(New York) – The Turkmen government should urgently heed the calls by the UN Human Rights Committee to improve its abysmal rights record, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights said today
Turkmenistan’s international partners, including the European Union and the United States, should seize the opportunity provided by the review to reinvigorate their engagement with Turkmenistan on human rights and make compliance with the committee’s recommendations a key priority in their relationships with Ashgabat, the groups said.
“The UN review leaves no doubt about the urgent need for human rights reform in Turkmenistan,” said Veronika Szente Goldston, Europe and Central Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s key now is to make sure the Turkmen government does what it takes to rectify abuses.”
Given Turkmenistan’s exceptionally poor record of cooperation with the UN’s human rights bodies, sustained external pressure is essential to enforce compliance, the organizations said.
The Human Rights Committee, a UN monitoring body consisting of 18 independent experts, scrutinized Turkmenistan’s rights record earlier in March as part of its mandate to review governments’ compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Turkmenistan has been a party to the Covenant since 1997 but only submitted its initial report to the committee in 2010. The review was the committee’s first opportunity to scrutinize the Turkmen government’s record.
The review, held in New York, took the form of a direct exchange over two days between the committee and a delegation of Turkmen government officials. The committee made its observations public on March 30, 2012, at the conclusion of its three-week session.
The Turkmen government’s clampdown on freedom of expression and repression of civil society activism, torture and ill-treatment in places of detention, and the lack of an independent judiciary topped the committee’s concerns. It directed the Turkmen government to report back within one year on measures taken to address them.
On repression of free speech and civil society, the committee voiced concern about the fact that the government “systematically does not respect the right to freedom of expression,” “harass[es] and intimidate[s] journalists and human rights defenders,” and “monitors the use of the internet and blocks access to some websites.”
The committee also criticized the government’s “refusal to grant entry visas to international human rights organisations,” referring to the Turkmen government’s longstanding denial of access to the country for independent human rights monitors, including no fewer than 10 UN rapporteurs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and nongovernmental organizations.
The committee urged the Turkmen government to “ensure that journalists, human rights defenders and individuals are able to freely exercise their right to freedom of expression in accordance with the Covenant,” “allow international human rights organizations into the country,” and “ensure that individuals have access to websites and use the internet without undue restrictions.”
On torture and ill-treatment, the committee expressed concern “at increased reports of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention, where it is often used to extract confessions from accused persons, and the lack of an independent body to investigate abuse by law enforcement officers and to conduct regular visits to prisons and other places of detention.” The government’s denial of access to places of detention to international human rights monitors was another concern highlighted by the committee.
The committee urged the Turkmen government to “ensure that allegations of torture and ill-treatment are effectively investigated, and that perpetrators are prosecuted and punished with appropriate sanctions, and that the victims receive adequate reparation.” It also called for “measures [to be] put in place to guarantee, in practice, the exclusion by the judiciary of any evidence obtained under any form of coercion and torture.”
On the judiciary’s lack of independence, the committee’s concerns centered on the fact that judges in Turkmenistan are appointed by the president for renewable five-year terms, resulting in a “lack of security of tenure” and “undue influence” by the executive on the administration of justice. It urged the government to “safeguard the independence of the judiciary by guaranteeing their tenure of office, and sever the administrative and other ties with the Executive Office.”
The committee also highlighted a range of other important areas of concern, such as:
- Incommunicado detention and imprisonment, in particular of those convicted in relation to the November 2002 alleged assassination attempt on former President Saparmurat Niyazov. The committee urged authorities to “immediately make known the whereabouts of those convicted” and “allow visits from members of their families and access to their lawyers.”
- Restrictions on “the exit and entry into [the country] by certain individuals who are on the list of individuals under State surveillance,” referring to the Turkmen government’s notorious travel bans on civil society activists and relatives of exiled dissidents. The committee also voiced concern about “the system of mandatory registration at the place of residence, which is a prerequisite for residence, employment, acquisition of real estate and access to health services,” saying it interferes with the right to freedom of movement provided for in the covenant.
Other concerns raised by the committee include:
- The lack of legal recognition of “a person’s right to exercise conscientious objection to military service,” and the lack of any alternative military service, particularly affecting Jehovah’s Witnesses, who have been “repeatedly prosecuted and imprisoned for refusing to perform compulsory military service;”
- An overly restrictive law on religious organizations, providing “for the compulsory registration of religious associations and similar entities;”
- The Law on Public Associations, which “severely restricts freedom of association,” forcing associations to “undergo cumbersome administrative processes for registration,” and containing “onerous obligations on associations to report to authorities;”
- Reports of the use of child labor in cotton harvesting;
- Criminalization of homosexuality; and
- The “alleged use of a forced assimilation policy of ‘Turkmenisation,’ which seriously reduces opportunities for ethnic minorities in the fields of employment, education and political life,” and the “limited access of ethnic minorities to employment in the public sector and in decision-making bodies.”
“The committee’s assessment serves as a stark reminder of the many shortcomings that continue to mar the Turkmen government’s human rights record,” said Brigitte Dufour, director of International Partnership for Human Rights. “But it has also provided a clear roadmap for reforms, and Turkmenistan’s international partners have a key role to play to help secure their fulfillment.”
Turkmenistan has in recent years actively sought to expand relations with Europe and the US, both of which consider the country, rich in natural gas, a strategically important partner. These relations, however, have brought no meaningful outcomes for human rights.
In submissions sent to the committee ahead of the review, Human Rights Watch, International Partnership for Human Rights, and Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights highlighted the Turkmen government’s extraordinarily repressive nature and the fact that the country remains utterly closed to any independent human rights scrutiny.
“The committee’s review was a rare opportunity of in-depth, public scrutiny of a government that goes to such great lengths to prevent its highly abusive policies from being exposed,” said Farid Tukhbatullin, head of Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights. “But if it’s to bring about real improvements for Turkmenistan’s victims of human rights abuse, resolute action by those who can influence the Turkmen government is needed.”