As a first-hand observer since 1997 of the United Nations Mission of Observers to Tajikistan (UNMOT), I witnessed the end of its mandate on May 15 with mixed feelings. UNMOT's withdrawal is unlikely to make a significant short-term difference in human rights protection -- testament to its success, and its irrelevance.
UNMOT mediated peace negotiations and oversaw the implementation of the 1997-peace agreement that formally ended the five-year civil war between the government and the United Tajik Opposition (UTO). UNMOT helped end that conflict by bringing the warring parties to the peace table. That alone helped create a significant degree of security.
However, a spottily enforced peace agreement cannot eradicate conflict, let alone establish a rule of law capable of ensuring long-term human rights protection. Rather, a new, more latent form of conflict now reigns in Tajikistan: civil unrest driven by uncontrolled armed elements, as well as corruption in the executive and judiciary branches of government. It is criminality born of drug trafficking, brutality and incompetence within the security forces. Human Rights Watch has documented that serious violations have persisted even after the signing of the peace accord, including extrajudicial killings, assault, extortion, kidnapping, and rape. Part of the blame lies with UNMOT's failure to secure adequate implementation of the accord's provisions.
Three years, and $100 million after the signing of the peace agreement, UNMOT mission leaves behind it a disastrous human rights landscape. Demobilization is incomplete, and security agencies remain largely unreformed and unaccountable for human rights abuses. Indicative of the population's sense of insecurity is the recent opening of international counseling centers in Dushanbe, where patients relate that their trauma is directly attributable to the fear of unpredictable violence at the hands of government troops, police or other armed groups.
The UN peacekeeping mission was handicapped in several ways. The peace agreement was a weak legal document, lacking benchmarks and fixed deadlines for completion. The initial implementation schedule was also wildly unrealistic: the one year originally allotted for implementation quickly mushroomed to almost three. UNMOT had a mediating role, but was accorded no executive authority, which might have helped it accelerate the pace of implementation. Moreover, the mission's military observers were unarmed, making them vulnerable to several instances of hostage-taking and murder. These unfortunate incidents set the implementation process back even further. In particular, July 1998 murders of four UNMOT personnel resulted in the closing of the field office closed for ten months.
The mission did little to restore its authority, credibility, and effectiveness. Despite the clearly-enunciated human rights goals contained in the peace accord, and in UNMOT's mandate, the mission never created a human rights monitoring or reporting unit. It also consistently neglected to denounce human rights abuses, or call for accountability. For example, it was largely silent even when the constitutional referendum, and presidential and parliamentary elections were rigged, signaling that electoral fraud is tolerable when expedient in the eyes of the UN. Indeed, UNMOT signaled its indifference toward the parliamentary elections by closing down its field offices even before the second round and run-offs were complete.
Perhaps the nadir of the mission's human-rights work was during the trial following the 1998 murder of the four UNMOT employees. UNMOT conditioned its resumption of activities on a completed murder trial, but did not insist that the trial be just. On the contrary, OSCE and UNMOT representatives who observed the proceedings assert that the suspects were ill-treated, witnesses coerced, and the judge overtly intimidated. Inconceivably, UNMOT officials openly admit that those sentenced are almost certainly not those responsible for the murders. UNMOT thus was itself complicit in violations that it should have been loudly condemning.
In the near future, the large UNMOT contingent will, with Security Council approval, be replaced by a very small, as yet unnamed political office under the Department of Political Affairs. It will face the daunting task of consolidation of the peace process, post-conflict recovery, and economic reconstruction. Its best hope of making a genuine contribution to promoting human rights is to monitor closely the allocation of aid to programs supporting reform of the security structures, demobilization and reintegration of combatants, and creation of an independent judiciary. It should also work to condition international credits on measurable improvements in human rights practices. Otherwise, any hope of progress in the post-UNMOT human rights scene will continue to depend, as ever, on the ideals and bravery of impassioned Tajik citizens.
Marie Struthers has been the Director of Human Rights Watch office in Tajikistan since 1997. She has a B.A. from Vassar College and an M.A. from lUniversite de Montreal.