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Human Rights Developments

The long-anticipated outbreak of violence in the province of Kosovo—with war crimes committed primarily by Yugoslav government forces against the civilian ethnic Albanian population—and the dramatic deterioration of Russia’s economy that pushed the country to the verge of chaos were the most notable developments in the region in 1998. Both cases underscored the threat posed when human rights and the rule of law are downplayed in order to promote interests such as territorial integrity, regional security, or economic gain.

While the international community touted the need for regional stability and a regional approach to security concerns, governments such as the United States and the member states of the E.U. often ignored the regional security threat posed by human rights violations and indicated no recognition that the failure to insist on accountability for atrocities in one country or region often fueled abuses in another.

There was a distinct deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. And while President Saparmurat Niyazov was being unconditionally welcomed at the White House by President Clinton, the government of Turkmenistan continued to deny its citizens virtually all civil liberties. Other areas of concern in the region included a growing problem of religious persecution, attempts to intimidate or shut down the independent press, widespread ethnic discrimination, and a continuing problem of police brutality that often reached the level of torture. Sporadic fighting occurred in the Abkhazia region of Georgia and in Tajikistan, although cease-fire agreements remained in force in both countries, and numerous abuses continued to be perpetrated by both sides in the conflict in southeastern Turkey, although at a lesser intensity than during the mid-1990s. On a positive note, a peace agreement was reached and overwhelmingly approved by public referendum in Northern Ireland, bringing an official end to the conflict.

Almost ten years of repression, systematic discrimination, and widespread police brutality against ethnic Albanians finally erupted into armed conflict in Kosovo in 1998. Less than three years after the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war against civilians in Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Yugoslav Army and special police units carried out a military offensive in Kosovo in which civilians were the primary victims. Yugoslav government troops committed extrajudicial executions, systematically destroyed civilian property, and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

For much of 1998, the international community wrung its hands but remained inactive as the death toll in Kosovo rose and the number of displaced persons and refugees from the conflict grew exponentially. As the Kosova Liberation Army (KLA) grew in strength, the international community, especially the United States and the European Union (E.U.), were reluctant to take any step that might be construed, in the words of Secretary of Defense Cohen, “as lending support, either moral or military, to those seeking independence.” Pointing to the need for protecting international borders and the destabilizing effect an independent Kosovo would have on the region, it closed its eyes to the instability created by unchecked human rights violations.

It was only after the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) government had carried out a highly abusive offensive in Kosovo during the months of July, August, and September that seriously weakened the KLA, that the international community intensified pressure and negotiated the framework of an agreement intended to end the conflict and create a large monitoring mission to verify compliance with the terms of the agreement. As of this writing, it remained unclear whether the October agreement would truly end the fighting in Kosovo and ensure the safety and security of those living there.

The conflict in Kosovo exacerbated ethnic tensions in Macedonia between the majority population and the ethnic Albanian minority, yet the international community, which has invested great political and financial resources to maintain Macedonia’s stability, rarely criticized the Macedonian government’s human rights record, including the mistreatment of the ethnic Albanian minority, apparently viewing human rights protection and regional stability as an either-or proposition. By failing to insist on minority rights and the rule of law, it missed an important opportunity to help dispel the frustrations caused by ethnic discrimination that sometimes foster secessionist movements. The conflict in Kosovo also contributed to an increase in ethnic tensions in neighboring Bosnia and may have played a role in the electoral success of hardline nationalists in the September elections. Provocative statements by hard-line nationalists in Serbia regarding the conflict in Kosovo fueled a series of hostile statements by nationalists during the electoral campaign in Bosnia. The arrival of several thousand ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo further strained Bosnia’s already limited resources.

As the world negotiated a treaty for an International Criminal Court during the year, the promise of and the obstacles to an effective system of international criminal justice were nowhere more evident than in the Former Yugoslavia. Although significant progress was made during 1998 in transferring indicted persons—whether by arrest or by surrender—to the International CriminalTribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague, the highest ranking persons indicted for atrocities in the region were not arrested and others believed responsible for war crimes remained unindicted. The failure to arrest Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic undermined efforts to secure a lasting peace in Bosnia, damaged the credibility of the tribunal, and compromised the deterrent effect the tribunal might have had in Kosovo.

Serious violations of the laws of war were also committed in Georgia and Tajikistan, where efforts to transform fragile cease-fires into a lasting peace remained unsuccessful. More than 200 people were reportedly killed when violence erupted in the Abkhaz region of Georgia in May, and scores of civilians were killed in Tajikistan when fighting broke out on several occasions during the year. In both countries, the fighting resulted in a campaign against civilians, including summary executions, rape, torture, and the looting and destruction of civilian homes and property. Armed insurgency groups in Kosovo, Northern Ireland, and Turkey were also linked to serious violations of the laws of war and other abuses during the year.

The most hopeful note in 1998 came in April when the political leaders and citizens of Northern Ireland, with the active engagement of the governments of Ireland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, reached an historic agreement to end the conflict. Human rights concerns featured prominently in the peace agreement, which acknowledged the need to address, among other things, the abusive conduct of the police. However, the government of Tony Blair moved slowly to address key human rights concerns during the year, and, in the wake of the August 15 Omagh bombing that killed twenty-nine people, strengthened the already draconian emergency legislation that has often been condemned by human rights organizations.

Armed conflict continued to produce forced displacement in the region. The fighting in Kosovo caused at least 300,000 persons to flee their homes, and in Georgia more than 30,000 people were displaced by the May fighting. The reluctance of many refugees and internally displaced persons to return to their homes was often a consequence of an incomplete transition from war to peace that did not include accountability for past and on-going abuses.

The “year of return” in Bosnia and Hercegovina produced few so-called “minority returns”—returns to areas where the post-war majority is of a different ethnicity than the returnee. In many cases, the return of refugees and displaced persons was impeded by the ongoing presence and influence of police and government authorities with a history of abuse, the atmosphere of impunity that surrounded police misconduct and ethnically motivated violence, as well as by the government’s failure to grant equal access to the law in relation to property return and other administrative issues. The absence of a final peace agreement in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict caused at least 750,000 Azeri refugees to remain homeless and destitute in Azerbaijan. An internationally praised Croatian government plan for the return of displaced persons and refugees did little to alter the pattern of official discrimination against and harrassment of ethnic Serbs in the country. As a result, the exodus of ethnic Serbs from Eastern Slavonia continued, while few of the more than 300,000 Serb refugees who had earlier fled Croatia were willing to return.

A number of states adopted policies that undermined the refugee protection that is required by international law. The European Union was particularly eager to ensure that displaced persons stayed as close to their homes (and as far away from the E.U.) as possible, even if regions and countries bordering the conflict zone were ill-equipped to provide refuge and were themselves still reeling from the aftermath of war. In August, the republican government of Montenegro (an autonomous province of FRY)—which had already received an estimated 30,000 internally displaced persons and complained of little international aid—closed its internal border with Kosovo and deported 3,200 ethnic Albanians—themselves citizens of FRY—to neighboring Albania.

Concerns regarding the impact of corruption on the rule of law and access to human rights protection intensified throughout the region. Nowhere was this concern more prominent than in Russia, where the collapse of the ruble and the ensuing economic crisis threatened to send the country into anarchy. The Russian government’s failure to address the severe problem of corruption has created a vicious cycle: unfettered corruption has laid waste to the public institutions crucial to long-term economic development and the rule of law, has eroded public trust in the state, and has weakened the state’s ability to enforce its laws. The weight of neglect and corruption has produced weak institutions that were not able to prevent the current crisis and are particularly ill-suited to resolve it.

Human rights are inevitably compromised when corrupt officials are not held accountable for their conduct. Corruption is rampant in Russian law enforcement agencies, in which Russian police often conducted lax investigations, preferring instead to rely on torture to “solve” crimes. But Russia is not the only country in the region suffering a human rights crisis that is fueled, at least in part, by corruption. Corruption riddled the police force, prisons, and the judiciary in many other countries in the region, including Albania, Armenia, Georgia, Macedonia, Romania, as well as the five Central Asian countries, undermining any hope that these institutions would respect and protect citizens’ rights and interfering with efforts at reform.

A disturbing number of journalists were killed this year in Bulgaria and Russia, many under circumstances believed to be associated with their writing about corruption and organized crime. Journalists were arrested, beaten, and otherwise harassed and newspapers and other media subjected to various degrees of restrictions in Belarus, FRY, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Turkey. There was no independent media whatsoever in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Predictably, independent media were perceived as a threat by the most repressive governments in the region. However, almost every country specifically covered by this report used criminal libel statutes and/or vaguely worded laws on national security to prosecute and imprison journalists who were critical of government officials or policies.

Religious persecution and discrimination have become disturbingly widespread in the region, in part a backlash against new religions and religious groups allowed to flourish in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of communism. Churches such as the Orthodox church in Armenia, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, and Russia, which often enjoy a privileged status, have sought to limit the influence of evangelical groups that might threaten their influence. In some cases, the hostility toward religious groups was also rooted in xenophobia, a perception that these groups are a foreign threat to national traditions and beliefs. Religious groups were often denied the opportunity to register, making them all the more vulnerable to police harassment and extortion. Proselytizing was prohibited or severely limited to a privileged few in Armenia, Greece, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and, to a certain degree, Russia. The governments of some West European countries also took steps to limit the activities of certain, non-traditional religious groups, for example, by placing these groups under surveillance, refusing to grant them tax-exempt status, and discriminating against their members.

Government-sponsored campaigns against orthodox or so-called “fundamentalist” Muslims intensified dramatically throughout much of the CIS, and continued unabated in Turkey, during 1998. Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan announced in May that they had formed a troika to combat “fundamentalism” and engaged in a campaign of arrests, brutality, and harassment against many viewed as pious. On September 17, authorities in Kyrgyzstan expelled Pakistani missionaries for distributing religious literature. The campaign against “fundamentalism” took on dramatic proportions in Uzbekistan, where the government carried out a brutal campaign culminating in the detention of an estimated 1,000 Muslim men in the cities of Namangan and Andijan alone. In Turkey, 128 persons from the Aczmendi sect were imprisoned for periods ranging from twenty months to six years for wearing religious dress that violated the “modern dress reform” of Ataturk. Similarly, in Uzbekistan female students who wore traditional Muslim dress were not allowed to pursue an education and feared they would face further punishment under a new law prohibiting “ritual dress” in public.

Other basic freedoms such as the right to assembly and association, as well as academic freedom, came under attack during 1998. In Azerbaijan, Belarus, Croatia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, governments limited the opportunities for legally-sanctioned rallies—often arbitrarily denying applications for demonstrations without any legitimate justification or approving demonstrations only in remote locations—and then frequently used excessive force to disperse demonstrators. Restrictions on academic freedom in Belarus, FRY, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan were intended to silence any remaining vestiges of critical thought in the society.

Creating adequate mechanisms for ending torture and police brutality remained an unanswered challenge for the region’s governments. Severe ill-treatment and torture were common practice, most notably in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Police misconduct went largely unpunished, and a biased and often corrupt court system functioned to deny adequate recourse to victims of torture and other ill-treatment. Although in Turkey some police were prosecuted for ill-treatment and torture of detainees, their lenient sentences or acquittals did not serve to alter the atmosphere of impunity.

In many states of the former Soviet Union, state institutions such as prisons and the army continued to reflect the highly abusive legacy of the Soviet past in their treatment of persons in their charge. There continued to be allegations of severe mistreatment of conscripts and horrendous working and living conditions in the Russian and Armenian armies, with numerous deaths reported in 1998. Abusive officers were not held accountable for the ill-treatment of those in their charge.

Abhorrent prison conditions continued to plague much of the region, and few governments undertook the comprehensive reforms that would provide anything other than a stop-gap solution for the problems. The death penalty remained in force in Albania, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, but only Kazakstan and Turkmenistan continued to carry out executions during the year. On a positive note, Azerbaijan abolished the death penalty in 1998.

The marginalization of and severe prejudice against ethnic groups such as Roma continued unabated and was often exacerbated by open government hostility that, in some cases, verged on incitement. Ethnically motivated violence by skinhead groups or the police typically went unpunished in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovakia. In the Czech Republic, Greece, and Slovakia, local government officials tried to expel Roma from their towns and/or to contain them in ghettos outside the city limits during the year. Discrimination against gay men and lesbians was not only tolerated by some governments, but sometimes openly condoned. In Romania, homosexuality remained a criminal act under the penal code. Skinhead violence against ethnic minorities in Russia rose alarmingly during the year, but was rarely vigorously investigated and prosecuted.

As noted above, women remained vulnerable to gender-specific abuse during armed conflict. Some incidents of rape were reported during the conflict in Kosovo, as well as during renewed fighting in Georgia and Tajikistan. The suffering produced by theforcible trafficking of women for work in the sex industry and/or the forcing of women into debt-bondage once in the “host country” was a concern of growing proportions. Governments’ absolute neglect of the victims of domestic violence was one of the least addressed human rights abuses in the region.





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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