||–|
|Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women||Accession||Accession||Accession|
|International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination||Accession||Accession||Accession|
|International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights||Ratification||Accession||Accession|
|Convention on the Rights of the Children||Ratification||Accession||Accession|
|Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities||Ratification||Signed||Signed|
To assess the implementation level of the commitments assumed under these treaties, it is necessary to refer to the concluding observations made by the international human rights treaty monitoring bodies.
On the freedom of expression in Kazakhstan, Human Rights Committee (hereinafter – Committee) notes, “laws and practices that violate freedom of opinion and expression, including: (a) the extensive application of criminal law provisions to individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression..; (b) the blocking of social media on national security grounds..; (c) the shutting down of independent newspapers and magazines, television channels and news websites for reportedly minor irregularities or on extremism-related charges”. Regarding Kyrgyzstan, the reports of persecution of human rights defenders, journalists, and other individuals for expressing their opinion remain of serious concern. As for Uzbekistan, the Committee notes that defamation, insult of the President, dissemination of false information continues to be criminalized. Moreover, the existing legislation regulating mass communication, information technologies and the use of the Internet unduly restricts freedom of expression. Another set of concerns has to do with ongoing imprisonment of individuals on extremism-related and other politically motivated charges. It has not been uncommon for the authorities to target independent journalists, human rights defenders, and bloggers, for the mere reason of being outspoken and critical.
On the torture and ill-treatment, main concerns include the reported high rates of torture and the high number of claims of torture dismissed at threshold due to the allegedly excessive evidentiary standard required to pursue an investigation under the new Criminal Procedure Code; the reported unduly prolonged duration of investigations into allegations of torture and/or ill-treatment; failure to provide full reparation to victims of torture or ill-treatment, etc. With respect to Kyrgyzstan, while welcoming legislative and administrative measures aimed at preventing torture, including the amendments to the Criminal Code, the Committee emphasizes a series of malpractices, including the practices of torture and ill-treatment of detainees; the number of deaths in custody and the fact that none of the cases reported to the Committee led to any conviction. As for Uzbekistan, the Committee notes that the definition of torture in article 235 of the Criminal Code limits the range of possible victims to “participants in criminal proceedings or their close relatives” and does not apply to all types of perpetrators.
On violence against women, the Committee alarmingly notes that domestic violence remains prevalent and largely underreported in Kazakhstan due to the prevailing stereotypes. Protective measures and support services for victims of violence, including State funding for crisis centers, remain insufficient. Similarly, violence against women remains underreported in Kyrgyzstan, where domestic violence seems to be socially acceptable to a great extent. As for Uzbekistan, main concerns include the reports of forced and early marriage; the fact that domestic violence is not explicitly criminalized in the newly adopted relevant legislation; limited protection, as well as insufficient psychological, social, legal, and rehabilitative services provided to the victims of domestic violence and their families, etc.
Moreover, the Committee expresses concerns over the reports that no independent, impartial, and effective investigation has been conducted into the human rights violations committed regarding the protests in Zhanaozen on December 16th and 17th of 2011, that led to casualties. Similarly, the Kyrgyz government’s failure to fully investigate human rights violations committed during and in the aftermath of the June 2010 ethnic conflict in the south of Kyrgyzstan remains of serious concern. The situation seems to be even worse in Uzbekistan. The Committee repeatedly expresses concerns over lack of an in-depth investigation into the atrocities committed by military and security services during the Andijan events in May 2005.
In terms of minority rights, even a quick glance at the international human right watchdogs’ reports shows severe violations of LGBT rights the Central Asian countries. Even though the LGBT climate in Kazakhstan is better than in the rest of Central Asia, but violence and discrimination still exist. Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense classifies homosexuality as a “mental disorder” and bans gays from performing military service. A 2017 NGO survey within the LGBT community, shows that almost half of the respondents experienced violence or hate because of their sexual orientation. Meanwhile, there were no prosecutions of anti-LGBT violence.
In Uzbekistan homosexuality is still officially illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison. Anti-LGBT discrimination permeates every section of the society with ensuing adverse effects on all aspects of LGBT persons’ lives, including employment, housing, family relations, and access to education and health care. Meanwhile, there are no known LGBT organizations to advocate the community members.
As for Kyrgyzstan, even though the country does not criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults or speech that supports LGBT issues, LGBT persons whose sexual orientation or gender identity was publicly known tend to face a bunch of problems, including physical and verbal abuse, possible loss of employment, and unwanted attention from police and other authorities. Moreover, the events hosted by LGBT groups tend to get targeted by nationalist groups who constantly harass and mistreat sexual minorities.
Similarly, persons with disabilities get routinely subjected to discrimination in the three countries. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has repeatedly expressed concerns about the plight of this vulnerable group in Kazakhstan and recommended to “to ensure that persons with disabilities enjoy unhindered access to all social services, including education and employment, by providing reasonable accommodation in school and in the workplace and improving the accessibility of facilities and services provided and open to the public”. While in May2019 the Government adopted the State Plan to ensure rights and better quality of life for people with disabilities until 2025, it does not seem to offer any immediate measures of support for disadvantaged citizens. The situation is not much different in Uzbekistan, where persons of face formidable challenges in their everyday lives. A well-informed observer notes that “the fact that people with disabilities rarely come out of their houses and do not stand for their rights. The laws are available only on paper, and they will become effective only when people with 10 disabilities will start standing for the accessibility for themselves, including accessible recreation”.
Even though the lives of persons with disabilities in Kyrgyzstan are not a lot easier, in May 2019, Kyrgyzstani Prime Minister Muhammedkaly Abylgaziev took a considerable step towards alleviating their plight. He signed a decree to create an inter-agency working group to implement articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. According to Amnesty International, the main work aims at providing persons with disabilities with rehabilitation services, increasing their life expectancy, taking measures to prevent disability, providing medical and social assistance, ensuring equal access to education, justice, and employment, and ensuring freedom of movement.
To sum up, despite their obligations assumed under international law to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights, their actual implementation remains a significant problem in all three countries. The reasons range from centralization of power and weakness of democratic institutions to the prevalence of Soviet authoritarian culture and illiberal norms.