(Brussels) - The European Union should press the Turkmen government to improve its abysmal human rights record before agreeing to enhanced relations with the country, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said today. The imperative for resolute EU action has become all the more urgent in the wake of a European Parliament resolution adopted on April 22, 2009, granting approval for concluding an interim trade agreement "as a potential lever to strengthen the reform process in Turkmenistan."
The resolution represents a shift in the European Parliament's position, which had previously blocked the agreement over human rights concerns, setting a number of specific benchmarks the Turkmen government would have to meet before the agreement could go ahead.
"Yesterday's vote backtracks from the parliament's earlier principled stance, giving up precious leverage to press for justice for the victims of abuse in one of the world's most repressive countries," said Maria Lisitsyna, Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But it does not take away the obligation of the Council and Commission to insist on real improvements from Ashgabad - if anything, it only further raises the stakes for them to do so."
The European Commission and a majority of EU member states have long advocated proceeding with the agreement despite the appalling state of human rights in Turkmenistan, even arguing that it would place the EU in a better position to affect positive change in the country.
The European Parliament resolution makes clear that it remains deeply concerned about the state of human rights in Turkmenistan. It "deplores" the situation as "still unsatisfactory" and urges a number of human rights reforms, including the unconditional release of all political prisoners, removal of all obstacles to free travel and to free access for independent monitors, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, and improvements in civil liberties, including for NGOs.
The human rights situation in Turkmenistan remains abysmal and, as evidenced by a recent review of its human rights record by the UN Human Rights Council, the government continues to resist genuine human rights reform. Perhaps most tellingly, it rejected a number of key recommendations made by UN member states during the review, including steps that would require nothing but political will to carry out, such as freeing political prisoners and lifting arbitrary travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members. The Turkmen government continues to threaten those who raise even the smallest questions about its policies. Independent civil society activists and journalists cannot work freely in the country, which remains closed to independent human rights monitors.
"It's crucial that Ashgabad is left in no doubt about the EU's resolve to see meaningful human rights reform in Turkmenistan," said Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International's EU Office. "Those suffering persecution in the country should be able to count on a principled EU support for them."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch also objected to an argument invoked during the debate by the Czech minister of foreign affairs, which holds the current EU presidency, that the EU sanctions on Uzbekistan were an example of EU resolve in the face of serious human rights abuses
"Uzbekistan is a textbook case of failed EU policy on human rights," said Lisitsyna. "The Czech foreign minister's use of Uzbekistan as an example should have been a warning signal to the parliamentarians, emboldening them to stand firm on their reform demands."
In its effort to win over the European Parliament, the commission promised during the debate preceding the vote to "seriously consider" the parliament's opinion in deciding whether to suspend the agreement if it deemed Turkmenistan were violating the agreement's human rights clause.
In its resolution, the parliament stressed that the trade agreement must not be seen as a "blank cheque for Turkmenistan." It called for "strict monitoring and regular reviews of developments in key areas," and for the agreement to be suspended "if there is evidence that the conditions are not being met," requesting "regular updates on the monitoring by the Commission and the Council."
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the commission's promise to take the parliament's calls for suspension seriously was not credible in the absence of a serious effort to press for concrete reforms in Turkmenistan. The commission and the council instead appear to have focused all their efforts on securing the European Parliament's approval for the agreement despite Turkmenistan's flouting the criteria it had set.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch called on the EU to articulate urgently the specific human rights improvements it expects from the Turkmen government in exchange for enhanced relations, and to engage proactively in the weeks and months to come to help secure their fulfillment. These steps include:
- To free immediately and unconditionally all those imprisoned solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression, including human rights activists Annakurban Amanklychev and Sapardurdy Khajiev;
- To free the longest-serving political prisoner, Mukhametkuli Aymuradov;
- To start a nationwide, transparent review of all cases of political imprisonment over the past years to establish their real number and ensure that victims of abuse are provided with justice; To lift informal travel bans on activists and relatives of opposition members, and dismantle the system that allows the government to interfere with residents' ability to leave and return to Turkmenistan and restrict their freedom of movement within the country;
- To allow activists, civic groups, and journalists to operate freely and without fear of persecution;
- To ensure access to the country, including to places of detention, for independent human rights monitors such as the International Committee of the Red Cross.