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The European Union should establish human rights benchmarks for Central Asian governments and make their fulfillment a core objective of its Central Asia Strategy, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.

Top EU officials, including the French and Slovenian foreign ministers, are scheduled to meet with Central Asian foreign ministers in Ashgabat on April 9-10 to discuss the EU’s Central Asia Strategy. Among the topics on the agenda are the structured, regular human rights dialogues the EU wants established with each Central Asian state, as envisaged in the strategy. The strategy was adopted in June 2007 and is up for its first review in the coming months.

“Setting concrete benchmarks will give the strategy a clear direction,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Central Asia is home to some of the most repressive states of the former Soviet Union, and the EU should seize the opportunity to achieve improvements.”

The strategy advances a range of ambitious goals for deepening EU engagement in energy, security, and other policy areas in Central Asia. It also seeks to promote human rights and the rule of law, although it does not expressly envisage setting benchmarks or indicators for progress in this area.

The 15-page Human Rights Watch briefing paper proposes specific benchmarks for each Central Asian country, and urges the EU to clearly link progress on the goals with possible future benefits. A similar position was also taken by the European Parliament in its February 20 resolution, which called for the strategy to include a “definition of clear objectives and priorities for the EU’s relations with each of the five countries,” including in human rights.

The Human Rights Watch paper also urges the EU to consult on a regular basis with civil society, especially in the countries concerned, as it goes forward with the strategy, and to provide timely and regular information on its implementation.

The past year has seen some human rights improvements such as the release from prison of six wrongfully detained human rights defenders in Uzbekistan and the release of several political prisoners in Turkmenistan.

“Some developments in the region merit recognition and are welcomed,” said Cartner. “But they should not eclipse the overall abysmal state of human rights in individual Central Asian countries and in the region as a whole.”

Even after reversing some of the ruinous policies that marked the 21-year rule of the deceased President Saparmurad Niazov, Turkmenistan stands as one of the most repressive countries in the world. In Uzbekistan, unprecedented levels of government repression and harassment since the 2005 Andijan massacre have made it nearly impossible for most local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights groups to function. Kazakhstan was awarded the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010, but has not held a single national election in accordance with OSCE election norms. Kyrgyzstan’s current government came to power two years ago on the promise of reform, but has largely abandoned that agenda and pluralism is at risk. In Tajikistan, the government violates fundamental civic rights, and torture is rife in the criminal justice system.

Background: Human Rights Overview in Central Asia
The Human Rights Watch briefing paper highlights the distinct shortcomings that mar the human rights records of these five Central Asian countries, suggests key concerns the EU strategy should prioritize, and proposes benchmarks the EU should set to gauge and promote progress.

For example, on Kazakhstan, Human Rights Watch said the EU should urge Kazakhstan to fulfill all promises made by Foreign Minister Tazhin in Madrid in December 2007 before Kazakhstan was granted the 2010 OSCE chairmanship. The promises include amending Kazakhstan’s media law, reforming the law on elections, and liberalizing the registration requirements for political parties by the end of 2008. Kazakhstan also agreed to incorporate recommendations by the OSCE’s Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in the election legislation.

On Kyrgyzstan, Human Rights Watch said the EU should express concern about declining pluralism and urge the government to annul an ordinance that unreasonably restricts freedom of assembly. The EU should also call on the government to take measures to enforce laws on domestic violence and bride-kidnapping. A first step in this direction would be for the government to reinstate the position of the Special Representative of the President for Gender Issues and to give it adequate authority and mandate to ensure the enforcement of these laws.

On Tajikistan, Human Rights Watch said the EU should call on the government to implement OSCE recommendations on carrying out trials, emphasizing the need to investigate all allegations of torture and implement the November 2006 recommendations made by the Committee Against Torture. The EU should also raise concern about the new law on public associations that grants the government excessive powers to monitor and restrict nongovernmental activity. It should urge the government to guarantee unhindered freedom to civil society groups and independent journalists.

On Turkmenistan, Human Rights Watch said that EU should use its engagement to press for progress on the benchmarks set out by the European Parliament International Trade Committee in 2006 and endorsed by the European Parliament as a whole in February 2008. These benchmarks include releasing political prisoners and allowing independent human rights NGOs and UN human rights bodies free access to monitor progress.

On Uzbekistan, Human Rights Watch said the EU should redouble efforts to secure the release of all human rights defenders unjustly imprisoned and end harassment of civil society. The European Union is preparing its half-yearly review of its sanctions policy toward Uzbekistan. At issue is whether the EU should extend the conditional suspension of a portion of the sanctions it imposed on Uzbekistan in response to the May 2005 massacre in Andijan and the ensuing crackdown on civil society, or reinstate them in full. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the EU not to backtrack on its reform demands and to ensure the sanctions stay in place until Uzbekistan has met all the EU’s assessment criteria, which include the release of imprisoned rights activists and easing the current crackdown on civil society.

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