State Department Human Rights Country Reports on the Caucasus and Central Asia May Miss the Forest for the Trees
The US State Department evaluates human rights conditions of the eight nations of the Caucasus and Central in its twenty-second Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The country reports, released on February 25, describe conditions as "uneven" in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; "poor" in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; and "extremely poor" in Turkmenistan. Only in Uzbekistan did the State Department conclude that the situation had actually worsened over the last year.
In addition, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights publishes in-depth analyses of the country reports.
The State Department reports reflect both new priorities in the US government's human rights agenda, and old problems inherent in this type of reporting.
Like an impressionist painting viewed too close, the countless dots of facts presented in each chapter are overwhelming. Viewed at a distance, however, the picture becomes clearer. Despite progress in some areas -- notably legal, penal, or electoral reform -- all of these governments committed serious, widespread abuses in 1999.
According to the State Department, five of the eight countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia practiced extrajudicial killings. Tajikistan engaged in political "disappearances." Five held political prisoners. All imprisoned inmates in conditions that killed them. All but Armenia were known to traffic in humans. All practiced arbitrary arrest and detention and violated freedom of assembly. All funded corrupt judiciaries. All regional governments engaged in torture.
The meaning of this picture can only be that regional governments are not responding adequately to almost a decade of foreign assistance programs to promote human rights, democratization, and the rule of law.
The chapters on the Caucasus and Central Asia are generally comprehensive, although they suggest varying degrees of monitoring by the embassies. They are particularly helpful in highlighting the discrepancy between the theoretical and the actual implementation of legal protections. Consistent with new State Department priorities, this year's reports give unprecedented emphasis to two areas of human rights protections of particular relevance to the Caucasus and Central Asia: the right to freedom of religion and from trafficking in humans, overwhelmingly women.
The treatments of Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan this year are especially detailed. For example, the report on Uzbekistan, is expansive in its description of torture practices, including an incident in which police threatened to rape a dissident's wife and daughters in his presence before killing him. This level of detail helps convey the horror of abuse.
Some of the reporting, however, is inadequate. The chapter on Turkmenistan one of the most brutal regimes in the world -- notes "credible reports" of torture without naming a single one. The chapter on Uzbekistan states that "It is now widely believed that Imam Abidkhon Nazarov, missing since March 5, 1998, fled the country to avoid arrest, and was not abducted by security forces." It offers no explanation, however, for the State Department's dropping this important case, previously considered a political "disappearance."
The format itself also compromises a full understanding of human rights conditions in the region. Overarching themes are not readily apparent in reading individual country reports. Covering conditions country-by country is convenient and necessary from a legal standpoint. But borders are literally being redefined in parts of the region, and some of the most important causes of human rights abuse span international borders. In addition, with few exceptions, U.S. policy is crafted regionally, hence such legislation as the "Silk Road Act." Discussion of broader human rights trends would enhance the country reports.
In submitting the country reports to Congress, Assistant Secretary of State Harold Hongju Koh declared that "These reports form the heart of U.S. human rights policy." That may be true, but the chapters on the Caucasus and Central Asia suggest how far human rights policy can be from the heart of U.S. foreign policy in general. The regions may be attracting increased interest from the US government, but human rights do not appear to play a major role in determining policy priorities. Instead, political and economic aspects of regional issues including oil- and gas-sector development, the rise of "Islamic fundamentalism" and drug trafficking dominate the policy agenda. A mandatory accounting of U.S. responses to the abuses documented would be a welcome addition to the annual tome, both for the Caucasus and Central Asia and globally.
Erika Dailey is an editorial consultant to the Central Eurasia Project, covering human rights-related issues in the Transcaucasus and Central Asia. Between 1992 and 1998, Ms. Dailey worked as a researcher and human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, based in New York and Moscow, covering principally the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation. Since 1998, Dailey has worked as a human rights advocate for Human Rights Watch, the International League for Human Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has a BA in Slavic Studies from Princeton (1986) and an MA in Central Asian Studies from Columbia (1991). She has lived in and traveled to the Caucasus and Central Asia regularly since 1987.