UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ tour of five Central Asian countries, which ended Tuesday, appeared big on handshakes and praise but short on specifics about improving human rights problems.
In Kazakhstan, Guterres echoed the government’s own promotional pitch, naming the country a “pillar of stability” in the region, with no reference to the lack of free elections, the ban on street protests, and the jailing of activists and union leaders. His praise for Kyrgyzstan as a “pioneer of democracy” hit the wrong note, coming amid a crackdown on independent media and legal charges against outspoken nongovernmental organizations. And his warm words for those attending a meeting in Kazakhstan of the China-led Shanghai Co-operation Organisation undoubtedly pleased them.
Central Asian leaders also pay close attention to what high-level visitors like Guterres focus on, also in public. Not only did Guterres fail to set clear expectations on human rights improvements across Central Asia, his praise for his largely authoritarian audience risks sending the message that trampling over human rights is fine.
It’s clear the UN secretary-general has complex priorities, and tackling human rights abuses is part of a larger strategy of engagement with difficult member states. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric recently explained Guterres’ overall strategy, saying the best way to support rights is by “ending conflict and countering the root causes including exclusion and inequality”. But public messaging is vital too.
Guterres argued correctly at a regional conference in Turkmenistan on counterterrorism that actions against terror threats need to be consistent with countries’ “broader commitments to respect human rights and promote gender equality.” Yet he ignored heavy-handed measures by the region’s security forces that have stifled peaceful religious activity in the name of security.
Guterres didn’t meet civil society organizations even though, as Secretary-General, he has repeatedly spoken out about their importance. We hope that on future trips he will find time for human rights activists who are exposing the abuses the UN is committed to helping eradicate. They need to know he has their back.
In regions like Central Asia, the UN should state clearly that ending human rights abuses is an integral part of wider development and security strategies.