|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights
on His Recent Mission to Central Asia
A number of Central Asian nations face human rights challenges, including restrictions on the rights of expression and free assembly, and a lack of space for a strong and vibrant civil society, the senior United Nations human rights official said at a Headquarters press conference today.
Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, said he had visited Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan between 19 and 28 May to explore trends, challenges and emerging issues in human rights, and to identify windows of opportunity for cooperation with United Nations entities and other partners.
First and most striking, he said, was the issue of democratic space for freedom of expression, association and assembly, the conditions under which non-governmental organizations could be registered and operate, and the pressures on civil society and journalists. In that regard, all of the States visited had a common starting point in the Soviet Union, he said, adding that it was quite evident that restrictions remained, though to varying degrees.
By far the best on those fronts was Kyrgyzstan, which had overthrown former president Kurmanbek Bakiyev in 2010, he said. The country’s civil society was now vibrant and had “reached the point of no return”. In Tajikistan, the right of journalistic expression was strengthening and democratic space was slowly widening, while Turkmenistan still lacked any meaningful civil society. Despite a tradition of non-governmental organizations and civil society activism, the number of non-governmental groups operating in Uzbekistan remained low due to strong repression, he noted.
The protection and promotion of human rights was needed in all the countries visited, he said, adding that questions of division of powers, rule of law and judicial independence were all major challenges. There was a strong tendency towards the concentration of power in the executive branch, and many judges were appointed explicitly by the executive branch or through its influence.
He went on to note that torture was also a major problem in all the region’s countries. For example, while Tajikistan had passed laws prohibiting the practice, there was no evidence of their application in practice. In some countries, the lack of independent monitoring of detention centres was severe, he said, pointing out that the International Committee of the Red Cross had suspended its visits to Uzbekistan’s detention centres a month ago because the minimum criteria required for them had not been met.
With regard to social and economic rights, there was a stark difference in the gross domestic product (GDP) levels of the four countries visited, he said, noting that Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan were poor countries, while Turkmenistan’s “rampant growth rates” were linked to oil and gas, as were those of Kazakhstan, which he had not visited. However, the extent to which that growth reflected positively on the lives of average citizens was questionable.
The level of violence against women was generally “quite disturbing” in the region, though it varied by country. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, one third of marriages in the ethnic Kyrgyz community were based on bridal abductions. Another drastic case was Turkmenistan, where there was not a single female prosecutor.
“A great problem across the whole region is corruption, including high-level corruption, and organized crime,” as well as the possible links between the two, he said. Meanwhile, there were major security concerns relating to Afghanistan and the post-2014 period, when international troops were scheduled to leave the country. That was especially true in Tajikistan, which shared a long, uncontrolled border with Afghanistan. There were also general concerns across the region about the spread of terrorism and extremism, he noted, warning nonetheless that “that cannot justify human rights violations”.
Asked about the levels of influence enjoyed by the Russian Federation, European Union and the United States in the region, Mr. Šimonović said: “There is a strong Russian influence in the area.” However, it varied from country to country, with some countries extremely cautious about entering into agreements with foreign States, while others, such as Uzbekistan, were becoming more oriented towards the United States.
When asked about a concentration of Armenians that had reportedly caused tensions in the region, he said he was not aware that they were at risk of persecution on ethnic grounds, adding that their number was not high in the countries he had visited. There was a very specific Jewish Armenian population in Uzbekistan, with strong ties to the United States, particularly New York, he noted.
Responding to a question about the 2005 Andijan massacre, in which Uzbek soldiers had fired into a crowd of protestors, killing hundreds of people, the Assistant Secretary-General said the root causes of the incident had not been sufficiently investigated, but insisting on the full truth was critical. There were 11 pending requests to visit Uzbekistan from special rapporteurs, he added.
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