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Open Letter to Foreign Ministers of Member States of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization

China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan

Dear Foreign Ministers:

We are writing to you on the eve of the 7 January meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to raise important human rights issues relevant to your agenda.

We welcome your plan to focus discussion in the upcoming meeting on combating terrorism, which by its very nature violates international law prohibitions against targeting civilians. Indeed, at its formation last June, the SCO anticipated the security challenges in Central Asia that have become a worldwide preoccupation since the September 11 attacks took thousands of civilian lives.
We hope that as you continue your pursuit of this agenda next week, you will pay close attention to the importance of upholding human rights as part of any successful anti-terrorism effort. A commitment to abiding by human rights law in fighting terrorism is important not only as a matter of principle, but also as a matter of efficacy. SCO member states have embraced these ideas in numerous recent meetings.

In adopting Decision No. 1 on Combating Terrorism at the December Ministerial Meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), five of the six SCO states recognized that while "no circumstance or cause can justify acts of terrorism, …various social economic, political and other factors . . . engender conditions in which terrorist organizations are able to recruit and win support." To address these concerns, the OSCE member states embraced preventive action against terrorism, including efforts "to build democratic institutions" and to "promote and enhance tolerance, coexistence and harmonious relations between ethnic, religious, linguistic and other groups."

In the same vein, the 13-14 December Bishkek International Conference on Enhancing Security and Stability in Central Asia, co-sponsored by the OSCE and the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, adopted a "Programme of Action" that commits convening states "to prevent and to combat terrorism by increasing cooperation in the fields of human rights and fundamental freedoms and by strengthening the rule of law and the building of democratic institutions, based in part, on the funding of relevant programmes of the U.N. as well as the OSCE."

A separate OSCE conference on "Media Freedom in Times of Anti-Terrorist Conflict" in Almaty on 10-11 December stressed that "[t]he governments of the Anti-Terror Alliance should not, in times of conflict, use national security arguments to limit human rights at home and reduce their support elsewhere" and "[i]n particular, the governments of the Central Asian States should not take the new conflict situation as a justification for repressive steps against opposition media."

Moreover, Security Council resolution 1373 adopted in late September, requiring member states to take several specific measures to combat terrorism, also calls upon them to do so in accordance with the relevant provisions of international and national law, including international standards of human rights. The chairman of the Security Council Counter Terrorism Committee created by resolution 1373 has recently announced that the committee will be adding a human rights expert to its staff.

While we welcome these commitments, we are deeply concerned that these ideals are not being reflected in SCO member state action to combat terrorism. In Uzbekistan, the government has for years used the fight against terrorism to justify its campaign against independent Islam. In this campaign, thousands of persons have been harassed, arrested, tortured, and imprisoned for up to twenty years for their peaceful religious beliefs, activities, and affiliations. They have been prosecuted for membership in banned religious organizations or for distributing banned literature, and have been branded as terrorists even though the vast majority is never charged with involvement in acts of terrorism. In Uzbekistan, and throughout Central Asia, the independent media is censored or non-existent, and independent organizations are harassed and shut down.

In Russia, the government undertook military operations in Chechnya in 1999 as a campaign to fight terrorism, but it initially rejected the applicability of international humanitarian law to its armed forces operating there. After September 11, the Russian government was quick to point to the links between certain field commanders in Chechnya and al-Qaeda, while its security forces have continued to violate international humanitarian law by blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians, and between those suspected of terrorism and the population at large. In recent months Russian forces have subjected scores of civilians to arbitrary and unlawful arrest, torture, "disappearance," and extrajudicial execution.

In China, the leadership has used the international campaign against terrorism to intensify its crackdown in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. On 18 September, the government first linked Chinese support for the global campaign against terrorism to U.S. support for its crackdown, and later supplied what it characterized as "conclusive evidence" that separatist elements in Xinjiang have been involved in domestic and international terrorism. However, in a nationwide anti-crime campaign begun in April 2001 partially aimed at those suspected of supporting independence in ethnic regions, Chinese authorities have failed to differentiate between peaceful expression of political views and incidents of violence. In the effort to control dissent, the government also has further impinged on freedom of religious expression, arresting Muslims for such acts as so-called illegal preaching and translating the Koran into local languages.

These serious human rights violations, though often committed in the name of combating terrorism, do little to advance the cause. In your meeting next week, we urge SCO member states to reaffirm their human rights commitments, and, moreover, develop a regional plan to implement those commitments as part of the fight against terrorism. We hope the SCO will take advantage of the human rights monitoring, training, and implementation activities of the U.N. and the OSCE and include an international human rights expert on the staff of the anti-terrorism center being established by the SCO in Kyrgyzstan.

Please accept our best wishes for a productive meeting.


Sidney Jones
Executive Director
Asia Division

Elizabeth Andersen
Executive Director
Europe and Central Asia Division

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