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Cars damaged during a firefight on the Kyrgyz-Tajik border are seen near the settlement of Koi-Tash, Batken region, Kyrgyzstan, April 30, 2021.  © 2021 Elaman Karymshakov/Sputnik via AP

The death and destruction in the border areas between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in late April sent shock waves through both countries, the Central Asian region, and beyond. Within two days over 50 people were killed, most of them civilians, and hundreds were injured. About 58,000 people in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan fled their homes or were evacuated. Dozens of houses and several schools were destroyed.

The violence was the worst cross-border military conflict in Central Asia in many years. The two countries quickly called a ceasefire and committed to resolving the immediate tensions through diplomacy. Both countries see border demarcation and reconstruction efforts as priorities.

But the scale of death and destruction in those two days underlined the issues at stake when border tensions spill over into armed conflict. It is important for both countries to recommit to upholding human rights, if long term security and stability are to be established in the region.

In this context, both governments should adopt an agenda for human rights, to make clear that the well-being of ordinary people in the complex border region is their priority, and send a broader signal that they remain committed to upholding their international human rights commitments.

It is important to consult on this agenda with local communities and with independent civil society groups in both countries. International actors, such as the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, and European Union have offered help on human rights and other issues. All these bodies have valuable expertise to offer.

What should such an agenda include? Four priorities stand out.

Accountability: To deter such violence it is vital to conduct thorough and impartial investigations and to ensure that those responsible for abuses are held responsible and brought to justice. Both countries have an obligation to investigate whether their own military forces violated the laws of war that resulted in civilian deaths and property destruction. Both governments should care for people evacuated and internally displaced people in line with their human rights commitments.

Both have announced criminal investigations into the conflict but have not made clear the focus of the investigations or whether the actions of their military forces are under review. International organizations with expertise should offer support for these investigations and make recommendations on ensuring accountability for violations.

Law enforcement and militias: Active fighting is over, but tensions remain on both sides of the border. With large numbers of evacuees and displaced people due to return to their homes, it is essential for law enforcement, including police and border guards, to prevent any more violence and protect human rights. Both governments should ensure that their forces are properly trained and ready to respond to any incidents that arise. They should use force only if strictly necessary. Any armed militias established by local authorities should serve under a clear chain of command and be accountable, in accordance with international human rights standards.

Access to education: At least two children were killed in the conflict. Two schools and one kindergarden in Kyrgyzstan and one school in Tajikistan were damaged or destroyed in the fighting, disrupting education. When schools are attacked, those responsible should be held to account. Both governments should also ensure that all children who have been affected by the violence can complete the school year in a safe way. Trauma and counselling services should be offered to survivors of the conflict, especially children.

In addition to rebuilding the destroyed schools, both governments could jointly commit to protecting children during periods of conflict. The Safe Schools Declaration, already endorsed by 108 governments, commits governments not to target schools during conflicts or to use schools for military purposes. A joint decision to sign the declaration would highlight both governments’ commitment to protecting the rights of the child.

Right to water: The immediate cause of the border conflict was a standoff over a water distribution facility. Water is a vital resource in Central Asia, but one that’s increasingly scarce as a result of climate change, making it a source of tension and conflict. The two governments should ensure the right to water for all citizens along the disputed border.

In the short term this means resolving issues around the management of disputed water facilities in a way that reflects respect for human rights. In the mid-term, there is an urgent need for well-resourced and climate-responsive programs to ensure that all citizens have access to safe and affordable water when faced with the impacts of the climate crisis. This is another area where the expertise of international organizations could prove useful.

These are initial proposals as part of efforts, with others in civil society, to help define a brighter future for the people living in along the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border. Given the long-term tensions along the border, and the bloody conflict in late April, the two governments have an urgent responsibility to protect the human rights of everyone in the region, irrespective of where they live.

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