As Kazakhstan chairs the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) this year, its human rights record is coming under scrutiny. Kazakhstani officials, in responding to expressions of concern about some aspects of the country's democratization process, insist they are taking steps to make improvements.
Earlier in February, Astana's democratization record was dissected during a United Nations Universal Periodic Review, a process that revealed progress in some areas and shortfalls elsewhere. Not surprisingly, Astana is playing up the positives: its signing of human rights treaties, invitations to UN rapporteurs, its human rights action plan, and Kazakhstan's much vaunted ethnic harmony amid diversity.
"Much has been done in the wake of independence to fortify guarantees of human rights and freedoms," said Kazakhstan's national report, which was prepared in connection with the Universal Periodic Review.
The Kazakhstani government says it is improving the country's human rights climate by taking action to bolster the economic well-being of citizens: Deputy Prime Minister Yerbol Orynbayev told the review session that reducing the number of people living below the poverty line -- 50 percent a decade ago -- to 12 percent was "the greatest contribution to the human rights of our citizens."
Materials submitted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) acknowledged progress in some areas, but singled out shortcomings elsewhere. It cited concerns over freedom of expression and abuses within the judicial system, noting the dominance of the executive branch, corruption and violations of the presumption of innocence. It singled out "fair trial concerns" in the case of rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis, currently serving a jail term for vehicular manslaughter. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insightb/articles/eav100709c.shtml
Astana says it is committed to humanizing the judicial and penitentiary systems, pointing to positive changes: the introduction of court-sanctioned arrest and jury trials, and the abolition of the death penalty, (except for serious terror-related and wartime crimes). The administration additionally says it spent $70 million on improving conditions in the penitentiary system from 2006 to mid-2009.
The OHCHR singled out torture as a concern, pointing to the UN special rapporteur's conclusions after a visit to Kazakhstan in 2009 that "the use of torture and ill-treatment certainly goes beyond isolated instances." Astana points to its ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and its action plan to eradicate torture by 2013 as evidence of its determination to root out such abuse.
In human rights discussions, Astana likes to play up its generally positive record on ethnic harmony. The OHCHR recognized Kazakhstan's good record, but raised concerns about treatment of what Astana terms "non-traditional faiths" (such as Hare Krishnas and Jehovah's Witnesses). Kazakhstan says it is tackling this. "Efforts are being made to detect and suppress any breaches of the law in this area and provide remedies for believers, regardless of their faith, whose rights have been infringed," its national report said.
The review heard concerns about gender discrimination, with the OHCHR citing "the persistence of patriarchal attitudes and deep-rooted stereotypes" which adversely impact women's lives. The administration acknowledged in its national report that "women continue to experience covert discrimination." To counteract this, it has adopted a gender equality strategy and pledged to ensure that women fill at least 30 percent of elected and appointed posts by 2016. In December, a bill on domestic violence -- which the administration recognizes as "an urgent issue" -- became law, and parliament is working on an equal rights bill.
The review adopted several recommendations, including setting up an independent mechanism to prevent torture; prosecuting violations of the rights of journalists and rights activists; boosting judicial independence; addressing human trafficking; and reviewing media legislation.
Joanna Lillis is a freelance writer who specializes in Central Asia.