Social tensions have been rising in Kazakhstan since December, but unlike recent flare-ups, this conflict is not simply about economic discontent. This time, the government is going after the best tools that workers have to peacefully and constructively address sources of discontent – independent trade unions.
The Kazakhstani government’s cautious approach to unions – and public dissent in general – is not entirely new. I paid an official visit to Kazakhstan in January 2015 in my capacity as UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful association and assembly. At the time, I got the impression that the country’s laws had long been more focused on limiting strikes than on facilitating the exercise of the right to freedom of association in the workplace. The same was true about authorities’ approach to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, which is burdened by so many oppressive and nonsensical restrictions that it is rendered meaningless.
Developments since December, however, may represent an escalation from cautious to antagonistic.
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Maina Kiai is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.