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Europe and Central Asia

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Children’s Rights

Women’s Human Rights


Defending Human Rights

On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is appropriate to note the dramatic progress that the human rights movement has made in the region in the past decades. Fifty years ago, Europe lay in shambles and the Cold War was just beginning. Independent human rights groups did not figure in the discourse of the day. Nevertheless, the seeds of what would become the UDHR, as well as of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Helsinki Final Act, existed in the moral and political obligation to prevent the repetition of the slaughter of Jews and others in Europe during World War II.

Over the ensuing decades, human rights activists gradually emerged in the countries of the Soviet bloc, particularly in the 1970s, when local activists seized upon the Helsinki accords’ guarantee that each individual had the right “to know and act upon his rights.” Human Rights Watch’s own history is clearly linked to this process. The Europe and Central Asia division (then known as Helsinki Watch) was established in 1978 in response to the persecution of human rights monitors in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia who tried to exercise this right.

Since the collapse of communism, there has been an explosion of human rights groups throughout the former communist bloc, and they are a force in all but a few countries in the region. Even in countries such as Belarus, the FRY, Turkey and Uzbekistan, government hostility and state-created obstacles for NGOs have not prevented such groups from forming and playing an increasingly important role in their countries and among the international community. What is more, human rights has become an accepted topic of bilateral and multilateral relations throughout the region, with few governments daring to claim that human rights violations are solely a matter of internal concern. The establishment of the Council of Europe, with its preeminent human rights agenda, and the establishment and expansion of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (as a result of the Helsinki accords) have further established human rights concerns in the common discourse of the region.

Nevertheless, human rights activists and groups continue to face many difficulties. During 1998, human rights activists in Azerbaijan, Belarus, FRY, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan were threatened, arrested, and/or violently assaulted. Activists in these and other countries also faced smear campaigns by the government, state-sponsored harassment, police brutality, and arrest because of their outspoken criticism of their government’s human rights record. Although there is a strong human rights community in Turkey, it remained under constant pressure and surveillance by the state security apparatus during the year. In May, Akin Birdal, head of the Human Rights Association in Turkey, was shot repeatedly. A number of persons have been charged in the attack, including an army sergeant. Human rights groups in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—especially those reporting on or speaking out about abuses committed by Yugoslav government forces in Kosovo—were threatened and were the targets of a government-sponsored campaign of intimidation during the year. Ethnic Albanian human rights activists in Kosovo were detained and tortured during the year. In Turkmenistan, government harassment is so severe that there are no independent human rights organizations.

Many NGOs, especially those in countries of the former communist bloc, face severe obstacles related in part to the legal framework that governs their activities. Many countries in the region have laws providing for excessive government involvement in the establishment and supervision of nongovernmental organizations. Governments in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, and Uzbekistan often used such legislation to deny registration to NGOs and intrude excessively into the activities of NGOs. The absence of not-for-profit tax status in some countries is a further impediment to NGO activities. In particular, NGOs advocating for the rights of unpopular religious or ethnic groups, as well as gays and lesbians, have been the target of repressive government actions.

Despite the many obstacles, human rights activists in Europe and Central Asia were remarkably creative and energetic in defending human rights. There were many positive examples of their work during 1998. A growing network of human rights activists has emerged in Russia, not only in Moscow where there is a large and vibrant community, but increasingly also throughout Russia’s regions.

Although government hostility and public support for discriminatory policies toward Roma is widespread in Europe, local groups in the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, together with the European Roma Rights Center based in Budapest, fought tirelessly to raise awareness about the abuses committed against Roma and to defend their rights.

Human rights groups in the former Yugoslavia remained a singular bright spot in the region, offering an alternative vision—one not based on ethnic hatred—to that proffered by their governments. In stark contrast to their governments, multi-ethnic human rights groups from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, and from the FRY provinces of Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia, sometimesunited in public condemnation of the abuses perpetrated against ethnic minorities in the region, and many formed cross-border coalitions to facilitate the safe return of refugees and defend their rights. During the conflict in Kosovo, multi-ethnic teams of Serbs and ethnic Albanians from the Humanitarian Law Center documented the abuses being committed by the Yugoslav Army and special police units. A number of Yugoslav groups united in the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) carried out a skillful campaign to highlight the crackdown on independent media in FRY.

Human rights groups were particularly active and effective in the period leading up to the Multi-Party Agreement in Northern Ireland, ensuring that human rights figured prominently in the peace agreement. After years of campaigning, human rights groups finally obtained a new inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday, a 1972 demonstration during which British paratroopers killed thirteen civil rights demonstrators.

The NGO community was particularly active in efforts supporting ratification of the landmines treaty. In March, NGOs from nineteen Central and East European countries met in Budapest to launch a campaign in countries including Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Russian region of Chechnya. In May, more than 150 NGOs from Russia and the CIS met together with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines to coordinate pro-ban activities.

The emergence of a network of women’s crisis centers throughout Russia over the course of the past four years represented a major success in the development of nongovernmental organizations and civil society. Despite a devastating lack of financial support, these extraordinary groups succeeded in moving rape and domestic violence and the state’s abysmal response to these scourges from obscurity and into mainstream policy debates. They also galvanized the movement against the trafficking of women.





Republic of Belarus

Bosnia and Hercegovina



Czech Republic








The Russian Federation





United Kingdom


Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Asylum Policy in Western Europe



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