Shanghai Cooperation Organization Must Not Punish Peaceful Dissent
June 15, 2006
Some SCO countries have conflated domestic dissent with terrorism, and used abusive means in combating it. While constructive regional cooperation could play an important role in defeating terrorism, there is good reason to worry that the organization simply reinforces members’ worst practices.
Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch.

(New York) – Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) should commit to adhering to international standards on human rights when they meet to discuss joint counterterrorism measures on June 15, Human Rights Watch said today.

Human Rights Watch said that SCO member states – which include Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan – have committed serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law in the name of counterterrorism. Of particular concern are SCO members’ records with respect to extraditions, renditions, extrajudicial executions, treatment of terrorism suspects in police custody, and the treatment of religious dissidents and of ethnic minorities, among others, who peacefully advocate independence.

“Some SCO countries have conflated domestic dissent with terrorism, and used abusive means in combating it,” said Joanne Mariner, Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program director at Human Rights Watch. “While constructive regional cooperation could play an important role in defeating terrorism, there is good reason to worry that the organization simply reinforces members’ worst practices.”

The SCO signed the “Shanghai Convention on Combating Terrorism, Separatism, and Extremism” on June 15, 2001, and considers itself to be “the pioneer organization” dealing with terrorism at the international level. The convention broadly spells out commitments to exchange information, develop joint legal frameworks, and share “practical assistance to suppress” terrorist activities. In 2002, the SCO established the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS), in Tashkent.

In 2005, RATS claimed to have prevented more than 250 acts of terrorism. SCO officials also noted that, “Fifteen chieftains of terrorist organizations were either bagged or eliminated by secret services of Organization members.” Although the organization claims it is not the forerunner to a military alliance, it has conducted several joint exercises. An official recently stated that RATS “spared no efforts to collect information about extremist organizations and terror suspects and posted the blacklist on [its] website.”

China has used its “counter-terrorism” agenda to ruthlessly suppress Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group that comprises the majority of Xinjiang province’s population. Over the past few years, numerous campaigns against the so-called “three evils” of “terrorism, separatism and religious extremism” have led to widespread arbitrary arrests, closure of places of worship, crackdowns on traditional religious activities, and the sentencing of thousands of people to harsh prison terms or death after grossly unfair and often summary judicial processes. (Please see "Devastating Blows: Religious Repression of Uighurs in Xinjiang").

The SCO helped China gain international acceptance for its portrayal of Uighur strife as inspired by, and linked to, international Islamic terrorism. Beijing had long equated independent religious and political activities with “separatism,” but never before has it explicitly linked all dissenting voices in Xinjiang with terrorism. At Beijing’s request, some Central Asian members of the SCO effectively silenced independent Uighur organizations on their soil and forcibly repatriated refugees wanted by China – some of whom have been executed upon their return. China has provided no details about the alleged activities of these “terrorist forces,” arguing that even those who have eschewed violence continue to engage in “separatist thought.”

“Under the guise of combating terrorism, China has stepped up its efforts to silence those peacefully advocating political rights, religious freedom, or independence,” said Sophie Richardson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. “We want to see these practices stopped, not exported.”

Since the late 1990s the government of Uzbekistan has also used the fight against terrorism to justify the imprisonment of thousands of Muslims whose non-violent religious practices, affiliations and beliefs fall outside official institutions and guidelines. In doing so, the government has failed to distinguish between those who advocate violence and those who peacefully express their religious beliefs. Many of those arrested and charged made credible allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody. In the past year hundreds of people were convicted or awaiting trial on charges of “religious fundamentalism.” The government of Uzbekistan also uses terrorism accusations to secure extraditions and deportations.

On May 13, 2005, Uzbek government forces killed hundreds of unarmed protesters in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan. The government has denied its forces’ responsibility for the killings, instead blaming “terrorists and bandits” who had launched an armed uprising in the early morning hours of May 13. In public statements, it branded as “terrorists” hundreds of refugees whose forced return the government sought. The government has refused to even acknowledge the role of government forces in killing civilians in Andijan, arguing that only terrorists were responsible for the deaths. In the past year, more than 200 men have been convicted under more than 30 articles of the Uzbek criminal code, including membership in an extremist organization, murder, and terrorism, and were sentenced to prison terms ranging from nine to 20 years. (Please see “Burying the Truth”; and “Bullets Were Falling Like Rain”).

The July 2005 SCO summit framed the events in Andijan as part of a wider threat of destabilization, rather than as an excessive government response to a largely peaceful demonstration. Some of the resolutions adopted aimed at fighting “terrorism, separatism, and extremism” appeared directly to target Uzbek refugees in Kyrgyzstan, including an accord not to extend asylum to persons classified as terrorists or extremists by SCO member states. Recently Uzbek president Islam Karimov used the Chinese terminology to describe the SCO as “a body which can firmly crack down on the ‘three evils.’”

Russia has billed its armed conflict in Chechnya, now in its seventh year, as a counterterrorism operation. Russia’s forces in Chechnya have committed serious violations of human rights on a massive scale in the name of counter-terrorism. These include torture, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and arbitrary detention. (Please see the Human Rights Watch World Report 2006 chapter on Chechnya; and “Worse Than a War”).

In the course of a counterterrorism operation following the October 13, 2005 attack on Nalchik, in southern Russia, by local insurgents, Russian police engaged in widespread torture and ill treatment of alleged insurgents. As in Chechnya, Russian forces have enjoyed almost complete impunity for these abuses.

The government of Kazakhstan used laws banning political “extremism” to close a prominent opposition political party. In January 2005 a court in Almaty liquidated the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (Demokraticheski Vybor Kazakhstana, or DVK) on charges that it had violated an article of the Law on National Security banning “inciting social tension in society” and “political extremism.” As evidence, the prosecutor’s office cited a DVK statement calling for civil disobedience to protest the conduct of the 2004 parliamentary elections.

“For many years SCO governments have been criticized for their poor human rights records,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The SCO’s policies could worsen human rights conditions and seek to justify abuse. It’s therefore imperative that the European Union and the United States place even greater emphasis on human rights issues in the region.”

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is the successor to the Shanghai Five grouping, which was founded in 1996 and included Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. It was established to facilitate regional security cooperation and confidence. In 2001, the Shanghai Five admitted Uzbekistan and changed its name to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan now have observer status.