The annual EU-Tajikistan Human Rights Dialogue will take place in Dushanbe on 17 June 2014. This meeting, which is held in the framework of the EU’s 2007 Central Asia Strategy, is expected to feature discussion on a number of issues concerning the current state of human rights protection in Tajikistan.
In a written contribution to the meeting prepared as part of a joint project with International Partnership for Human Rights and Central Asian partners, the Dushanbe-based human rights NGO Nota Bene outlines, among others, the following concerns that the EU is urged to give close attention to in its discussions with Tajikistani government officials:
- Elections: Monitors from the ODIHR, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and the European Parliament concluded that the November 2013 presidential elections, in which incumbent President Emomali Rahmon won with 84% of the vote, were characterized by a lack of pluralism and genuine choice. Serious shortcomings were also observed on election day. The only opposition and first-ever female presidential candidate failed to meet the restrictive requirement for the number of signatures needed to register after facing obstacles in collecting signatures, as noted by the international observers. In the run-up to the elections, the government also stepped up repressive measures against the political opposition, using among others politically motivated charges and extradition requests.
- Freedom of expression and the media: The situation regarding freedom of expression and the media worsened further in connection with the November 2013 presidential elections. Social media sites, independent news sites and other websites that feature criticism of the authorities are regularly blocked. In a recent example, YouTube and other Google services, including Gmail were reported to have been blocked last week. Journalists and media outlets face intimidation and harassment such as detentions, physical attacks, and legal cases that appear to be retaliation for their criticism of those in power. While libel was de-criminalized for most cases in 2012, civil defamation suits continue to be used against outspoken media and journalists, such as in a recent case against the independent Asia Plus newspaper and one of its editors. Last year one journalist was sentenced to 11 years in prison on extortion and fraud charges, which his colleagues denounced as politically motivated.
- Freedom of association and assembly: Existing legislation provides for burdensome registration requirements for NGOs and grants authorities excessive powers to oversee the work of NGOs. A growing number of inspections of NGOs have been carried out in the recent period and have often been followed by warnings for alleged violations of a technical nature such as failure to re-register after changing an organization’s legal address. If NGOs are deemed to have failed to address identified violations within the required period, they may be suspended or closed down by court. A number of NGOs, including human rights groups have been closed down on questionable grounds in the last few years. By law organizers of assemblies are only required to notify the authorities in advance, but in practice local officials often interpret this as meaning that permission is required and refuse to grant it.
- Freedom of religion: Religious freedoms continue to be restricted in Tajikistan, in particular in the name of combating religious extremism. For example, existing legislation provides for sanctions for conducting religious ceremonies in non-approved places, proselytism in educational institutions and homes, as well as “unauthorized” ties with foreign religious organizations. The right of children to participate in religious services and education is seriously limited, and studying at religious educational institutions abroad is subject to state permission. Authorities enjoy broad powers to oversee and control the activities of religious communities.
Nota Bene’s briefing paper also makes recommendations for measures that the EU should request the Tajikistani authorities to take to improve compliance with international human rights standards in these areas. The briefing paper, for which information from other Tajikistani NGOs has been used, is available here.
The EU has committed itself to promoting human rights in all its external policies, and the 2007 EU Central Asia Strategy establishes human rights as a key element of relations with the governments of this region. With the adoption of this strategy, the EU also set out to engage in a “structured, regular and results-oriented” human rights dialogue with each of the Central Asian governments. Meetings are held annually or bi-annually, with the participation of representatives of the EU’s European External Action Service and Central Asian government officials. The meetings are held behind closed doors, but NGOs are invited to provide information in advance.
A recent study of the EU’s human rights policies in Central Asia, which was commissioned by the European Parliament and written by EUCAM experts, emphasizes the importance of ensuring that the EU’s human rights dialogues with the Central Asian governments are not free-standing events but part of a comprehensive EU engagement in the region. The study concludes that this is essential to ensure effective follow-up on issues raised at the dialogues and to prevent that human rights are separated from other policy areas such as security and energy cooperation in the EU’s relations with the governments of the region.