10 September 2008
At the end of her mission to Turkmenistan, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief concluded that “individuals and religious communities still face a number of difficulties”, although the situation has much improved since 2007. The Special Rapporteur emphasized that she has been assured by the Government “that any concerns [she] may have regarding the situation will be taken into account”.
During her mission, the Special Rapporteur raised concerns at vague or excessive legislation on religious issues and at its arbitrary implementation. Concerning the current prohibition on activities of unregistered religious organisations in Turkmenistan, the Special Rapporteur recalled that “international human rights law guarantees freedom of religion or belief regardless of registration status”. A number of religious communities, unregistered and registered, face restrictions relating to places of worship and imports of religious material. Referring to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, she was also concerned that in Turkmenistan “conscientious objection is a criminal offence and that no alternative civilian service is offered”.
As the first Special Rapporteur invited to visit Turkmenistan, Ms. Jahangir stressed the very good cooperation extended to her by the Government during her mission from 4 to 10 September 2008. She appreciated that “a number of initiatives have been taken by the Government of Turkmenistan in setting up mechanisms to address human rights issues”. The Special Rapporteur emphasized that her country report to the Human Rights Council will be drafted in the spirit of contributing towards the reforms already undertaken by the present Government.
Full text of the press statement delivered by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ms. Asma Jahangir, on 10 September 2008 in Ashgabat:
“Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to thank the Government of Turkmenistan for inviting me to visit this country. I am honoured to be the first Special procedures mandate-holder to be here and I hope that many more will follow.
Turkmenistan is a fast progressing country and there is a high level of tolerance in its society. The United Nations, including its human rights mechanisms, can play a positive and constructive role and I have undertaken my mission in this spirit. The United Nations Human Rights Council has mandated me to identify existing and emerging obstacles to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief and to present recommendations on ways and means to overcome such obstacles. I have found progress in this regard in Turkmenistan. A number of initiatives are being undertaken by the Government. In this regard I had several constructive meetings with Government representatives and have been assured that any concerns I may have regarding the situation will be taken into account.
At the beginning of my country visit, which started on 4 September 2008, I had the privilege to meet with the President of Turkmenistan, H.E. Gurbanguly Berdymuhamedov. I also held talks with a number of senior state representatives at national, regional and local levels as well as with the Chairpersons of the Parliament and the Supreme Court. I am very grateful to the Government for the very good cooperation extended to me. Furthermore, I was able to meet with representatives of religious groups, both registered and unregistered, as well as with other members of civil society. In addition to meetings held in Ashgabat, I travelled to the cities of Dashoguz, Turkmenbashy and Balkanabat.
My mandate has over the years received allegations of serious violations of freedom of religion or belief. It was against this background that in 2003 the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief requested a country visit to Turkmenistan.
I was told by virtually all of my interlocutors that the situation has much improved since 2007; however, individuals and religious communities still face a number of difficulties when manifesting their freedom of religion or belief. There remain problematic legislative provisions and arbitrary implementation which need to be addressed at all levels. I would like to emphasize the following issues:
a) Registration of religious communities
I am very much concerned that activities of unregistered religious organisations are prohibited according to the 2003 Law of Turkmenistan on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations. Although criminal penalties for unregistered religious activity have been removed in 2004, there still remain administrative offenses. Members of unregistered groups, especially those living outside of Ashgabat, are often not permitted to congregate, are unable to find facilities for meetings, and any collective observance may be liable to punishment. In this regard, I would like to emphasize that international human rights law guarantees freedom of religion or belief regardless of registration status. Those who cannot or do not register should still be able to manifest their religion or belief both individually and collectively. Any limitations to freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief must not only be prescribed by law but must also be necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
With regard to registered organisations, they seem to be able to operate with greater freedom in Ashgabat. However, their branches outside the capital face difficulties at the regional level since local registration requirements may lead to arbitrary situations. There continue to be reports – though fewer – that unregistered and registered religious organisations are under scrutiny.
b) Specific legislation on freedom of religion or belief
Several provisions of the amended Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations still need to be made compatible with international human rights standards. Vague provisions are susceptible to arbitrary interpretation or misuse by the law enforcement agencies and local administration. I have urged the Government to review the law, so that it fully protects the rights of individuals and groups in the exercise of freedom of religion or belief. This recommendation was positively received.
Throughout the exercise of my mandate, I have come to the conclusion that vague or excessive legislation in the area of freedom of religion or belief may create tensions and multiple problems rather than solving them. I have often reiterated that, in matters of religion or belief, States have a delicate role to play. Therefore a fair and balanced approach is more likely to build a tolerant and diverse society. This is especially the case for countries in transition.
Furthermore, the role of the judiciary is vital for the application of any specific legislation on religious issues. Indeed, all laws have to be interpreted by an independent judiciary, which should guarantee protection and offer means of legal redress for individuals whose rights are violated. I sincerely urge the Government to initiate reforms in this area, too.
c) State institutions dealing with religious issues
The Presidential Council for Religious Affairs was created with the mandate to, inter alia, exercise oversight of the activities of religious organisations and to represent their interests in state authorities. I have noticed that the Council for Religious Affairs seems to be composed of Sunni Muslims, Russian Orthodox and Government representatives. I would like to emphasize that an inclusive body would inspire the confidence of all religious communities in Turkmenistan. The Council for Religious Affairs, both at national and regional levels, needs to be autonomous and independent. Its orientation should be towards addressing the legitimate grievances of religious communities rather than monitoring them.
I appreciate that a number of initiatives have been taken by the Government of Turkmenistan in setting up mechanisms to address human rights issues. In this regard I welcome that the President established in 2007 an interdepartmental commission to ensure the implementation of Turkmenistan’s international commitments in the area of human rights. I was also informed about a number of projects which are ongoing or being developed with regard to capacity development, training programs on human rights issues and strengthening institutions. I trust that the Government will continue to collaborate with the United Nations and other actors in the area of human rights.
d) Religious material
Concerning religious material, there have been reports that imports of religious books and related literature are subject to restrictions and censorship by the authorities. In this regard, the law as well as its application would need reconsideration.
e) Places of worship
On places of worship, I noticed during my visit that there were restrictions on the building, opening, renting and use of such facilities for a number of unregistered and registered religious communities. Reportedly, religious gatherings in private homes have led to raids and fines.
f) Conscientious objection
I am concerned that conscientious objection is a criminal offence and that no alternative civilian service is offered. However, I would like to emphasize that the right of conscientious objection can be derived from freedom of thought, conscience and religion as guaranteed in article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The country report, which I expect to present to the Human Rights Council in March 2009, will include a more detailed analysis. As I have said earlier, I will be drafting my report in the spirit of contributing towards the reforms already undertaken by the present Government. I will remain available for further constructive interaction with the Government of Turkmenistan in order to facilitate the implementation of the recommendations.
Finally, all improvements also depend upon the role that the civil society, including diverse religious or belief communities, plays within its own country. A responsible civil society is a strong asset for any Government and for the building of a bright future.”