Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.
I arrived in Kazakhstan less than 48 hours ago, after completing a visit to Kyrgyzstan, where my Regional Office is located. It has been my first ever visit to Central Asia and I would like to thank the government of Kazakhstan for inviting me and for its continued cooperation with my office.
Over the past two days I have had discussions with Prime Minister Karim Masimov, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Interior and Justice, the Chair of the Constitutional Council, the Prosecutor-General, and the Ombudsman, as well as a number of other senior officials. I also met with some of Kazakhstan’s most prominent human rights defenders and civil society organizations, who have been playing a very important role in the country’s human rights development since it became an independent State on 16 December 1991.
As UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, one of my key tasks is to assist countries – all countries – fill in the gaps in their domestic human rights systems, using the range of painstakingly developed international human rights laws and standards as our starting point.
Kazakhstan has come a long way in the 20 years since independence, particularly in terms of economic growth and urban development. It is also now a major player on the international scene: former Chair of the OSCE, current Chair of the OIC and a candidate for the next round of state elections to the 47-member Human Rights Council in Geneva.
I have noted that Kazakhstan is bound by the International Bill of Rights, as it has ratified the two overarching Covenants that between them cover the whole range of civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights. It has also ratified most of the main human rights Conventions, and the Foreign Minister informed me that it would soon ratify the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, once it has completed the necessary process of amending various national laws to reflect the Convention’s provisions.
The country’s candidacy for membership of the Human Rights Council will inevitably result in a spotlight being placed on its human rights record, as will any future application to join bodies such as the OECD. For that reason – but not only that reason – I believe my visit here to be timely.
The tragic events in Zhanaozen on Independence Day last December, when some 15 people were killed and dozens of others injured after police fired live rounds into crowds of people in the town centre, and another incident at a nearby railway station the following day, came as a great shock to the nation – and to the outside world.
The facts revealed so far suggest that there was excessive use of force and abuse of power and that the underlying causes of the situation were fuelled by corruption on the part of the local authorities. At the beginning of June, 34 out of 37 striking oil workers and their supporters were convicted on a range of charges, and 13 of them -- including a mother of four -- were given prison terms of three to seven years. The remainder were either given suspended sentences or amnestied.
In a series of other trials, four more demonstrators were jailed in relation to the events at Shetpe station; five policemen were given five to seven year jail terms for excessive use of force and abuse of power; and the head of a remand centre was jailed for failing to provide medical assistance to a detainee who died, allegedly after being beaten in custody.
Despite these developments, a precise account of exactly what happened in Zhanaozen, both during the tragic events themselves and afterwards, remains elusive. Few NGOs and journalists were able to work effectively in the town in the immediate aftermath, partly because of its remote location in the far west of Kazakhstan, but mostly because of the security clampdown in the wake of the 16-17 December violence.
Allegations of torture and forced confessions do not seem to have been properly investigated, and there are many serious question marks over the fairness of judicial processes, and the conduct of trials. It is not clear who gave the orders allowing police to open fire, nor precisely why they did so. There are also serious concerns that police are not properly trained in non-lethal methods of crowd control.
I applaud the fact that the government has given substantial financial compensation to victims’ relatives, since reparations are important. I also welcome the information given to me by the Minister of the Interior that non-lethal riot control weapons are now being provided to towns like Zhanaozen, that police are being retrained and that the operational guidelines are being changed.
Nevertheless, there are still too many unanswered questions about the violence that occurred last December – including differing narratives about how events unfolded, and the fundamental question as to whether or not the actions of the strikers warranted the use of live fire, in other words whether it was both necessary and proportional. It is also not clear how many of the problems acknowledged by the government are systemic, rather than unique to Zhanaozen.
I believe it is extremely damaging to Kazakhstan’s reputation to have so much uncertainty hanging over such a serious episode resulting in substantial loss of life. As a result, I have recommended to the Government that the only way to credibly answer these questions once and for all, and draw a line under these tragic events, is to authorize an independent international investigation into the events themselves, their causes and their aftermath.
The Zhanaozen events, if properly investigated and lessons drawn, could turn out to be a watershed for Kazakhstan. It contains, in microcosm, many of the human rights concerns and critical gaps in the country’s laws and rule-of-law institutions.
These include allegations that torture is still practised in Kazakhstan, even though it has ratified the Convention against Torture, a situation that makes the creation of an effective “National Preventive Mechanism” – an independent body that has the power to inspect all places of detention – a matter of urgency. Another essential element in the effort to combat torture is to halt the common police practice of failing to register people during the first few hours after they are detained – which is precisely the time when they are mostly likely to be subjected to torture.
Fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of assembly lie at the heart of the Zhanaozen events, and I have heard much concern expressed that the space for public criticism – such an essential part of the democratic process -- is now shrinking rather than expanding. Media are only partially reporting difficult stories such as Zhanaozen, which suggests a stifling form of self-censorship brought on by legislation and practices such as the current draconian libel law. I believe a new or amended media law that decriminalizes libel is needed.
Freedom of assembly is far too restricted in Kazakhstan, with the organizers held responsible – with heavy penalties – for security which they are powerless to provide, and which should be the responsibility of the police. Such a provision is wide open to abuse, since it gives protestors’ opponents an incentive to deliberately create disruptions in order to put them out of action. Groups wishing to make public protests are also subjected to a range of excessively complex or easily abused bureaucratic requirements and restrictions that severely undermine this important fundamental human right. I believe the 1995 law on freedom of assembly should be replaced by a new law that is in accordance with international standards.
The allegations that investigations into the events in Zhanaozen were flawed or incomplete, and that due process and fair trial guarantees were not followed, are also emblematic of a wider malaise affecting the country’s law enforcement and judicial systems, both of which are in need of significant reforms. Critics also point to contradictions or gaps in the existing Criminal Code, and lack of transparency in the drafting of a new Code (because of this, civil society organizations are taking the extraordinary step of drafting their own alternative Code, which they plan to compare with the Government’s one once the latter is finally unveiled).
The alleged root causes of the original strike – deep disparities in the distribution of wealth and unsatisfactory labour laws – reflect some major socio-economic problems at the national level. These include huge differences in the resources available to cities like Astana and Almaty and remoter rural towns and districts.
Other concerns I have heard during my visit include the country’s very high suicide rate, especially among teenagers, as well as domestic violence.
The new law on religion is arousing fears that many individuals’ fundamental right to practise the religion of their choosing may be curtailed as a result of a mandatory re-registration of all religious groups, under unjustifiably strict criteria adjudicated by an unaccountable and ill-defined “expert” body.
Full respect for human rights and the rule of law, as laid down in painstakingly researched and negotiated international laws and standards, is I firmly believe essential for the stable and prosperous long-term development of any State.
Kazakhstan has made enormous economic progress since independence – as is clearly shown in this remarkable new capital Astana.
However, I believe the events of December 2011 in Zhanaozen should act as a warning: an economic boom and rapid urban development by themselves are not enough. Financial prosperity for part of the population should not be sought at the expense of the full spectrum of civil, cultural, economic, political and social human rights for the population at large. Ignoring this was the mistake made in Tunisia, where very positive economic indicators masked the despair of a population deprived of many of their fundamental human rights.
I have asked the Prime Minister to convey to the President my strong belief that promoting and protecting human rights needs to be a key priority for Kazakhstan, one that will only reinforce peace and stability as well as economic and social development.
A comprehensive national human rights action plan, involving key ministries, state institutions and civil society organizations, and addressing all recommendations from the international human rights system - especially those relating to weaknesses in the rule-of-law institutions - would be the best way to begin the process of carefully planned and coordinated reform. It would undoubtedly attract the combined support of the international community and the entire United Nations system, including my Office.
I fully recognize that achieving high human rights standards across the board in such a vast country as Kazakhstan, only 20 years after becoming independent, is a difficult task. But this is a country that has impressive human and mineral resources, and has already pulled off some major feats in terms of development. It can, I believe, successfully rise to meet its human rights challenges if it chooses to do so, and in the process become a good model for other countries to follow, not just in Central Asia
but also in other regions of the world.
UN Human Rights, country page – Kazakhstan - http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/KZIndex.aspx
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