Recently back from a tour of Central Asia, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Bertie Ramcharan is only too aware of the importance of positive engagement. The issue of human rights remains a major concern among the five former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, with rights groups arguing that the issue had been sidelined as a result of the 11 September events.
In an interview with IRIN, the deputy high commissioner shared some of his concerns for the region as a whole, also dwelling on the efforts his office was making to bring about positive change.
QUESTION: You have just returned from a two-week mission to Central Asia. What was the purpose of your visit?
ANSWER: The aim was to improve the dialogue and technical cooperation between the countries of the region and our Office and the human rights mechanisms of the UN. This included pursuing the implementation of the human-rights treaties that the different countries have accepted, compliance with recommendations of human-rights bodies and investigators, and assessing the situation on the ground.
Q: Human rights remains a pivotal issue among the five former Soviet republics. What is your assessment of the situation?
A: I agree that human rights is a pivotal issue among the countries I visited, but it is difficult to make a generalised assessment of the situation, for, while there are common issues, there are also subtle and not so subtle differences among the countries, from the status of reforms undertaken to differing stages of development. One thing is certain for me, namely that I am more convinced now than when I left for the visit that it is extremely important to pursue technical assistance for human-rights capacity building in all these countries.
Q: Specifically, what are the main problem areas of human rights in Central Asia?
A: I think the problems are mostly related to the role of law-enforcement officials and the judiciary. In virtually all the countries I visited I drew attention to concerns about the conditions of detainees, deficiencies in the rule of law, abuses by law-enforcement officials, repression of dissent, and lack of independence of the judiciary.
Q: Many rights groups - including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty and others - maintain the issue of human rights - particularly with regard to Uzbekistan - has fallen to the wayside following the events of 11 September. Do you share this view?
A: They certainly have not fallen by the wayside as far as we in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) concerned, as illustrated by my visit and other activities. As I mentioned before, we are actively seeking to implement a Regional Project for Central Asia, and we are assisting Commission on Human Rights investigators who would like to visit a number of these countries. For us, strict observance of fundamental human-rights norms is, if anything, even more important now than before 11 September 2001.
Q: You were looking at how these different countries were abiding by recommendations of the United Nations on the issue of human rights. Is that taking place? If so, where?
A: This is taking place particularly in Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The implementation of recommendations of the different treaty bodies - which cover everything from civil and political freedoms to the right to food and shelter - is extremely important, because this is an objective measure of how seriously countries take their international human-rights commitments. It's relatively easy to ratify human-rights treaties, but to accept that there are things that you are doing wrong and to correct them takes courage and great political will.
Q: During this mission, you sought to establish joint programmes of cooperation with the respective countries in which the OHCHR would offer assistance. How exactly would that work and how successful were you?
A: In general, we would support efforts by governments to increase their own capacities for protecting and promoting human rights. We would focus initially on human-rights education though a training-of-trainers approach, and support the development and dissemination of human-rights education materials. The project foresees the appointment of an OHCHR Regional Expert, to be based in the region, to work at the policy level.
During my visit I held extensive talks with our UN partners in these countries. My interlocutors and I explored the links between the OHCHR project and ongoing and future projects by UN counterparts and others in the country.
Q: The issue is more difficult in some countries than others. What was you assessment of the situation in Turkmenistan?
A: Before going to the country, I received a number of written submissions from international organisations and international nongovernmental organisations about serious human-rights violations said to be taking place in the country.
In Turkmenistan, I also met with local nongovernmental leaders, who told me about what they considered grave deficiencies in the rule of law, abuses by law-enforcement officials, the absence of opposition parties, torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, and who voiced concerns relating to the right to education.
I raised the case of Farid Tuhbatullin, in respect of whom I had many letters, including from international nongovernmental organisations. I called for full compliance with the principles of due process and fair trial, and urged the authorities to reconsider this case with a view to the urgent release of Mr Tuhbatullin.
[Tuhbatullin, an environmental activist, was arrested by the Ministry of National Security and sentenced to three years for concealing information he had heard during a human-rights conference in Moscow at the beginning of November to the effect that an assassination attempt against the Turkmen president, Saparmyrat Niyazov, was under preparation for later that month.]
I also suggested that the government invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to visit the country in view of serious problems alleged in this area. I support calls to review, either through appeal or through new trials with full respect of the rights of defence and with the presence of judicial observers, of the trials that followed the 25 November coup, which have been challenged by human-rights organisations on the grounds of lack of fairness.
In addition, I referred to recommendations tendered in good faith by respectable international sources, calling for strengthened guarantees inherent in the rule of law for the creation of an independent constitutional court as the guardian of the primacy of international law over domestic law, for separation of powers, and for review of the constitutionality of laws.
The priority should be on a full guarantee of the independence of justice, in accordance with United Nations standards, as well as with the commitments under the Copenhagen Document of the OSCE [Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe].
Q: Given the dynamics of Central Asia, what do you feel to be the main barriers to improving human rights?
A: It is obvious that these countries have a very heavy legacy from the former Soviet system, and the transition to democracy has, to use an understatement, not been easy. It is difficult to change old attitudes and practices, and that is why human rights education - the focus of our project - is so important.
Q: What progress do you feel was achieved by your mission?
A: I can't make a definitive judgment just yet, as we are still following up on the visit. But it is certain that we have gained a better understanding of the needs of each country, and that the contacts with the UN country teams have been invaluable. Just as important, I think, [is that] the countries I visited considered it significant that we took the time and care to go to them and see the situation for ourselves, that we made the effort to listen to them. I think they saw that we were there to help them, and not just to point an accusing finger. For our part, we are going ahead with planning for the implementation of our project.
For more information on the activities of the OHCHR see: www.ohchr.org
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions