The United Nations and United States are showing interest in greater cooperation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Human rights advocates, meanwhile, are urging caution when engaging the SCO, calling attention to the group’s role in suppressing political dissent in Central Asia. The SCO, founded in 2001, has for most of its existence been seen in the West as an anti-American club, dominated by Russia and China, with the primary aim of reducing US influence in Central Asia. Most famously, at a summit in 2005, the group called on the American forces to develop a timetable for vacating military bases in the region. But in recent years the United Nations has been cooperating more with the SCO. In June 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lavishly praised the group: “The SCO has become an increasingly important instrument of security and integration in the Eurasian region,” he said. “It is, therefore, a source of satisfaction that cooperation between the United Nations and the SCO is expanding so dynamically. … I look forward to our continued engagement in our shared quest for peace and prosperity throughout the SCO region.” US diplomats have dropped hints of late that Washington, too, might be open to some sort of cooperation with the organization. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake said recently that Washington “has not made any decisions about whether we’re going to seek some sort of status within [the SCO] as an observer or as a dialogue partner” and that “we think the SCO is a good platform for discussions on how to improve stability and prosperity in the region.” Embracing the SCO carries risks, according to a new report by Human Rights in China, a New York-based organization. The report, titled “Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights: The Impact of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” details the ways in which the SCO's legal framework for counterterrorism violates UN principles, and argues that the UN should pay more attention to the SCO's policies on human rights. While most discussions of the SCO revolve around the geopolitical role of the organization, “this geopolitical debate overlooks the enormous impact of the SCO on its core constituency – the SCO member states’ own citizens – and on the international human rights system,” the report states. For example, the SCO's definition of terrorism closely hews to China's official notion of “three evils” – terrorism, extremism, and separatism. The latter two, in particular, are frequently used by the Chinese government to persecute ethnic minority groups inside China that are agitating for greater cultural and political rights, in particular Tibetans and Uyghurs. The SCO also defines terrorism more broadly than the UN, for example by allowing a “terrorist” to be defined merely by ideology, rather than action. The security organization also appears to place greater emphasis in defining terrorism on actions taken against the state, rather than against the public – a formulation that runs counter to the UN definition, the report says. SCO membership has led Central Asian states to undertake actions that go against international human rights norms, the report goes on to argue. For example, it quotes a former Kyrgyz government official saying that “the Kyrgyz government’s decision to return Uzbeks fleeing the 2005 Andijan crackdown – despite the likelihood that they would be tortured or executed upon their return – took place after [it] had weighed the extradition requirements of SCO treaties against the prohibitions of the [UN] Convention against Torture. In the face of these conflicting obligations, the Kyrgyz government concluded that the SCO framework took precedence,” the report said. Questions about definitions have not discouraged the UN from seeking greater cooperation with the SCO. The UN has prioritized cooperation with regional blocs generally, under the belief that “regional problems demand regional solutions,” in Ban's framing. The SCO is an official observer organization to the UN, and member states – China in particular – have pressed for the SCO to have a greater role in developing counterterrorism policies for the region. “UN-SCO cooperation is on this fast-moving train and the train has left the station, and what this report is attempting to do is to slow it down,” Sharon Hom, HRIC's executive director, told EurasiaNet.org. In the SCO’s case, the notion that the UN should privilege regional organizations “is going unquestioned,” added the report's chief researcher, Sarah McKune. “It's not examined whether individual members of the organization have their own agenda, or find it expedient to ignore human rights.” The idea that the United States might cooperate with the SCO is relatively new; Blake made his comments after the report was completed, and Hom said it was “premature” to guess what the human rights impact of US cooperation with the group might be. But she said the report was intended to serve as a warning for countries, including the United States, that are thinking about engaging the SCO. The outreach from the State Department to the SCO is likely a product of the Obama administration's desire to get China more involved in Central Asian issues, in particular Afghanistan reconstruction, said Alexander Cooley, a professor of political science at Barnard College, and an expert on the SCO. [Editor’s Note: Cooley serves on the advisory board of the Open Society Foundations’ Central Eurasia Project (CEP). EurasiaNet.org operates under CEP’s auspices]. China has promoted the organization as not just a security bloc, but also an economic development group, working on infrastructure projects and setting up a development bank. It is the SCO’s economic aspects that have “intrigued” some US officials, Cooley said. Privately, many American policymakers believe that China is a “free rider” in Afghanistan, gaining economic benefits without bearing any of the security or reconstruction burden. Blake's comments were the result of “hoping that China would pony up more, using the SCO as a vehicle,” Cooley said. “The desire to cooperate with the SCO is rooted in wishful thinking about what the organization could be, as a regional public goods provider, rather than its actual track record of facilitating cooperation, which is still not good beyond the security realm,” Cooley said.
Joshua Kucera is a freelance writer who specializes in security issues. He is the author of EurasiaNet's Bug Pit blog.