Many authoritarian governments have bad international reputations on human rights and democratic freedoms. One way to change that is to hire former top politicians from democratic countries to act as ‘advisors’ in the expectation that the country’s standing will improve by being linked to such credible public figures.
Kazakhstan is an example, especially its move in 2011 to hire ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to advise on economic and social reforms. But new evidence published by the German magazine Spiegel shows the government’s efforts reach far beyond Mr. Blair. According to leaked documents viewed by the magazine, former top European politicians, including former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi and former Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, have been paid by Kazakhstan up to 400,000 euros a year to be members of an ‘Independent International Advisory Council (IIAC).’ Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and former German President Horst Köhler attended meetings as ‘special guests’.
Why does this matter? Because Kazakhstan has a poor human rights record that deteriorated markedly after violent clashes in December 2011, when police killed 12 people at the site of an extended oil workers’ strike. Since then the government has tightened restrictions on the opposition and independent media, with authorities regularly fining and jailing peaceful protesters.
Politicians who come from societies rooted in respect for human rights have a particular responsibility to address rights issues when they advise abusive governments. In the case of Kazakhstan, there is little evidence they do so.
Human Rights Watch has engaged Blair on this issue, including in an exchange of letters. While Blair said there are “critical issues” on human rights in Kazakhstan, there is no evidence he used his role to promote concrete rights improvements. Spiegel’s discoveries are also damning. At one IIAC meeting in 2010, the European politicians present offered advice on how to ensure criticism by human rights groups – including Human Rights Watch – did not overshadow the upcoming summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in Kazakhstan.
Most cynically, the magazine gives evidence that, even though the Council is presented as being ‘independent’, a clause in the consultancy contract bans the political advisors who signed it from criticizing Kazakhstan.
To avoid damage to their own reputations, politicians such as Blair often claim they are not motivated by money, but by the desire to help others. If that is the case, they should use their access and influence to help end human rights abuses in countries like Kazakhstan. If they cannot do so, for instance because they are being paid by the government in question, they should admit as much and stop pretending they are acting in the public interest. This would also reduce the risk of whitewashing the actions of an abusive government.