June 5, 2022, will be remembered as a turning point in the history of Kazakhstan. On that day, an overwhelming majority of our people turned out and voted in favor of a series of proposed reforms to the constitution, intended to create a fairer system with greater transparency, accountability, and expanded freedoms. The sweeping democratic changes put forward on this referendum day, are deep-rooted and systemic. They follow a meaningful process of listening to the people and taking on board their grievances.
The issues that require addressing are many and varied, affecting every aspect of Kazakhstan’s social, political, and economic culture. This long-term reforms program is all building toward the New Kazakhstan vision, created by The Head of State, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. New Fair Kazakhstan is a country with the human rights, freedoms, competitiveness, and opportunities of Kazakhstan’s modern contemporaries, combined with the culture and traditions of our Central Asian heritage.
Among the significant innovative reforms is Government Decree No. 258, known as “The Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law”, adopted by Kazakhstan’s government on April 28, 2022. This proposal includes 27 actions divided into eight sections designed to protect and expand the rights of the people, focusing on marginalized and minority groups across Kazakhstan. It is pursuant to Decrees No’ 871 and 597 of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan, dated April 13, this year, and June 9, 2021, “On further actions of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the field of human rights”.
Measures within this Follow-up Plan are unprecedented in Kazakhstan’s 31 years of independence since the Soviet era faded away. They are aimed at eliminating discrimination against women, promoting equal rights and opportunities for men and women, protecting the rights to freedom of association, the rights of persons with disabilities, victims of human trafficking, migrants, stateless persons, and refugees, as well as improving mechanisms for interaction with UN bodies.
Ending Discrimination Against Women and Ensuring Gender Equality
Previous proposals passed by this government kickstarted the process of tackling discrimination against women—for example by removing the list of jobs that women were restricted from taking up, thereby expanding employment opportunities.
The new plan seeks to expand on these gains by promoting the commitments to gender policy at the local government level and giving women a more powerful voice on policy through increased representation in government and state-related advisory roles. It also calls for new mechanisms to prevent violence against women and children and includes a proposal for accession to the International Labor Organization Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the Workplace.
Freedom of Association
The plan calls to include two new draft laws to expand the freedoms afforded to citizen-led organizations. The first of these would expand the rights of citizens to form public associations and organize their activities, reducing state interference in the process. The second would improve legislation and law enforcement surrounding trade unions and labor conflict resolution. This section of the plan was drafted with the support and recommendations of the International Labor Organization.
Persons with Disabilities
This section of the plan envisages a series of proposals to be put before the Presidential administration by the end of 2022 with proposals for non-financial incentives for businesses and organizations in the social and banking sectors and other service providers, to ensure increased opportunities and accessibility to persons with disabilities. Such proposals are not only a moral imperative but as with many of the clauses, they are also geared toward creating the circumstances for meaningful social and economic impact for the individuals themselves as well as for the wider society.
Criminal Justice and Prison Reform
This is the most extensive and detailed part of the plan, once more building on the existing process of reforms to ensure that its benefits are felt across every part of society, especially those most often overlooked, marginalized, and mistreated. Its measures will materially affect the work of the government, the Supreme Court, lawmakers, prison officers, civil society organizations, and the business sector, offering a fundamental and vital overhaul to existing processes.
Much of the work outlined in this section includes proposals to modernize existing procedures, such as applications for early release owing to illness or disability (and updating the list of diseases that qualify the sufferer for early release), improving the functionality of the centralized database of the penitentiary system, streamlining the appeal submission process while ensuring full confidentiality, and automating the selection process for drafting a list of jurors. Also on the penitentiary system, there are proposals for the construction of 17 modern penitentiary institutions to reduce overcrowding, as well as renovating and upgrading existing institutions.
Also included in this section is a liberalization of the administration and oversight of human rights organizations, to ensure they can carry out their work to protect the rights of those they serve without unnecessary and unwanted interference and the establishment of a working group on their protection. In terms of the legislative branch, specific articles and laws to be amended include provisions on discriminatory policies, administrative arrest, and “dissemination of knowingly false information.”
Finally, there are regulations on investigating torture in accordance with the Istanbul Protocol and examining the use of physical force and “special means” by law enforcement, specifically by GP officers.
Victims of Human Trafficking, Migrants, Stateless Persons and Refugees
Kazakhstan’s efforts in recent years to tackle the scourge of human trafficking have been recognized in the US Government’s annual “Trafficking in Persons Report.” In the report, it was noted that Kazakhstan is “making significant efforts,” that the country has increased the number of trafficking convictions for a second consecutive year (including of a complicit official), and that the government has expanded its collaboration with NGOs and international organizations.
As part of these efforts, the plan calls to introduce the draft law on combating human trafficking and to adopt the government’s 2024-2026 action plan on preventing and combating crimes related to human trafficking. This is based on findings from the existing action plan and recommendations provided in a special report of the Commission on Human Rights. Recognizing the global nature of such issues, one article in the plan also calls for the government of Kazakhstan to propose international treaties to safeguard the human rights of stateless persons and foreign nationals temporarily residing in Kazakhstan.
Interaction with UN Bodies
Many of the issues identified in creating this plan can be tackled and reduced by working with international organizations and relying on the existing corpus of research and protocols. In this spirit, the plan calls for the continued implementation of human rights assessment indicators, based on the model of the Global Indicators developed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The Road to Modern Democracy
The Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law is yet another step on Kazakhstan’s ongoing journey to build a better future for its citizens. We are under no illusions as to the scale of the task ahead — the road will be long and patience will be required on all sides.
The most recent national address of President Tokayev launches a new political era for Kazakhstan. Political modernization stressed by the President can give significant impetus to the nation-building project “strong President – influential Parliament – accountable Government”. Yet as President highlights some pressing issues related to a plurality of opinion, freedom of speech, domestic violence, and socio-economic development remain to be solved.
Nonetheless, I am convinced that these reforms in aggregate will lead the country to a brighter economic and social future. They will encourage a more motivated and engaged middle class, with improved opportunities. They will establish new channels to respond to our citizens’ voices. In an age of regional and global turmoil, when concerns of democratic backsliding are extensively felt in many countries, I am confident the New Kazakhstan is traveling the opposite road – The road to a New Fair Kazakhstan.
Further details on the approval of Kazakhstan’s Follow-up Plan for Human Rights and the Rule of Law can be found on the official website of The Ministry of Justice