EU-Kazakhstan human rights talks: Key concerns

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This week, on 12 November 2014, a new round of the annual EU-Kazakhstan Human Rights Dialogue is scheduled to take place in Brussels. International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR) and Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR) call on the EU to use this meeting to convey concerns about the lack of progress on key human rights issues in Kazakhstan since the last dialogue a year ago. The EU should also ensure that such concerns are reflected in its ongoing engagement with Kazakhstan’s government, especially at this time when it is seeking to deepen its relations with the country.

In a briefing note prepared for the upcoming dialogue, the two organizations outline the following human rights issues they believe the EU should raise with Kazakhstan’s government:

  • Kazakhstan’s already seriously weakened opposition media continue to be subjected to pressure, including through initiatives to suspend and close down media outlets for technical mistakes. The practice of arbitrary blocking of websites that feature information critical of the authorities also continues.
  • The government has failed to de-criminalize defamation and set a general cap on the amount of moral damages that can be awarded in civil libel cases. In a recent ruling that reinforced LGBT intolerance, a local court ordered an advertising agency to pay 145 000 EUR in damages because of a creative poster depicting two classical male cultural figures kissing.
  • There has been no end to the well-known pattern in which permission is denied for holding peaceful protests, protests that take place without such permission are dispersed by police, and organizers, participants and even journalists that cover protests are brought to court and given warnings, fines and administrative arrests. The trials in these cases are frequently marred by procedural violations.
  • The new criminal and administrative codes, as well as the new trade union law adopted this summer contain a number of provisions curtailing freedom of association. There are also concerns that the government is considering plans to tighten NGO legislation. As elsewhere in the post-Soviet region, especially foreign-funded NGOs have increasingly been targeted by hostile rhetoric.
  • Several human rights defenders are currently deprived of their liberty on grounds believed to be motivated by their professional activities. These include Roza Tuletaeva and Vadim Kuramshin, who continue to serve prison sentences handed down in unfair trials; Zinaida Mukhortova, who has again been forcibly placed in psychiatric care; and Yevgeniy Tankov, who was recently given a disproportionate prison sentence on charges of threatening and using violence against a judge.
  • There is an urgent need for further enhanced efforts to counteract torture and ill-treatment. In spite of some welcome measures, such as the establishment of a National Prevention Mechanism against Torture, torture remains widespread and the perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. The definition of torture included in the new criminal code still does not fully meet international standards and effective legal safeguards against abuse are lacking.

The EU should request the authorities of Kazakhstan to take concrete steps to address these issues, including by implementing the many, relevant recommendations it received by EU and other states during the recent UN Universal Periodic Review of the country. In addition to communicating this message at the Human Rights Dialogue, the EU should follow up on it as part of its broader engagement with Kazakhstan’s government, in line with the EU’s commitment to promote human rights in all relations with third countries and to link human rights to other policy areas such as trade. The use of such a comprehensive approach was a major recommendation in a recent European Parliament commissioned study of the EU’s human rights policies in Central Asia.

It is particularly important that the EU enforces its value agenda and insists that Kazakhstan’s government improves its human rights record in the context of enhancing EU-Kazakhstan relations. Last month negotiations were concluded on a new EU-Kazakhstan Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which is intended to replace one in force since 1999 and to “significantly deepen political and economic ties” between the two parties. Before the treaty can enter into force, it has to be ratified by the EU member states and the European Parliament. The European Parliament has taken the position that the process of concluding the new PCA should depend on political and human rights progress in Kazakhstan, and the EU’s Foreign Affairs High Representative has also stated that strengthening relations with Kazakhstan “cannot occur independently” from the political reform progress in this country. As shown by the IPHR-KIBHR briefing note and earlier reports by these and other NGOs, the human rights situation in Kazakhstan remains highly problematic and has in many respects deteriorated further since the PCA negotiations began in 2011.

The IPHR-KIBHR briefing note is available here.