UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres addresses the 34th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, February 27, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

(Berlin) – United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres’ trip to Central Asia, beginning June 8, 2017, is a major opportunity for the UN to mark its concern at the highest level over the worrying state of human rights in the region, Human Rights Watch said today. The secretary-general should push Central Asian leaders for specific improvements, including ending torture and the crackdowns on demonstrations and freedom of expression.

Guterres is scheduled to visit Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan and to meet with the president of each country. He is also to attend international conferences on security, environmental, and counterterrorism issues. Several Central Asian governments are among the most abusive in the world. Torture, politically motivated imprisonment of human rights activists and others, and heavy restrictions on protests and the operation of nongovernmental groups and the media are leading concerns.

“With such a catalogue of rights violations, human rights should be high on the secretary-general’s agenda,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We look forward to him using his first visit to the region to urge the presidents to do what’s called for under international law and UN treaties their governments have signed, release those wrongly behind bars, allow rights groups and reporters to do their work, and end impunity for torture.”

The secretary-general’s visit is an excellent opportunity for him to raise human rights concerns in every capital he visits in the spirit of the UN’s “Human Rights Up Front” initiative, Human Rights Watch said.

Guterres’ visit to Astana, Kazakhstan comes ahead of the opening in the capital on June 10 of Expo 2017, an international event on “future energy.” Kazakhstan wants to use the expo to raise its profile on the international stage, but it comes amid the government’s serious repression of human rights. As one example, two trade union leaders, Nurbek Kushakbaev and Amin Yeleusinov, and two activists, Maks Bokaev and Talgat Ayan, have recently been imprisoned on politically motivated charges. Guterres should make clear that Kazakhstan’s compliance with UN human rights norms is central to assuring its long-term international standing, Human Rights Watch said.

The secretary-general should also urge Kazakhstan to use its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the next year-and-a-half to support efforts to help ensure accountability for human rights abuses and atrocities. Earlier in 2017, Kazakhstan was one of three countries that abstained in the vote on a Security Council resolution that would have imposed sanctions on individuals and entities linked to the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons in Syria. The Syrian government’s ally, Russia, used its veto to block that resolution.

Guterres’ visit to Uzbekistan comes nine months after president Shavkat Mirziyoyev came to power, following the death of Islam Karimov, the country’s long-time authoritarian ruler. Mirziyoyev has released six political prisoners and signaled some willingness to engage more closely with international organizations, meeting recently in Tashkent with the UN high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. But there have been no meaningful improvements in the country’s abysmal rights record.

The secretary-general should reinforce the high commissioner’s message that Tashkent should deliver results on proposed reforms, Human Rights Watch said. These include swiftly releasing thousands of people imprisoned on politically motivated charges, allowing activists and journalists to operate free of harassment, and allowing independent monitoring of Uzbekistan’s prisons and other detention sites with the aim of eradicating torture and other forms of ill-treatment.

In Kyrgyzstan, Guterres is scheduled to join a commemoration in the southern city of Osh for victims of the June 2010 ethnic violence, in which hundreds of people were killed. The authorities have failed to adequately address abuses arising from the violence, which disproportionately affected ethnic Uzbeks. The secretary-general should urge Kyrgyzstan to investigate these abuses and bring those responsible to justice. He should also call for the immediate release of the human rights defender Azimjon Askarov, who was wrongfully imprisoned following the 2010 violence. The UN Human Rights Committee in March 2016 called for Askarov’s immediate release, but he remains behind bars and is in ill-health.

The secretary-general’s stop in Tajikistan comes amid the worst crackdown on human rights in 20 years. The government banned the main opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) in 2015, and has imprisoned more than 150 activists and lawyers on fabricated charges. Guterres should call on the government to end this downward spiral of abuses. He should press the Tajik authorities to release immediately and unconditionally the imprisoned activists and lawyers, including Buzurgmehr Yorov, Nuriddin Makhkamov, and Shukhrat Kudratov, and end the violent retaliation against relatives of government critics living abroad.

Turkmenistan, Guterres’ final stop, is one of the world’s most closed and repressive countries. The secretary-general should raise the cases of Saparmamed Nepeskuliev, a freelance contributor to the Turkmen language service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, who has been in prison since July 2015 on bogus drug charges, and Gaspar Matalev, an independent activist who documented forced labor in the cotton harvest, imprisoned in 2016 on bogus fraud charges. Both should be released. A wave of arbitrary, politically motivated detentions and prosecutions that started in September 2016 has targeted dozens of teachers and students who were affiliated with Turkmen-Turkish schools or had some affiliation with the Gülen movement (which often terms itself the Hizmet movement), which Turkey accuses of being behind a coup attempt there in 2016. At least 18 were sentenced to long prison terms in February and should be released.

The secretary-general should urgently press these issues with the authorities and urge them to allow access to UN human rights monitors. Turkmenistan has refused 13 such visits in recent years.

While in Turkmenistan, Guterres is scheduled to participate in a high-level UN-Central-Asian dialogue on counterterrorism issues. The meeting aims to assist in the implementation of the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia. Guterres should press Central Asian authorities to ensure that security measures are consistent with respect for human rights and the rule of law, which are key pillars of the UN global counterterrorism strategy. In particular, he should urge authorities in the region to end heavy-handed measures by security forces that have stifled peaceful religious activity and freedom of expression in the name of security, Human Rights Watch said.

In a 2011 declaration, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan affirmed their commitment to the UN global counterterrorism strategy. The strategy also underscores that “terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality or ethnic group.” And it warns that human rights violations and erosion of the rule of law are among conditions conducive to the growth of terrorism.

“The secretary-general said recently that ‘human rights must never be seen as a luxury or saved for later after peace and development have been achieved,’” Williamson said.“Many people in Central Asia sadly see rights as a luxury beyond their grasp. Guterres can do something about that on his visit to the region.”