(Berlin) -- Tony Blair’s consultancy business is growing again. He’s started advising Albania, and Vietnam says it is negotiating a consultancy deal with the former British prime minister on development issues. He’s also in contact with Peru and Burma. “Our government advisory practice is expanding and we are in discussions with various countries”, Blair’s spokesman recently told the Daily Telegraph.
Meanwhile, Blair’s controversial two-year contract with Kazakhstan’s authoritarian government comes is ending. No news yet on an extension to the deal, which is worth £16m (US $25.7 million) a year, according to a report in Kazakhstan. His office declined to confirm the numbers, citing confidentiality, but suggested they are “often misreported”.
Human Rights Watch has engaged Blair and his office on his activities in Kazakhstan both in public and bilaterally, in an exchange of letters. So what lessons are there from Blair’s record in Kazakhstan for his future global work? Pointers from Blair’s approach may also be relevant for other former politicians keen to profit from advising foreign governments on issues linked to human rights.
A first lesson is that transparency is not Blair’s strong suit. We asked Blair to provide details of his work for the Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and his government and any results he might have achieved, but the reply from his office ignored the questions (twice), beyond its limited response to questions about the size of the deal.
Blair’s office says simply that his mission in Kazakhstan is to spur social and economic reforms that promote “evolutionary change over time, moving (the country) in a democratic direction”. Project areas include de-centralisation, procurement, and judicial and other reforms regarding the rule of law.
How authoritarian governments “evolve” is complex. It is true, as Blair’s office writes, that Kazakhstan has made huge strides in some fields in the last 20 years, as Human Rights Watch has also acknowledged. But it is unclear whether Blair’s approach, which is based on supporting people he sees as “reformers”, will necessarily bring economic progress and more political freedoms. Civil society and the opposition in Kazakhstan have expressed concern about his approach.
The second lesson is that, specifically on human rights, Blair’s stance is at best opportunistic and at worst indifferent towards people suffering abuses in the country.
Kazakhstan has a poor human rights record that has deteriorated markedly in the last three years following major strikes in 2011 and a violent crackdown by police in December that year in the western city of Zhanaozen, which killed at least 12 people. Since then, Astana has tightened the screws on the opposition, on independent and opposition media and other outspoken critics. Torture in detention and unfair trials are common. There are heavy restrictions on peaceful public assembly and religious freedoms. Kazakhstan’s attacks on critics have reached Europe, with the unlawful extradition from Italy in May of family members of an opposition figure, Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Blair’s approach is to recognise there are “critical issues” regarding human rights, but then to behave as if they are not important. The reply from his office states: “We have raised these (human rights) matters and will continue to do so”. Such quiet diplomacy can be useful. Yet Blair surely knows that to really effect change, a broader approach is also needed, especially in a country like Kazakhstan where rights abuses are deeply entrenched.
Public comments and international pressure from figures such as Blair are critical, as are declarations of support for those suffering abuses and the groups that help them. Yet amid his positive comments in the letters and elsewhere on Kazakhstan’s economy and politics, and on Nazarbayev’s leadership, his silence on rights abuses – save for a few comments in a couple of set-piece speeches – has been deafening. Blair’s blindspot on human rights risks legitimising the ongoing abuses by the authorities in Kazakhstan. Respect for fundamental rights is not an optional extra but a necessity, also for long term development and security, and an internationally binding obligation on Kazakhstan.
The third lesson is that one of Blair’s justifications for his activities in Kazakhstan, namely as his office writes that his work is “entirely in line” with the approach of Western governments towards Astana, is flimsy at best.
This justification is one of Blair’s mantras, an attempt to diffuse criticism. However, as Blair surely knows, for these Western governments human rights are, at least on paper, an integral part of foreign relations with countries such as Kazakhstan. And making public statements on detentions and other abuses, monitoring trials, and meeting with local human rights activists are all widely used tools in applying pressure for change. Regarding the UK, much to Nazarbayev's annoyance, Prime Minister David Cameron raised human rights, also in public, when the two met in Kazakhstan in July. We have asked the UK government how they are following up on Cameron’s statements.
It is disingenuous to suggest that Blair’s approach mirrors that of Western governments. Take two examples, the killings in Zhanaozen and the October 2012 imprisonment, following a flawed trial, of Vladimir Kozlov, an opposition leader. Both events were key moments in the downward spiral of human rights, and both incidents triggered strong, timely statements from the EU, US and others. Any serious reservations Blair had about these incidents were only expressed to Astana in private.
Blair is adamant that he is in Kazakhstan for the right reasons. His work there is “not to make money. It’s to make a difference” he told the FT last year. He also points out that his paid work such as that in Kazakhstan supports similar work elsewhere. “What I do pro bono in Africa I do for a profit outside” he told Bloomberg this year.
Yet at least on human rights, Blair is mistaken if he believes he has “made a difference” in Kazakhstan. In fact, his efforts may have given the government in Astana a veneer of respectability, just as authorities imposed tougher restrictions on human rights. It’s time for Blair to rethink his approach on human rights, rather than simply repack his bags for the next destination.
Hugh Williamson is director of Europe & Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @hughawilliamson