Politicians Debate Role for Human Rights Ombudsman
President Askar Akayev is moving to establish an ombudsman for human rights in Kyrgyzstan, hoping it will help restore his international image, which was tarnished by criticism over the conduct of rigged elections last year. However, opposition politicians assert that the president's plans, in their current form, will prevent the emergence of an independent voice on human rights conditions in the Central Asian nation.
In recent weeks, government and opposition leaders have argued over details concerning the human rights ombudsman's functions and responsibilities. All sides seem to agree on the need for such an office, but have not resolved several key issues, including the criteria under which an ombudsman will be selected, and who will finance the office's functions.
There are competing blueprints for the establishment of an ombudsman: draft legislation has been prepared both by a group of MPs headed by former presidential candidate Omurbek Tekebaev, and by the Association of Lawyers of Kyrgyzstan. But it has been a recent presidential decree concerning the ombudsman that has generated the most heated debate. The decree envisions that the government would play a much more involved supervisory role of the ombudsman's activities, than does the rival draft legislation.
"The White House's presidential decree will bury the independence of this [ombudsman] structure," said Tekebaev, vice-speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Kyrgyzstan's parliament.
According to draft legislation prepared by the Akayev administration, the human rights ombudsman would be nominated by the president, and the selection ratified by parliament. The main criteria for potential candidates would be: The ability to command nationwide respect; extensive legal experience; and the ability to speak the country's two state languages, Russian and Kyrgyz.
Government opponents argue that Akayev's criteria are too restrictive. In particular, they say it should not be a requirement for the ombudsman to have a law degree. They contend that an ombudsman should merely have an extensive background in human rights advocacy. "If the president's draft passes, this structure cannot be headed by human rights activists, such as Ramazan Dyryldaev (who is now in political asylum in Austria) or by the Jalal Abad activist Albert Korgoldoev," Tekebaev said.
Kyrgyzstan's reputation as being a "Island of Democracy" in Central Asia has been dented in recent months. Not only has the government faced criticism for the way it managed presidential elections last fall. But Kyrgyz officials have drawn international disapproval for the criminal prosecution of leading opposition politicians Feliks Kulov and Topchubek Turgunaliev [for additional information see Eurasia Insight archive], and for a clampdown on civil liberties, including the muzzling of independent mass media. [For additional information see Eurasia Insight archives].
The concept of a human rights ombudsman was first raised by OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities Max van der Stoel. Local observers say one of Akayev's main considerations in pushing for the creation of the ombudsman position at this time is to help restore Kyrgyzstan's democratic reputation. In addition, experts believe that the office of the ombudsman could be utilized by the administration to crack down on corruption at all levels of government.
Debate over the ombudsman's functions is not limited exclusively to political circles. For example, the Coalition of NGOs for Democracy and Civil Society organized public hearings on the ombudsman in all regions of Kyrgyzstan in February. Participants tended to differ most on the issue of financing, as well as responsibility for the nomination of the ombudsman. Many called for the funding of the office by international donors. Concerning the selection process, while some essentially agreed with the presidential nominating proposal, others suggested that local NGOs should play a prominent role in the selection. A few supported the idea of a nationwide vote to elect the ombudsman.
The lack of details concerning selection and responsibilities has not prevented speculation as to who will become the human rights ombudsman. Opposition politicians want an individual who is independent. Meanwhile, several newspapers, including Komsomoskaya Pravda, suggest that likely candidates include Cholpon Baekova, the chairman of the constitutional court, and Jolbors Saadanbekov, the Kyrgyzstan's ambassador in Ukraine. At the same time, some government officials have suggested that Akayev is the best candidate for the position.
Despite the public debate, many ordinary citizens remain uninformed about the process. When queried, some seemed uninterested in the outcome, saying they didn't see any immediate benefits from the creation of an ombudsman's office.
"I don't care about who becomes the ombudsman because I know that he will not help ordinary people. I am sure that he will be appointed from among those fat and well dressed rich deputies and businessmen, and he will help to solve only their problems," said Toigonbayev Japar, a retired Bishkek resident.
Alisher Khamidov is the director of the Osh Media Resource Center in Osh, Kyrgyzstan